...because the world needs another emo singer/songwriter
May 19, 2006 7:08 AM   Subscribe

How does a musician learn to write better lyrics?

My better half is a guitarist who writes a lot of music -- extremely melodic, kind of melancholy but upbeat acoustic guitar stuff. He's written more than a dozen songs, but only a couple have lyrics.

He'd like to finish his songs so he could record some of them, but he doesn't know where to start with writing lyrics. He's extremely self-critical, feeling like everything he writes is trite and stupid. Honestly, one only has to listen to a few minutes of "new rock" radio to feel better about whatever drivel one has just written on a napkin, but he aspires to a higher standard.

A lot of indie rock bands mostly sing a bunch of post-modern incomprehensible nonsense, which is fine -- but not really mr. junkbox's thing. From what he's written already, he's more of a literal, introspective narrative kind of songwriter. So how can he a) work on developing good ideas for songs and b) craft better metaphors and other figurative songwriting goodies and c) improve the poetic, lyrical quality of the words he chooses?

Is there a book for writers/poets that other songwriters have found helpful in developing their ideas? Specific exercises or things to study? I think his problem is more a lack of confidence than anything else, but we've already got The Artist's Way.

We also have a theory that our general lack of pain, crushing disappointment and heartache may be inhibiting his creative growth, but have so far opted not to annihilate our happy marriage in a desperate attempt to inspire another critically-aclaimed breakup album.
posted by junkbox to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
In general any kind of writer has to read. And read. And read. Lyrics, poetry, novels, anything. Everything. The surest sign that someone who proposes that she or he is a writer will fail or succeed? Ask what they read. If the answer is sketchy or non-committal, then they probably don't actually read and will never amount to much of a writer.

Then there's writing. A lot. All the time. All of the writers I know who have been successful (I know a lot of writers) write all the time, almost compulsively. They can't help themselves. One guy who I consider an extremely talented writer loudly changed professions and has seemingly done well at it - but nevertheless he keeps starting blogs and writing writing writing, almost in spite of himself. It's hilarious in a way, but he continues to be a very good writer (though not a lyricist as far as I know).

But writing a lot means that it can't really be just in service of producing lyrics, it can't be utilitarian in that sense. By working hard at it, the lyrics your friend wants will come - and so will tons of other stuff. The lyrics will be almost a byproduct, but that's normal.

In terms of a shortcut or easy technique to get things going in the right direction, I think one could do worse than to read about Kerouac's and Burroughs' explorations into cut-up, collage, and look into Andre Breton's surrealist automatic writing ideas.
posted by mikel at 7:26 AM on May 19, 2006

Read poetry and old literature (Milton). Drink coffee. Read the news. Stew in the crap of current affairs.


Lighten up and make some songs of joy. A good marriage and green trees ought to be sufficient to bring out some joy. And it is good practice to force one's self to work out of your normal style (I know that's difficult cuz I prefer minor keys myself).

Music has as much business being about joy as it does about anything else, maybe more. Funny thing, joy requires fewer lyrics :-)
posted by Goofyy at 7:37 AM on May 19, 2006

I think the key is organization, frankly.

I keep a pocket notebook and a pen with me at all times. I have one rule: if a song idea or a couple of lines pop into my head I write it down IMMEDIATELY, ALWAYS, and WITHOUT JUDGMENT. It often comes out in meter, but that is not a requirement at this point.

Then once a month or so I categorize and compile it all into a spreadsheet, again without judgement.

I've been doing this for about five years now and I've accumulated about 70 pages of material.

As stuff accumulates, it seems to crystalize into different songs and begins arranging itself. For me, a melody usually follows, although sometimes it comes first. I keep a list of working titles in a separate spreadsheet, with columns for "Have enough raw material", "Have melody", "Have complete lyrics", "Have drum track", "Recorded MP3", "Posted to website." I put a blank, a check, or "NA" as appropriate. I currently have about 30 songs unwritten.

Then when I get the time I spend 2-3 hours going through the accumulated material for a particular song and end-up with completed lyrics. This is where the selection of what to keep and what to chuck takes place. I also add new lines on-the-fly at this point, and tweak lines written previously. Sometimes I'll take a weekend away to do this and I'll come home with finished lyrics for 3-4 songs.

