So you want to be a lyricist! Congratulations, because the drive to create is the first thing you need to write a song. You know you want to do it, and you think you have the passion, but you’re not sure what comes next. Start by asking yourself this question: For whom are you writing? Song lyrics are meant to be heard, so you’re writing for an audience, not for yourself. This cannot be emphasized enough! Keep it in mind as we go through the steps of writing good lyrics.
Step 1: The premise.
The first thing you need to figure out is the premise of your song. What’s it about? What does it say? If you had to sum up your song in one sentence, what would it be? Every single thing about your song reflects or supports this premise. Consider “Let It Be” by the Beatles (written by Lennon/McCartney). The premise could be expressed as follows: “Relax and trust that things will be okay.”
If you’re not sure what the heck you’re going to write about yet, don’t fret. We’ll get to some brainstorming techniques in a bit.
Step 2: The title and hook.
The title and/or hook is the most important part of your song. Just as the title of “Let It Be” reflects the premise, your title and/or hook should support yours.
The title is obvious, what’s a hook? It’s that line in the song that listeners remember, even after hearing it only once. The hook in “Let It Be” happens to be the same as the title: the phrase “let it be” is repeated five times in every chorus! What listener could miss that? But consider the song “Eleanor Rigby”, also by the Beatles (written by Lennon/McCartney). On first hearing the song, a listener might assume that the title is “Look at All the Lonely People” since the phrase is repeated many times throughout the song. Because the line is memorable, it is a “hook.” Notice how the hook supports the premise of the song, which could be expressed as follows: “The world is full of lonely, neglected people.”
Eleanor Ribgy happens to be one example of a lonely, neglected person, of whom the song tells the tale. Therefore, the title also supports the premise.
Step 3: Structure.
The most common structural segments of a song are the chorus, refrain, verse, bridge, and pre-chorus. Each of these is defined below, but note that there are few hard-and-fast rules about songwriting when it comes to structure. Just remember that you’re writing for your audience, and the best-loved song will be one which balances being repetitive enough to be memorable,but not so repetitive that it bores or annoys.
A chorus spells out your premise, and it usually contains the title or hook. It is typically repeated several times throughout the song with very little, if any, variation. For these reasons, the chorus is the most memorable part of the song, and the first part a listener is able to sing along with.
A refrain has the same characteristics as a chorus, but unlike the chorus, does not stand alone. It is often only a single line, usually found at the beginning or end of each verse. A song rarely has both a chorus and a refrain; if it has either at all, it will only have one or the other.
Verse(s) expand upon your premise, adding explanation, examples, or other depth. Although songs must not necessarily tell a story, verses should flow in a logical, linear manner. Writing an outline of your verses before writing the verses themselves is a good way to ensure that they make sense. Another important thing to remember about verses is that, when set to music, they will sound melodically similar to one another. Therefore, although you’re free to make up the rules of the verse in the first place, establish your pattern an stick to it. Things like rhyme schemes, number of syllables per line, and number of lines should be consistent from one verse to the next.
A bridge is a a segment of the song that stands alone and is usually not repeated. It can be a single word, or it can be as long as a verse. The bridge serves two purposes (1) to make that statement that can’t be expressed within your verses, and (2) to break up the monotony of the song. The nice thing about a bridge is that it can have a completely different set of rules and patterns, so if you have something you desperately want to say, but you just can’t make it fit the pattern of your verses, stop trying so hard. Say it and make it a bridge.
A pre-chorus is a segment of song that leads into the chorus. It is usually, but not always, the same each time. It gives the listener a hint that the chorus is on the way by building up to it, either lyrically or musically. Something about the pre-chorus excites the listener. It adds a layer of drama.
Again, there are no hard-and-fast rules about song structure. Some songs contain only a series of verses, with no chorus or refrain at all (church hymns are a good example of this.) Some contain only a chorus, which might be repeated two or three times (forexample, “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt” or “The Song That Never Ends.”) Some songs may have two or three completely different bridges, each of which completely changes the feel of the song. Songwriting is more of an art than a science, and if you have the urge, by all means, experiment! Just keep your audience in mind as you do.
