There is no right or wrong way to write a song lyric. And there are no right or wrong lyrics. But, there is truth and falsehood. Is your song honest? Or are you just making rhymes?
I was honored to be asked to write this column exploring the craft of lyric writing. I have no particular expertise or unique understanding of that magic process, but I have a deep belief that songs should be ‘about something’ and, that something is best delivered not through the melody, but through the lyric.
I am drawn to songs that reveal truths I didn’t know. They make me see things anew. They open my mind while they entertain my ear. They are real.
My own way of writing a song is pretty consistent. I noodle around with a chord progression and immediately start singing a melody over the chords. Most often, I have no idea where I get the first line. I just sing whatever pops into my head. Then I rhyme it. At this stage they are meaningless words, picked from the ether. But are they? Or is my subconscious becoming manifest, telling me it has something to say?
Everyone probably knows the Paul McCartney story about writing “Yesterday.” He awoke with the melody fully formed in his head. He was sure he had heard it somewhere else and hummed it for his producer, George Martin, to see if he had unconsciously cribbed it. Having no lyrics, he first sang: “Scrambled eggs. Da, da, da, da, da, da. Scrambled eggs.”
Singing nonsense words works. It helps you form structure and cadence. In doing that you’re choosing the number of syllables, the pauses, the flow of the melody. No matter at this point what the song is about. Don’t try and force the song one way or the other in its early iteration. Let the muses take you.
For me, the melody does indeed come before the words. Once I have some melody in mind, but not fully realized, I begin writing the words. From that point on, they affect each other. The tone of the words begins changing the tenor of the music.
The melody, as expected, will move the listener to feel different emotions, melancholy or joy, foreboding or jubilation, with minor or major progressions. Do they make you want to jump and shout, or sit and moan? But, it’s the words that tell the truthful story. Are the words in your song worth taking to heart? Do they live in the truth?
I generally begin to know what my song is about around half-way through. I have an ‘ah-ha’ moment. “Oh, this song is about greed.” That’s when I take the creative steering wheel away from the muses and start driving the idea by myself. That’s when the words start to have meaning, purpose, power.
“No, that line doesn’t fit the theme. That line isn’t clear. That’s pedestrian. What am I trying to say here?”
I don’t want to criticize anyone’s art, but all songwriters, in my opinion, should be on constant alert against being trite, predictable, banal, obvious. Too many songs are way too obvious. As a listener, you know where they are going. You can predict the next rhyme, the next thought. They don’t tell you anything you don’t already know.
So, this is my fundamental songwriting advice: Say something new, something different, something true. Say something honest.
The most powerful songs, to me, have a moment of searing revelation, a single line that makes you stop in your tracks and say, “Wow!” A single honest declaration that can change your world view. Look for that moment in your song. Is it there? Try to make it there.
I wrote a song about an illicit romantic affair. I told the story through the guilt of the adulterous lover. But, the true nature of the story didn’t reveal itself to me until the final line of the final verse.
“Before this night is through
I’ll wash away the scent of you
To hide the stain of passion
We’ll kiss goodbye
While others wait at home alone and cry
From love unfastened.”
That line, out of nowhere, hit me like a lightning bolt. While all the previous words in the song set the literal atmosphere of the affair – the smell of cigarettes, intoxicating perfume, worn sheets, cold rooms, loosened morals – these last two words brought honest revelation about the reason for the affair. Love unfastened.
The audience may not get that those two words are the heart of the song. But I know. They declare the breaking of a trust. They uncover the true feelings of the narrator. They reveal that believing that love is bonded forever is a lie. I didn’t literally say those things in my song. Those two words did it for me. The honesty is there, even if just implied. It is left to the listener to hear it.
I didn’t start out to write that sentiment, that true love can be a lie. I started out writing a song about guilt. The real point of the song revealed itself to me because I am continually asking, what is this song about? And my mind answers. It’s not an earth-shattering revelation. Many others have had it. But it’s an honest lyric. And I may have said it in a slightly new way. Love unfastened. Those two words have layers of meaning to me.
That moment of clarity is not always possible in your songwriting. But you know it when you write it. I know it when I can read my line and say, “That’s it. That’s the truth of this song. That’s what I was working to reveal. That’s what this is about. That’s what I want to say.”
So, I posit that we should all try to say something real in our songs. And say it honestly.
On the other hand, if your song gets people to move their feet, that’s pretty damned cool, too. As the teenagers in Philly used to say to Dick Clark on American Bandstand, “It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it. I give it a nine.”