When appropriate, I create drum tracks using FruityLoops. Then I record my songs.

I'm so behind in my recording that I may just do a bunch of "acoustic" versions of my songs to get the rough ideas out there.

You can judge the results for yourself here.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 7:37 AM on May 19, 2006 [3 favorites]

IANASW, but I am a poet, and from that point of view, I'd recommend (a) sitting down with the lyrics of songs he likes and wants to emulate, and really dissecting them to see how they work, and (b) learning to criticize his own work on a line-by-line and word-by-word basis.

Everybody's first works are crap. There's no shame in it.

I hated The Artist's Way, though I know people who swear by it - for a poet, I'd recommend In the Palm of Your Hand (Steve Kowit), but a lot of it deals with different forms so I don't know how applicable it'd be to songwriting. Maybe he could get it out of the library first.
posted by joannemerriam at 7:59 AM on May 19, 2006

There are a ton of songwriting books.... books on creating lyrics, improving lyrics... just tons. The issue isn't the technique, it's actually doing it. He has to write consistently, often. And accept doing poor work initially, which will eventually be displaced by increasingly better work.

I am self-critical about my songwriting, too, but I do it. I have just the opposite problem... lots of lyrics and not enough tunes.

I am saved from despair by listening closely to songs and realizing that most are truly lame... It's a fairly low bar if you just want to equal what's popular.

I'd suggest that your SO go to every open mic night he can find and listen to other songwriters. He can also start a songwriter's group. I was in one in North Carolina and it was great. A safe place to preview songs and get critical feedback.
Like anything else, the more you do, the better you get.
posted by FauxScot at 8:15 AM on May 19, 2006

I'm guessing he does what I always used to do, and it's not until you realise what you're doing that you realise how dumb it is.

If you're a musician of any sort you tend to be discerning about what you listen to. You listen to the best, not for you the run of the mill fm trash. Then when you've narrowed your tastes down to the best you then choose some favourite songs by them, so out of your favourite musicians really good musical output you choose this tiny percentage as your favourites. Having distilled the entireity-of-music-ever into it's absolute essence of brilliance, you then go and compare your fledgeling stuff against that and only that. Guess what? Your stuff comes off looking less good cos it's being compared to the best by the best.

I'd say relax, write a lot, first lines are always hardest, so write anything for the first lines (shopping lists, to do lists anything as long as it works with the metre) then other better lines will follow and at the end all you got to do is change those first lines to something better!

Also I second the notebook idea. Always carry one everywhere with me and never trust myself to remember anything for more than 2 seconds. Write it down now!

I think lyric writers are closely genetically related to goldfish when it comes to remembering stuff!
posted by merocet at 8:52 AM on May 19, 2006

Damn near every poster has said so already, but let me just echo them for emphasis. No matter what you're using writing and language for, the required course of study is to both read and write as often as you can. Oh, and Elements of Style probably ought to be one of the books you devour.

The big caution for poets and lyricists is end rhyme. The standard form of 3:4 time with a rhyme at the end of every other line is so popular and comfortable that it has become a breeding ground for cliches. Now I'm not saying that this isn't a fine form, I'm just saying it needs to be used with care. There's only so many combinations in English, after all. A lot of them have been burned up already.

So couplets like "heart/apart" "self/shelf" and so on ought to be cleaned out on revision. You'll know them by the screeching cringe that clamps down on your Broca's region when you read them. Also, don't turn sentences inside out to make a rhyme work. The meaning of the words must always come before the shape or sound of them.
posted by EatTheWeek at 8:56 AM on May 19, 2006

I am a songwriter.

First, have him get a rhyming dictionary. Then, he needs to realize that not all lyrics have to rhyme. What I look for as far as craft goes is some kind of pattern. It could be alliteration, rhythm, anything, as long as it flows and goes with the music.

He should start by always having something with him to scribble notes. If a line comes to him while he is shaving or walking the dog, write it down. Keep all these notes in a pile or central location. This is your mine. When it's time to write, go through what you have and see if anything goes together, or if one of the lines can be a springboard.

Don't be afraid to write crappy songs at first. I have heard that you have to write 100 bad songs to finally write a good one, and there is something to be said for that. If you can get rid of your inner censor and just write, you can always go back later and revise

And don't be afraid to cannibalize older efforts. I have had a song that I tried to finish for literally years-but then cannibalized it for a totally new song which then wound up on a CD.

