Music is the language of the heart, but it can be challenging to speak it if you’re new to writing lyrics. Though lyrics may look deceptively simple when viewed “on paper,” so to speak, one soon discovers that getting them to flow correctly is a fine art. After all, we’ve all heard what happens when a writer inserts a lyric just to force a rhyme: It can ruin the entire song. (Remember Madonna’s 2006 blunder in I Love New York? “I don’t like cities, but I like New York / Other places make me feel like a dork.” …Yikes!) By learning how to write song lyrics properly, you’ll save yourself a lot of frustration—and embarrassment. Here’s how to get started:
1. Understand how songs are structured.
There’s one adage about creativity that aspiring songwriters should pay close attention to: Before you can effectively break the rules, you need to learn what they are. While it’s true that wiring lyrics is an imaginative process and you don’t have to follow a song template, you should still take the time to learn which elements can potentially make up a song. Standard song format includes:
An introduction: Not all songs have an introduction, but many do. Introductions often serve the purpose of slowly easing the listener into the song.
Verses: Verses are generally about twice as long as the chorus, though there is no set size they have to be. Unlike choruses, verses don’t have to repeat one another exactly. Instead, they contain different lyrics set to the same melody.
The chorus: The chorus is used to tie songs together by repeating the same set of lyrics more than once (after the verses). Choruses are intended to be catchy and memorable, especially if you’re writing a pop song.
The bridge: Another purely optional feature, the bridge is used to add a little variety to songs so that they don’t start to sound repetitive. The bridge is usually placed after the second chorus and will sound notably different to the rest of the song. It may also lead into a key change.
When you start writing songs, you’ll probably want to use the tried, tested, and proven AABA structure. (Verse, Verse, Chorus, Verse.) Once you’ve gotten the hang of this, you can experiment with more complex structures, like ABCBA (Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Chorus, Verse), ABABCB, ABACABA, etc. Once structured songs cease to feel especially challenging to write, you can take things to the next level and attempt to write free form songs.
2. Write what you know
In order to speak to other people, your lyrics need to be relatable. As such, you should write about experiences in your life that have moved you—don’t try to emulate the kind of subject matter you’ve heard in popular songs on the radio unless it speaks to you personally. Remember, too, that not all songs have to be about romantic relationships. If you’ve been more moved by the loss of a pet or relative than past relationships, try writing about those things instead. Writing powerful lyrics is all about evoking genuine emotion.
If you sit down to write something and experience a mental “block,” try engaging in steam of consciousness writing exercises where you just write down the first things that come to mind. This can help you unlock what’s currently most important to you. Once you’ve completed this exercise, start editing what you’ve written down so that it follows lyric format.
Finally, don’t forget that you should paint a picture with your lyrics, not just literally describe events and feelings. “Fading warmth on the couch / a dent I can’t fill on my own / empty-handed I leave the house / walking with nowhere to go” is more evocative than “My dog died / the tears won’t dry / this is my last goodbye.”
3. Expand your vocabulary
The more words you know, the more options you’ll have when you’re trying to make a rhyme work or make a verse flow. E.g., instead of just having the words “sad” and “down” to work with, you’ll also have “morose, melancholy, low, despondent, despairing, forlorn, wretched,” etc. Think of words like tools—the more you have at your disposal, the easier it will be to fit things together. (Remember, too, that it’s okay to bend the pronunciation of words somewhat when you’re trying to fit them into verses.)
4. Practice, practice, practice.
Writing isn’t a gift that you either have or don’t have. Yes, some people are born with more of an innate aptitude for it than others, but at base it’s a skill that requires active development. The only way to become a lyrical artist is to practice writing lyrics as often as possible. Even if you don’t have time to write an entire song each day, try to sit down for at least half an hour in the evening and pen a few lines. Before you know it, you’ll start to see signs that you’re improving. Good luck, and happy writing!