Writing lyrics is like anything other element of music, it is a skill that can be developed. However, if you are wanted to write your own songs, it is a skill that you want to develop in parallel with your guitar playing and songwriting. You don’t want to write some awesome instrumentation for your songs, and then realise that your lyric writing sucks.
Not that I ever did that…
So here are a few tricks I picked up learning to write lyrics:
1. Get a book. Well, 4 books
When it comes to getting started writing lyrics for your songs, there are four books that are excellent resources:
- Writing Better Lyrics – Pat Pattison. This book gives an excellent introduction to learning how to write lyrics. Pat covers a variety of topics, including form, rhyme, metaphors, perspective and others. If you are not sure how to get started writing lyrics, or want to sharpen the saw; this book is a great place to start.
- Roget’s Thesaurus. This is a thesaurus of words that are related, but at not strictly synonyms. If you are struggling to find the right word, this book is vital.
- Rhyming Dictionary. It’s gotta have a rhyme, baby.
- Dictionary. When dealing with all these words, you’re going to come across some that you don’t recognise. You also want to make sure the word means exactly what you think it means.
These books are all available online, but when I’m writing lyrics, I really, really enjoy flicking through the pages of the printed books. But that’s just me, do whatever works best for you.
Now, while working on your lyric writing should come first, the rest of these ideas can go in a mixed order… it really depends on the song and how you work.
Choose a theme
There are different approaches that you can take to song writing, and I like to mix them up. If I write the music for a song first, I usually find the music lends itself to a particular theme.
Sometimes it can be useful to sit and listen to your demo on loop for 20 minutes or so, and wonder, “If this was the sound track to a movie, what would be happening?”.
Is it a love song? A song for someone driving a car?
What does the music feel like to you?
Top line first or lyrics first?
What’s a top line? This is another term for the vocal melody.
When you are struggling to remember a song… which part of the song do you usually remember first?
The vocal melody for the chorus.
If you have written the instrumentation for a song, what sometimes works really nicely, is to write the top line next. You do this by putting the demo track on loop, and just singing whatever melody comes straight to mind, using any noises you want:
de bah daaah waaaaah de de deeee
Yeah…. it sounds pretty ridiculous. But it works.
You can record several different top-lines, and then choose the best bits of each that you like best.
I find that once you have a top-line you really like, words and phrases start jumping out at you, and you can start building a theme and a back story to your song.
Write Your Ideas in a Notebook
Physically writing your ideas out on paper can help get the creative part of your brain working harder than typing them on a computer. I’m not sure why this works, but it does.
I like to have an A4 note book and start each song on a double page. Working ideas go on the left page, and ideas for words, changing bits and pieces around go on the right page.
All your ideas get written down, they get edited after they are on the page, not before!
I knew one songwriter who liked to write her lyrics all out in capital letters – that helped ideas jump off the page to her. Maybe that is something you can try?
This is a scan from my lyric notebook for the original version of Waves of Tomorrow from Impetuous Desire (the working title was ‘Riot’). By this point in the writing process I had the bulk of the lyrics down on the left page, and I was playing around with rewriting an idea on the right page. After recording a demo version with these lyrics, the top line was re-written and a new set of lyrics with a similar theme and story, were written.
The Gold is in the Editing
Don’t expect to be able to write a perfect set of lyrics right from the get go. Most of the time, you get an idea, or maybe a phrase or a theme; and after days and days or playing with the ideas, playing with melodies and different words, and an enormous amount of editing; you get your final set of song lyrics.
Give yourself the mental space and time to play around with the lyrics.
It is in the editing, the slow process of refining your lyrics, that you will create something cool.
Sometimes, it helps to think about this like a sculpture. Your first words and ideas on the page are the raw rock that you work with. The process of revisiting and editing are analogous to slowly chiselling away at the rock, forming a beautiful sculpture.
It’s OK to Trash Your Lyrics and Start Again
Sometimes you finish writing a set of lyrics for a song… and you don’t like it. That’s fine.