I belong to a songwriter's group myself-we have established writers come talk to us sometimes-and a lot of the things I just shared, they all do. Especially with the "mine " concept. I can't think of anyone who doesn't do that.

Finally, remember lyrics are about communication. Have something you want to say. A song needs to have one and only one main idea, and everything else needs to relate to it. FWIW I always start with lyrics, and craft a tune to fit them, as I see the music as part of the communication of the idea. But that's just me.
posted by konolia at 9:09 AM on May 19, 2006

I write songs. I have a rhyme dictionary, but I don't really use it. I think the best way by far to write better lyrics is to listen to good lyricists and analyze how they work. Although that's sort of the approach I take to music in general, but it seems to work pretty well.

I think the best lyricists in pop music today include:

John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats
(I recommend this one most emphatically)

John Vanderslice
Colin Meloy of The Decemberists
James Mercer of The Shins
Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields
Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel (this one is in the recent past)
Marty Donald of The Lucksmiths

We also have a theory that our general lack of pain, crushing disappointment and heartache may be inhibiting his creative growth, but have so far opted not to annihilate our happy marriage in a desperate attempt to inspire another critically-aclaimed breakup album.

I think that this is the kind of theory that can hold back good writing. One of the most important abstract lessons I learned from getting into The Decemberists was the ability of a good pop song to be like good fiction, and the great things a songwriter could do if he stopped navel-gazing and reached outside of himself and his limited experience for inspiration.

Writing lyrics is a craft. Studying poetry is a good idea, although song lyrics are a fairly specialized form of poetry, and the lessons learned from other forms are not all directly applicable to writing songs.

So couplets like "heart/apart" "self/shelf" and so on ought to be cleaned out on revision. You'll know them by the screeching cringe that clamps down on your Broca's region when you read them. Also, don't turn sentences inside out to make a rhyme work. The meaning of the words must always come before the shape or sound of them.

Eh. I don't think the end words tend to be what makes a bad line a bad line. And sometimes the sound of the words is more important than the meaning. I mean, I agree with what you're saying in some cases, but it depends on the song. It isn't very easy to generalize about good lyric-writing; it's often one of those "I know it when I see it" sort of things, you know?

But I think the best general advice I can give is to be interesting, and don't limit yourself. You don't have to write about your feelings. You don't have to talk about love, or your heart, or things you've done, any of those things. You can write songs about astronauts, or food, or train robbers, or small towns, or bank heists, or soldiers, or novels, or scientists, or whatever. Be interesting!
posted by ludwig_van at 9:34 AM on May 19, 2006

I think lyric writers are closely genetically related to goldfish when it comes to remembering stuff!



I think I remember reading that Joni Mitchell uses the "constant notebook" method.

Rhymezone is a good online rhyming dictionary.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 10:54 AM on May 19, 2006

Best answer: I think many of these responses (i've just skimmed) are too specific, or too general (it doesn't make sense to listen to other songwriters if you don't know what to listen for)

Songwriting Syllabus - Marie Eaton

I recommend this syllabus. I found it when I was searching for the same thing your hubby is looking for, but life took me off track of songwriting. I don't know how ethical it is, but I found it on google so he would too after enough searching.

It's a collection of exercises from a class. It doesn't matter if the songs he writes from these exercises are crap, it will all lead to a fleshing out of his craft...which is really what he wants. There's an enormous amount of freedom that comes from specific constraints. If you can write in the service of an arbitrary goal, you can write in the service of expressing yourself. Exercises separate that allowing you to focus on your craft instead of your expression.

As an example from my linked article:
6. Chose a common object and write about it - i.e.. a shoe, a spoon, a candle, a pan. Free associate at first. Write everything that this object brings to mind, no matter how unrelated it may seem. Now try out different voices. What might that object be saying if it could speak. What interesting history might this object have? Try different approaches - use humor, make a political statement, etc.

Just think about how quickly it could get interesting after breaking down what you actually see.
posted by Brainy at 12:48 PM on May 19, 2006 [4 favorites]

Let's make this easier. There are a billion things one can do to help in the writing experience. But here we're specifically talking about writing for/to the guitar.