Step 4: Brainstorming.
Now that you know the pieces of a song, how do you (1) come up with the premise in the first place, (2) find just the right title and/or hook, and (3) write all the words? Here are some tools you can use to brainstorm and create the various parts of your song:
* Keep a snippet journal. Start paying attention to the world around you. Write down thoughts and phrases that come to your mind as you observe, or phrases that you see written which catch your eye. When you sit down to brainstorm a song, flip through the journal and find snippets that relate to one another. See if you can find a hook among them, and then use the rest to build other pieces of your song.
* Use mind mapping. Start with a word or phrase – this can come from your snippet journal, if you need inspiration – and write it in the middle of a blank piece of paper. Draw a circle around it. Use word association to come up with related words or phrases, and connect them to the main word/phrase with lines. Then find word/phrases related to your secondary word/phrases, and draw lines connecting those. Continue brainstorming until your paper is completely spiderwebbed with words and phrases. Search for a hook. Once you find a hook, you can start the mind-mapping process all over again, this time starting with the hook at the center.
* Keep an open mind about your hook. As you’re drafting choruses and verses, you may have a gold nugget buried in one of your verses. If your eyes keep coming back to that line in Verse 2, and you keep thinking about how insightful and clever you were to come up with that, maybe it belongs in your chorus instead.
* Use online writing tools such as rhyming dictionaries (http://rhyme.poetry.com, thesauruses (http://thesaurus.reference.com, and graphical dictionaries (http://www.visuwords.com to help you find just the right words.
* Never, ever force a rhyme. Forced rhyme is the biggest culprit for making a song sound like it was written by an amateur. If you can’t come up with the perfect rhyme for a line, try rearranging or completely rewriting the first line instead. Also, songwriting is very forgiving.Loose rhymes are perfectly acceptable in a song, such as the following by lyricist Ransom Noble:
“I know you would never lie
I want a moment of your time”
All that said, note that there are no rules stating your song must rhyme in the first place, so long as your verses follow a repeated structural pattern.
Step 5: Things to consider as you write.
* How singable is your song? Consider that singing happens on the vowels of words, not the consonants. The following phrase is difficult to say aloud, let alone sing, and might be a candidate for rewriting in a song: “wisps of smoke.” Go ahead. Try saying it out loud.
* How memorable is your song? This bears repeating: A song should contain enough repetition for a listener to catch on quickly, but not be so repetitive that it’s monotonous. There’s a fine balance.
* How long should your lines be? There are no hard-and-fast rules about this, but songs are definitely not prose. Music is written in phrases, and the lyrics of your song should be broken into reasonable phrases accordingly. In general, you probably want to keep your lines under a dozen or so syllables.
* How long should your song be? There are no rules around the length of your song. Well-known popular songs have ranged anywhere from two and a half minutes to eleven minutes long. And whether you or someone else composes the music, the length can be varied dramatically with tricks like long, sustained notes and instrument solos. Don’t let a perceived “correct” length pigeonhole you, because you might find yourself forced to write an extra verse that just doesn’t feel right. The correct length is the length of your piece when it feels done.
Step 6: Feedback.
You’ve written your first song! Now how do you know if it’s any good? You need to get feedback on it. Ask your friends and family. Find a writers’ meeting at your local library and read it aloud to them. Post it on a writing forum and ask for comments and suggestions. Be willing to accept criticism! Your first song is unlikely to wow people, because you’re a beginner. Listen to suggestions. Consider editing your song, but it you think it’s perfect the way it is, then just log the comments away and keep them in mind for the next song. After all, these people are your audience.
And it’s all about the audience.
For more tips, try our songwriting lessons with a private instructor, or enroll your entire band or ensemble in a songwriting class and work on composition together.