Just start again.
One song on Impetuous Desire (I think it was The Disciples Hand) had three completely different sets of lyrics / ideas and themes. The very first set were about Taarna from the movie Heavy Metal, but it was kinda cheesy, so they got scrapped. The second idea was to write them about an Egyptian Goddess, but that didn’t quite work and the lyrics for half a song there got scrapped. Finally I settled on the idea of a man throwing off the shackles to his soul – collectivism, mysticism; and making his own way.
It takes as long as it takes!
Don’t Forget the Harmonies
One thing that separates amateur bands from pro bands, is a good set of vocal harmonies. I have some versions of my songs with vocal demos (no harmonies), and the final versions with complete vocal harmonies, and the difference is astounding.
You can write your harmonies just with your voice – sing something in a higher (or lower) register over your vocal demo. You will probably find that (maybe with some tweaking!) your voice picks out the right notes.
Does Your Songwriting Have a Weakness? Hire It Out
There are few problems in life that cannot be solved with a few dollars.
Yup, you can out your weaknesses. Professional songwriters and musicians do this all the time.
In the music industry, there are people who specialise in different areas of lyric writing. Some people are good at everything.
You can hire people to help you with your lyric writing, top lines and harmonies; without losing song writing credits (I mean this from a legal copywriting perspective). There is a big difference between hiring someone and a collaboration. In a collaboration, the songwriting credits are shared, when you hire someone, you own everything.
You will also probably find that by working with someone on this, you will improve at it yourself.
The coolest thing about professional musicians, is that they are professional musicians, they like to get paid. You can find musicians at every level of the spectrum who will work with you for money.
If you are not sure how to get started with this, start phoning some local recording studios and asking – someone will know someone.
Collaborating Can Be Great for Creativity
Sometimes, working with others can be a great way to access your creative “flow”.
You can read about this in musicians biographies. For example, Alice Cooper, in his biography ‘Golf Monster’, talks about one songwriting session he had with a songwriter, where they were throwing lines back and forth at each other like magic.
Sometimes we do great work alone, sometimes working with others can help. It all depends on you.
If you have some musician friends, you could get together for “Songwriting Saturday’s”, you could hire a musician to write with you for a few hours each week, or if you are learning an instrument, you could even hire your teacher to work with you on songwriting.
Songs Can Take Time
It takes, as long as it takes. Sometimes finishing a song can take years. Sometimes you can bang a song out and have it recorded in a few hours.
There is a balance between giving your ideas time to breathe, and getting them completed – after all, it only counts if it is finished. You might have written the greatest song ever, but if it only exists in a Guitar Pro file, it isn’t worth dick.
Creating a deadline for yourself, such as booking studio time, can help speed up the creative process. When I was rewriting the lyrics for Impetuous Desire with the singer, having the studio deadline approach helped speed up the rate at which we worked. One didn’t have the lyrics finished until 40 minutes before the end of the last recording session – it was a little section and fortunately we finished it before the studio time ran out!
Take your time, but at some point, it has to get finished.
Write About What You Know
People and stories from your life can be great inspiration for characters in your songs.
If you try and write about something you don’t really know about, unless you are exceptionally good at getting in the minds of other people, it will come off as in-authentic, and it will not be a good song.
Don’t write a song about love, if you’ve never felt your heart bursting inside your chest.
Don’t write a song about the struggles of being poor if you’ve never had to worry about a dollar.
It is easy to overlook stories from our own lives, because we know them so well. But others don’t.
Write about what you know, what you have experienced. If you read musicians biographies, you will often find that at some point, they talk about an experience they had and the song they then wrote. Yngwie Malmsteen’s biography, Relentless, has some examples of this when he wrote “I Am A Viking”.
And if your experiences aren’t good enough to write about… go out into the world and create some.
Those are my thoughts and a few ideas I wish I had known earlier. Got a comment, an idea, something you would like to add? Comment below!