Help me be a better song writer.
February 28, 2008 8:07 PM   Subscribe

Is the ability to write good lyrics to music something one can learn or pick up, or is it something you have to be born with? If it is the former, can you give me some tips, or at the very least direct me to some books or websites that might be of use?

I want to write some lyrics for a song to give to my fiancée as a birthday present in May (hope she doesn’t read this... if she does, hi honey! Hope you like your present!). I want it to convey how I feel about her, my life before I met her and how she has enriched my life since we've been together. Thing is, the first few times I've sat down and tried to do so over the last few weeks, I've looked at what I wrote and thought it was crap. Utter, utter crap. At least compared with the kinds of bands I like and admire (grunge, rock etc).

I like to write. I like writing both fiction and non-fiction and I think, all modesty aside for a moment, that I'm pretty good at it, so I didn't think it would be too hard to make the jump to writing lyrics. But it seems it is harder than I first thought. It makes me think that the ability to write good lyrics (or at least lyrics that most people think are good) is something you have to be born with. Is this feeling accurate, or am I way off base?

Assuming I am, Metafilter has many, many talented songwriters, as evidenced by Music. So surely there must be some tips you guys and gals can impart to a fool like me? Or some books you could recommend, or websites you could link me to? Please? Thanks in advance!
posted by Effigy2000 to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Actually when I write I do lyrics first then fit the music to them. If you already have music in mind it might be a little harder.

That having been said, go get you a rhyming dictionary and a thesaurus, that will help. Then sit down and just write out all the things you want to say to her, not thinking about rhyme or meter or anything, just let it all pour out on the page. Once you do, start looking for a turn of phrase, or a "hook" or SOMETHING that really strikes your fancy and that works. Then craft the rest of your lyrics around it, using what you wrote out as a "supply closet."
posted by konolia at 8:16 PM on February 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Writing lyrics is unlike writing anything else in the world. But it's so rewarding.

I totally agree with knolia about writing your ideas out and then finding a hook.

Also, SHOW, don't tell. It's always better to have "picture words" in your lyrics. Writing about your love for the way your fiancee brings you eggs and bacon in bed is more romantic than the innards of your soul. :)
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:24 PM on February 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Think about scansion when you're writing. You don't have to fit it to established poetic forms like iambic pentameter or whatever, but just throw in patterns like three long, three short, long, short, long, short - makes things a lot more catchy.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 8:49 PM on February 28, 2008

I used to do a lot of automatic writing and user that as the basis for songs. Just sit down and write whatever comes to you. Give it a day or two, go back and read it and underline bits you like. Are you playing the instruments too? Guitar or whatever? I find its easier to fit the lyrics in if I can play along. It's really hard to try and fit lyrics into a song that I don't know the chords to.

Also, instead of full rhymes (clock..shock) try rhyming just the vowel sound (clock..stop) you end up with less obvious, cliched phrases.

I always find it hard to sit down with the purpose of writing a song about x. It's much easier to just sit down to write something and once it's done you realise "hey, it's about x.
posted by robotot at 8:58 PM on February 28, 2008

My process:

I write from melody. I experiment with melody lines until I put one together that I like to sing. I do this with la-las and half-formed nonsense syllables. Think Paul McCartney's "Yesterday," which started out as "Scrambled Eggs."

I record the melody so as not to forget it. Then I set it aside for awhile to work on the content.

Songs usually have an atmosphere for me. I may be trying to express a specific idea ("Happy Birthday") but more often I'm trying to express a mood. To get at that mood I go with a lot of visualization. I think about the images that mood calls up. Does it remind me of a place or thing in the real world? If so I look it up on the web and notice detail about it. This usually yields a bunch of cool phrases - place names, concrete objects.

I take a pen to a notebook, or open a word window, and start just jotting down the words and phrases and moods and images that come to mind.

Then I go back to melody, and start matching some of the specific words to places in the melody. This is where the most creativity happens - the plugging together of words/ideas and melody. It can go a lot of ways. Sometimes the song idea/atmosphere holds together well and the words fit in and it's beautiful. Sometimes they fit, but with a few clunkers here and there that need to be sanded down and weeded out before you can sing it with a straight face. Sometimes the words don't fit at all, in which case I re-examine the mood of that melody.

Inevitably, even when a song is done, I rarely feel that it's 100% OK. It could always benefit from a few more editorial passes. Even years later there are lines I wish I had never committed to recorded sound. Living with that is part of songwriting.

