Music is the language of the heart, but it can be challenging to speak it if you’ve never tried to write lyrics. Though lyrics may look deceptively simple when viewed “on paper,” one soon discovers getting them to flow correctly is a fine art. After all, we’ve 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 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.
Before you can effectively break the rules, you need to learn what they are. That’s the one adage to which aspiring songwriters should pay close attention. While it’s true writing lyrics is an imaginative process, you don’t have to follow a song template. You should 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 twice as long as the chorus, however, there is no set size. 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 optional feature, the bridge is used to add a variety to songs so they don’t start to sound repetitive. The bridge is usually placed after the second chorus and sounds notably different from 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. Before you know it, structured songs will cease to feel especially challenging to write. You can then take things to the next level and attempt to write free form songs.
2. Write what you know
To speak to other people, when you write lyrics they need to be relatable. As such, you should write about moving experiences in your life. Don’t try to emulate the kind of subject matter you’ve heard in popular songs unless it speaks to you personally. Remember, too, 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 that instead. Writing powerful lyrics is about evoking genuine emotion.
Maybe you sat down to write and experienced a mental “block” instead. Stream of consciousness writing exercises, writing down the first things that come to mind, can help with this. It can help you unlock what’s currently most important to you. Once you’ve completed this exercise, start editing what you’ve written so it follows a 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 trying to make a rhyme work or 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, 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 are born with more of an innate aptitude for it than others, but keep in mind, it’s a skill that requires active development. The only way to become a lyrical artist is to practice writing 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 and pen a few lines. Before you know it, you’ll start to see signs that you’re improving. Good luck, and happy writing!