It used to be that when people thought of songwriting, they didn’t think of great writing. Then Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature.
Dylan wasn’t the first songwriter whose work has been respected by literary critics. You might be surprised how much ancient poetry was originally written to be sung. From certain vanished cultures, songs are the only literature that has survived. Before the invention of mass media technology, songs were the mass media – the original news media. So if you’re a songwriter, be proud. You have a distinguished and honorable heritage.
Writing poetry or verse is good training for any writer. The discipline of a poetic structure teaches you rhythm and beat, which is part of language itself, as texture is part of paint. Yes, we all dislike limits to our creativity. But occasionally having to fit your writing into a rhyme or a meter doesn’t hamper your creativity, it can enhance it. Don’t you sometimes have trouble thinking of the next word to write? But once you know that word needs to rhyme with stone, or that it needs to begin with an unaccented syllable and end with an accented syllable, it might become easier to find the word.
Even if you would never consider yourself a songwriter, in some ways writing song lyrics is better training than simply writing poetry or verse. Remember you don’t need to be a musician to write the lyrics to a song. Someone else can write the music. But when you write poetry to be sung, you benefit from a stricter discipline and get a better education in writing.
The school of lyrics
When you write poetry that isn’t meant to be heard (and most poetry should be heard), you can easily escape some of the discipline that you are supposed to be learning from. Personally, I can’t tell if I’m following the right metrical scheme unless I read what I’m writing out loud. But if I have to sing it, the melody enforces the rhythm. It forces me to limit the number of syllables in the line, just as I’m supposed to.
There’s still room for flexibility, as I call it, or cheating, as you may call it. If you are an experienced singer, maybe you can slip in extra syllables or stretch out a syllable to make the words fit the tune. But another singer might not be able to do it so smoothly nor may they want to. If you want to write a song that is sung widely, even by the public, I’m afraid you need to make the syllables fit neatly with the tune.
This hard limit of so many syllables per line can drive a lyricist to frustration or possibly to jazz. Jazz is one musical tradition that welcomes improvisation and therefore welcomes longer line lengths. But again, irregular rhythms are harder to memorize, which is why few people sing John Coltrane on the way to work or school. While other writers can write longer sentences, paragraphs or chapters whenever they want, a lyricist may have to fit his or her thoughts into lines of ten words, or verses of four (not three) lines.
I have been writing songs for most of my life, but the challenge of fitting words into a limited line makes me very slow. I can rarely fit a complete thought in one line; I frequently can’t fit a single thought in a single verse. I wrote a Christmas song of five verses at the rate of one verse a year.
Words and music
Which comes first: the lyrics or the melody? That depends on the songwriter.
- The Broadway musical team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote lyrics first, then music. Same with pop star Elton John and Bernie Taupin, his lyricist. But other songwriters, such as Paul Simon, usually start with the melody.
- Sometimes the lyrics and the melody are created together, in a jam session or a recording studio. Early in their career, John Lennon and Paul McCartney of the Beatles would write “eyeball to eyeball” as Lennon put it. Competing with each other helped their songs and hurt their relationship.
- In “track and hook” songwriting, a producer records basic elements such as the rhythm and chord progression and sends out the recording to “top line writers” who add other elements, such the hook, verses, chorus or bridge.
- For Gilbert and Sullivan of light opera fame, W.S. Gilbert would send lyrics to Arthur Sullivan by mail, as I recall. Sullivan would open the envelope, read the lyrics, then go for a walk, no doubt humming to himself. By the time he returned from his walk, he would have a tune fixed in his mind.
Tips for writing lyrics
- Live songs don’t rewind. Unlike readers of a book, listeners at a concert who didn’t catch a word or a line can’t go back a page and re-read the part of the song they missed. In his article 24 lyric-writing tips, Chris Wickett says, “Remember that the listeners might miss a word, or a line, or three. Don’t rely on just one small line to put the whole song in context.”
- Don’t over-rhyme. Structure is good, but too many rhymes can sound cutesy or annoying. A song can tolerate slant rhymes better than it can tolerate missing syllables.
- Be short, simple, and sweet. Graham English calculates that Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run album averages 281 words per song. The Beatles’ Abbey Road averages 102 and Let It Be averages 139.
- Be specific, be intimate, be concrete. Andrea Stolpe who teaches songwriting at Berklee Online and the University of Southern California, says, “Bring your listener into an experience of a small moment.” Tell a story that shows your heart. You don’t need to be profound. Jesse Sterling Harrison advises lyricists to be “just slightly enigmatic.” Nor do you need to be grandiose.
- Don’t rush yourself. Rod Stewart says, “I’ll come up with one line in a day, and then it might be a couple of days before I come up with the rhyming line.”
- Accept criticism but don’t be too critical. Your lyric won’t be instantly perfect, but if you can take advice, you can improve faster.
- Be quiet. James Taylor told NPR’s Noah Adams, “I think songs need to come out of – really, out of a state of boredom almost as much as anything else. You need to have empty time in order to receive them.”
No! I am not Frank Sinatra, nor was meant to be.