So here's the deal. His voice is an instrument, just like the guitar. The trick is to hum, sing, goof around with the voice along with the music. Create textures and melodies with the voice. I start with nonsense words all the time. What comes from this is the ability to recognize where/when/how the words are supposed to go in the song. That is a very silly and fun process, but once it's accomplished that vocal element will drive the written/sung words.

This is not tradional songwriting. But this process NEVER leaves me uninspired or empty handed.

BTW, this comment is based on the idea that he already has many guitar songs that require lyrics.
posted by snsranch at 5:44 PM on May 19, 2006

I know Radiohead's Thom Yorke does the constant-notebook routine. I also read somewhere that when faced with writer's block, he took snippets and bits of things he'd written, tossed them in a hat, and pulled them out at random just to try and find a starting point and a different way to view his writings. Seems it worked; quite a bit of Kid A was written using this routine as a starting point.
posted by Windigo at 11:48 PM on May 19, 2006

(it doesn't make sense to listen to other songwriters if you don't know what to listen for)

Hm, the lyrics perhaps?

I think that relatively few people are exposed to some of the best contemporary pop lyricists, and that if that's the case for someone who wants to improve his lyrics then listening to those people may have a positive effect. One develops a sense of what works from listening. So I'd say you're putting the cart before the horse. I think most people "are what they listen to" to an extent, and if you only listen to the mediocre lyrics in most mainstream rock and pop I think it will be that much harder for you to break out of that mold.
posted by ludwig_van at 8:06 AM on May 20, 2006

Response by poster: This is Mr. Junkbox - the songwriter in question.

I read. I write. For many years I have been reading and writing. I understand that practice makes perfect and that revision is 90% of writing and it's ok to steal ideas from yourself. I have taken writing classes. I write lyrics, fiction, press releases, marketing copy, a ton of e-mails, and lately comic book scripts.

I'm not looking for "writers need to read and write" suggestions. They are good suggestions, but don't really answer the question. The question is not how do I learn to write lyrics? The question is how do I learn to write better lyrics?

I'm looking for tools. Concrete this-is-how-it's-done suggestions. The rhyming dictionary, the notebook, the syllabus (I really liked that!), exercises, or anecdotes about what worked for other lyricists...

Is there a book on lyric writing that you've read that you thought was enlightening? Specifically, what was it?

Are there credible style specific resources (like a Dr. Dre's "All in One Guide to Writing Smash Hip Hop Hits" or a Dashboard Confessionals "3 Week Program for Better Emo")?

Is there a wonderful message board somewhere that professional lyricists love to post on and read?

Did you come across an interview or a biography that had an interesting perspective on songwriting?

That sort of information would be more helpful to me (and I suspect other struggling songwriters). Please don't tell me to go read more and write more. Tell me what you think I should be reading and what resources you think would help my writing.

posted by junkbox at 9:25 AM on May 20, 2006

Personally I think it's pretty difficult to tell you how to improve your lyrics without having heard them and without knowing what specifically you're trying to improve. If all of your songs are ending up a certain way, I'd tell you to go listen to some songwriters who write in a very different style, etc.

I mean, if you want to point me to some lyrics, it would be easier to make constructive criticism, but that's up to you.

I don't know of any specific resources, and suspect that most message boards are going to do more harm than good.

But here's a good interview with Sufjan Stevens, and here are some with John Darnielle.
posted by ludwig_van at 8:39 AM on May 21, 2006

Yes definitely read and write as much as you can.

As ludwig_van said, common rhymes are fine as long as the couplet or whatever as a whole works (Take Bob Dylan for example, he often uses very common rhyming words in his lyrics, but it's the lines leading up to these rhyming words that make them fantastic lyrics).

I remember hearing that Benny and Bjorn of Abba used to write their lyrics based on the vowel sounds that best fit with the music.

When writing either Kid A or OK Computer (can't remember which), Thom Yorke just drove around for a few weeks with the backing tracks they'd recorded playing on his car stereo and just sang along until he hit on something he liked or that fit.

Also rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.

Also do the exact opposite sometimes and just write.

It's a funny business this songwriting lark sometimes.
posted by TwoWordReview at 1:35 AM on May 23, 2006

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