Now, this process is the one that works for me. I'm also aware of other approaches to lyric writing that are highly verbal - I usually associate this with country songs like "She's Actin' Single (I'm Drinkin' Doubles)" -- someone has come up with a really clever word or phrase and builds a song around that. Sometimes this works out amazingly - I've never really been able to do much with a clever phrase without writing it down, and then abandoning it to go back to the melody-experimentation phase. If the two come together again, that's the ideal - if the melody gives a home to the idea. If not, there's just a mismatch.

But I know there's no one right way to do this. Songwriting is inherently frustrating. Just keep hammering at it - it's a tough process that takes a lot of iterations and crumply papers and full Recycle Bins.

On the plus side, I've never heard of a situation where "I wrote this song for you" ended badly, no matter what the song.
posted by Miko at 9:27 PM on February 28, 2008 [5 favorites]

Also, instead of full rhymes (clock..shock) try rhyming just the vowel sound (clock..stop) you end up with less obvious, cliched phrases.

That's good advice. True rhyme is a harsh mistress. Sound matching, or even setting up expectation of rhyme and then not delivering, or delaying, are good techniques.

It's also helpful to look through your lyrics with a harsh reader's eye. If anything strikes you as cliche, it's probably best to tear it out. That being said, it does seem that originality is not a great prize in most songwriting; listening to the Billboard 100 or Nashville country bears this out. The blend of thoughts/images with sound is what you're after; neither alone is particularly powerful.

Oh, and an another cool thing about songwriting: you don't have to use complete sentences or even complete thoughts. You can go on for lines and lines just describing a scene in sentence fragments, listing adjectives or nouns, or riffing like Dylan. Sense takes a back seat, because the sound carries a lot of the emotional sense of a song. This really frees you up from having to "say" something in a conventional, spoken-word way.
posted by Miko at 9:32 PM on February 28, 2008

Inspiration and natural talent are great if you have them, but for detailed how-to from a top songwriting professional, check out Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting by Jimmy Webb. It's very well written, and it's got enough information to keep you studying for a long time.
posted by tdismukes at 10:11 PM on February 28, 2008

I don't think you have to be born with it, I just think it's really hard. Keep a notebook with you when you're doing other things -- you'll get ideas even when you're not sitting down in song-writing mode.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:17 PM on February 28, 2008

This woman has some very interesting things to say about this subject. I believe there is also an npr interview, but haven't searched it this morning. (It was a couple of years back.) In the npr interview she talked quite specifically about how to write a hook, how to keep fresh and un-formulaic, and how much crap you have to write before you come up with a hit.
posted by nax at 6:26 AM on February 29, 2008

Nthing near rhyme. As for a method, sometimes I start with music, sometimes with lyrics and sometimes they come out all together.

If I were you I'd start with writing poetry, day after day, schlocky line after schloky line.

Then start with the music.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:41 AM on February 29, 2008

When you write, resist the urge to erase anything just because it "sounds like crap" or "doesn't work". I'd go so far as to say never erase, period. If you've got a page of lyrics that you've read and reread and still hate, take that page, put it away somewhere and come back to it days or months later. You might be surprised at how much of it suddenly becomes usable, or even pretty good.

Challenge yourself to exclude common words and phrases - force yourself to work without "fall-back" words like "love" and terms of endearment ("baby", "darlin'", etc.)

And please, PLEASE, never, ever, EVER use the phrase "Everything is going to be alright" or any variant thereof. (This is a personal disdain - others might not mind as much)
posted by DawgterFeelgood at 7:32 AM on February 29, 2008

Buy the book The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry. It is a very readable introduction to writing poetry, with easy to do exercises and complete understanding that most of what you write is for fun and to just do it, but with a full and comprehensible introduction to the rules.

I've found the skills I picked up there, as well as the work habits, did make me a better song writer as well as poet*.

* not that I would ever call myself a poet with any seriousness, but I do enjoy doing it a lot.
posted by Space Coyote at 8:05 AM on February 29, 2008

Also, study good lyricists, like Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, John Darnielle, Will Sheff, and Craig Finn.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:16 AM on February 29, 2008

By which I mean to say, lots of popular and successful songwriters write terrible lyrics. Don't be led astray.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:18 AM on February 29, 2008

Seconding all the recommendations (specially the ones on automatic writing or free-writing). The last time I did something like this, I did free-writes for about a week, before going back and reading them. This is a really powerful technique for triggering your subconscious.

Also seconding the Stephen Fry book. I'm currently working my way through it.

On a related note, Scott Adams had a Write a hit song contest on the dilbert blog that you may find amusing. What I found fascinating was that a band actually took the lyrics that resulted and recorded the song.
posted by Arthur Dent at 1:33 PM on February 29, 2008

Best answer: [woah, long]

I'm personally of the belief that most of what we consider "talent" is learned through what we absorb from our environment, and practicepracticepractice - songwriting is very much like that too I feel.

