So, you’re trying to learn how to write a song.
But what goes into it? What does it take?
The fact is, there are as many ways to approach songwriting as there are songwriters. The important part is that you have something to say. Learning to write songs does involve some basic understanding of music theory, but more than that, it requires you to look deep within yourself for a message or story that you want to tell.
Like most things, songwriting takes a little talent, but it also takes a lot of skill that can be learned and honed. The more you practice, the better you’ll become, and the more risks you’ll be willing to take.
Of course, many songwriters can bring all kinds of riffs and ideas to the table, but might not feel as comfortable with the written word. So, how do you start writing lyrics, especially with no background in poetry or prose?
Try these tips on for size.
Don’t Write Too Much
Writing iconic lyrics is hard, but you shouldn’t be aiming for iconic every time you sit down to write. That said, to hit on something truly great, you’ve still got to write a lot and keep at it. But creating effective lyrics that pop isn’t as hard as you may think.
To begin, you don’t need that many words.
Take a look at the sheet music for some of your favourite songs. Unless you’re looking at a hip-hop piece (which ranks among the wordiest of pop styles), you may be surprised to find the average song only has between 100 and 300 words. You’re not writing a novel! Let the music carry a lot of the narrative itself.
Lyrics play an important role, but they should be chosen carefully for their impact.
Three or four paragraphs on a topic you’re passionate about? That’s easy!
Focus on the Music
But even once you know how long your song should be, how do you even begin writing the words?
Easy. Start with the music.
Remove all distractions. Turn off your phone. Turn up your headphones, and really listen to the music. See where it takes you. Most songwriters don’t start out saying something like, “ I want to write a song about X.” Instead, they allow the music to carry them off.
Using something not unlike meditation, the music can take you on a path to real emotion, experience, or story that relates to you. And if you can relate to it, so will listeners.
Turning Words into Notes
When you’re listening to your music, trying to find the narrative, words or phrases may spring to mind with a melody already attached. Fantastic! Little snippets like these tend to form the vocal hooks that make songs catchy.
On the other hand, if that doesn’t happen right away, no problem! Try slower or faster tempos. Change up the rhythm of your speech. Sooner or later a melody will take hold, and once it does, it’s easier to uncover the rest of what’s hiding just beneath the surface of your subconscious.
Free Your Emphasis
In every language, we are used to accents being in a certain place for any given spoken word. But when it comes to writing lyrics, you get something of a “get-out-of-jail-free-card” when it comes to pronunciations.
Just ask artists like Eminem, who can rhyme things with “orange” by bending pronunciations.
Rhyming is Overrated
You can write in rhyming couplets, where line one has a similar cadence to line two, and the words that end each line rhyme.
Or, you can write without rhyming at all. And if you do, your lyrics will feel more spontaneous, as if you’re having a conversation with your audience.
One style is not better than the other. In fact, the important thing to remember here is that there are no solid rules for writing original lyrics. Just be guided by what sounds great.
Build Upon the Richness of Your Lyrics
High school English teachers love literary devices:
- Symbolism: it rains when a character is depressed. Good cowboys wear white hats. Henchmen of the evil king are Black Knights.
- Foreshadowing: something small early in the narrative is a clue of what’s to come.
- Allegory: the text points to some hidden meaning.
- Satire, metaphor, political ideas – the list goes on and on.
Each of these can be used in your lyrics – but it’s much easier to tease out what’s already there than try to shove them in where they don’t belong.
Of course, your lyrics don’t have to have any hidden meaning, and can say exactly what they mean But richer lyrics that imply more than one meaning are far more interesting for the listener and encourage repeated plays to get all the nuances.
For example, maybe you just wrote a song about losing your job. Is there a parallel between your experiences and those of others? Might this be a good time for a political statement? It’s already there in your song, it just needs some polishing.
Lead Your Audience to Meaning
Generally, pop music listeners don’t want to have to break down lyrics for meaning unless they’re thought-provoking or so outlandish they startle people into looking them up. With that in mind, being just a little enigmatic is a better strategy for success than making your lyrics so steeped in symbolism that they’re impossible to decipher. By using imagery that points directly to your meaning, you can lead your listeners to what’s really happening without beating them over the head with it. That’s the essence of poetry. For example:
Taxi in the snow,
And a cold and empty bed.
Is a bit more artful than:
He left me,
I am sad.
But none of the meaning is lost. Attacking a situation like this at an angle is more likely to stir real emotion in your listeners because it carries an image people can relate to. Relating to lyrics is what songwriting is all about!
Looking for a little more help jumpstarting your songwriting skills? Check out our songwriting lessons! The Music Studio’s songwriting program encourages aspiring songwriters ages seven years and up to explore their creativity in a private lesson format. Students have the opportunity to develop their songwriting skills, record professional demos of their songs, and learn more about the local songwriting community.
Whether you dream of writing your first song or want help with your latest tune, professional songwriters Shelby Lynn and Nick Scott will help you write a song of your own!