Firstly, what you and I consider "good" lyrics are possibly (and probably - I'm not a fan of grunge, for example) quite different - music taste is such a personal thing. You are, I'm guessing, looking to write somewhat like the music you love. So, pay close attention to the music you love. Take a song apart, see how it works - the form and structure, whether it uses repetition, how the words flow, how the syllables go with chord changes... etc. Do that to all your favourite songs. This is the stuff that's easier to learn - the basic structure you're building on. As for how you write - your personal style, how you tell a story - that's harder to learn, but you say you're a pretty good writer, so that should be no problem anyway. Because I don't think it's really that different from writing prose or petry - the difference is mostly in the editing, what you choose to leave in your song.

It's good that you have till May - that's plenty of time. Let yourself write freely about how you feel about her, your life before you met her and how she has enriched your life since you've been together. Could be pages and pages - forget it's songwriting for the moment. When you're done, and you've gone over it as you would with any other piece of writing and thrown out what you don't want - now the songwriting, or rather the song-editing-together, starts. Find the lines you really need - throw away the rest. Throw away those that obviously wouldn't work well in a song, even with rewriting.

Sculpt what's left into what resembles a song. Decide on form, change line lengths, change wording, find rhymes, find patterns, make patterns, consider repeats (or not - personally I love songs that never repeat anything). If there are gaps between the lines you already have - now you can work to fill them in. Or change the form to fit the lines! It is yours to sculpt. Could take months or even years, could take ten minutes. That's songwriting for ya.

Try not to use rhyming dictionaries - especially if you already have a firm idea what you want the song to be about. Easier to shape your thoughts into rhymes than look for your thoughts in the rhymes, don't you think? And what I've suggested above is mostly the lyrics-first way of songwriting, which I find the easiest - you can absolutely write music first, and it often results in better melodies, but I personally find it much harder to write good lyrics that way, especially when you already know what you want the song to be about - it's much easier for me to find music for words than find words for music. It's a lot easier to stumble upon good music (your fingers falling on your instrument a certain way, say, or the discovery of a new chord) than to stumble upon good words that fit the music you already have. You can also write music and words at the same time - and while that often gives you the best songs, it also takes the most inspiration. Often though, I end up writing say 70% of the words, then the music, then the rest of the words to round it out. But inspiration comes in many different ways - whatever works!

Something it took me a while to realise is that songs don't have to tell stories - they can be just about an idea, or a fragment of a mood or a thought. One thing I personally like in songs and have learned to try to do in my lyric writing is leaving spaces for the listener to create their own stories. Leave things out. Leave things to the imagination, let listeners fill in the spaces with their own experience - that's how you give the song to them. In this case, since it's for your fiancée, you can touch on or hint at any of your common experiences or in-jokes and she would know what you are talking about. Let her fill in the rest for herself.

Things like "show, don't tell", writing about senses like smell and touch etc. are really pretty much the same as in prose or poetry writing - the expectations are just lower, because the words don't have to stand alone. Clichés are much more acceptable in song lyrics, as they can be saved by great music - though of course if you can avoid them, all the better. Just don't rhyme "heart" with "and you tore it apart" again, please, for the love of God.

As for the "utter, utter crap" - for one of the songs in a project last year, I wrote three different full versions of music for the same lyrics, in one month, and still didn't like any of what I came up with. For a project this year, I wrote four different versions of music - full length songs, their own chords and melody and everything - for the same words, and it was only on the fourth try that I found (stumbled onto) something I felt suited the words. So what I'm saying is, yeah it's frustrating and hard. But when it's good, when it clicks together - oh it's so, so sweet.

If you find yourself stuck with a song - put it aside. Walk away for a while, do other things. Your brain is still working on it, and often when you come back to it you find your brain has come up with the idea you'd been looking for all along. Also, when you do other things, you're opening your mind to new inputs, new ideas - I feel inspiration is essentially new ways of re-arranging oldideas, and the more and better stuff you take in, the more and better stuff your mind has to play with in coming up with new ideas. Which your mind may drop on you at any time - carry around a notebook or a recording device of some sort at all times if you can!

Finally, back to what I was saying at the beginning - practicepracticepractice. That's the best way to get better at most things. Write more songs! Write random songs! Write new lyrics to other people's songs! Have fun :)

If I ever post to Music again... forget I said anything :D
posted by Ira.metafilter at 7:18 PM on February 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

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