View Full Version : Tips on Lyrics?

11-05-2009, 03:05 PM
Does anyone know of any really good, useful articles on writing lyrics?

Does anyone have any sage advice to share?

I've got loads of chord progressions, and melodies, but every time I sit down to write lyrics (I even carry paper around with me just in case I'm inspired by something... I never am). The stuff I've come up with doesn't carry enough interest on its own... and besides, I want to be able to write lyrics.


11-05-2009, 07:23 PM
You're trying to finish before you start.

Before you try to write a song, free-write for 15 minutes straight. Don't stop. Right now you can't separate your critiquing process from your creation process. Free-writing will help you do that. It'll also just get your juices flowing. Don't worry about spelling, grammar or topic.

After fifteen minutes, maybe you have something you can use, maybe not. It should be a daily ritual.

When you sit down to write your lyrics, remember one thing - you'll never have to show them to anyone else. Don't worry about the level of interest. That's the little devil on your shoulder, shooting you in the foot before you can take a step.

When you actually have lyrics you want to share with others, then I can give you more concrete help. For now, concentrate on letting yourself go.

11-06-2009, 05:39 AM
Be careful with "How-To" articles on something so ephemeral as writing lyrics. Lyric writing is both the easiest and hardest thing to do, like all creative pursuits. There's that famous quote attributed to Elvis Costello (& Frank Zappa & Miles Davis & Steve Martin, among others), "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." It was meant as a dig on critics, but it applies here, too, I think. Seeso's advice is dead on - let it flow. My lyrics aren't the greatest thing in the world, but the best ones always seem to be the ones that "wrote themselves."

11-06-2009, 05:56 AM
Seeso's advice is dead on - let it flow. My lyrics aren't the greatest thing in the world, but the best ones always seem to be the ones that "wrote themselves."

While the above statement is also sometimes true for me, other times it is not. Some of my best lyrics are from songs that I worked on for weeks.

11-06-2009, 06:16 AM
Carry a small notebook in your hip pocket and write down interesting lines, ideas, phrases and images throughout your day.

Write stories and turn them into lyrics later.

Write dumb songs. You'd be surprised how many great lines can come from writing crap.

Some ideas have to ferment a while. I had a song title for 15 years that blossomed into a song all at once - after countless attempts to write around it. One day a chord progression just called out for that title and the lyrics just came.

Don't worry about what your lyrics mean. I'm a big fan of Steve Earle's "creepy stalker" songs and one day it occurred to me that I had written something like them without attempting to. Once that meaning emerged (and only after it had been almost completely written) the song's tone dictated its evolution.

Bob Dylan never views a song as a finished product - his recorded versions are just snapshots of that song in a particular time.

Steal. Cheat like crazy. Rewrite others' songs. You'll learn what makes some of your favorites "tick."

Record your chord progressions, play them on a loop, and freestyle over them. Make up nonsense. Sing "blah-de-blah-de-blah" until some words emerge. Again, what you come up with may surprise you. And when something does surprise you write it down.

11-06-2009, 07:33 AM
Most of my songs start as a simple three or four word phrase that pops into my head. Then I write it down IMMEDIATELY and fashion the rest of the text around it. If I can't think of anything, I'll stop and try again later.

I bet you can spot the inspiration phrase in each on of my songs! A lot of times it will end up as the title.

11-06-2009, 08:22 AM
Sing "blah-de-blah-de-blah" until some words emerge.[/I].

Works for me, though I prefer "la la la's and na na na's".

Recording as I go along helps, too.

If I come up with a progression I like, I sit in front of the computer with my webcam and Word going. Play and scat onto video to catch the basic idea. Often, an expression will naturally replace the scatting and catch the flavor of the music: happy, sad, etc. Write it down. From there, it's mostly creating a story or series of coherent images around that nugget.

11-06-2009, 07:14 PM
Before you try to write a song, free-write for 15 minutes straight. Don't stop. Right now you can't separate your critiquing process from your creation process. Free-writing will help you do that. It'll also just get your juices flowing. Don't worry about spelling, grammar or topic.

I think this is the best songwriting advice I've ever read. I'll start that tonight.

Write dumb songs. You'd be surprised how many great lines can come from writing crap.

Also really good advice... Maybe I'm taking it too seriously (which comes from everybody telling me "Write a joke song!" and I usually dislike joke songs... Don't know why, I just do)

I bet you can spot the inspiration phrase in each on of my songs! A lot of times it will end up as the title.

And that's what makes them so freakin' catchy and stuck in my head all day long.

11-07-2009, 05:25 AM
Most of my song lyrics have come straight from my novel, so they are given context that way. However, I will say (and this is "sage advice" from someone who has only been writing songs for a week, so take it with a grain of salt), the lyrics don't have to be profound.

My most popular song is one about National Novel Writing Month and how it will eat your soul.

Another hint is to write a song *for* somebody/something. It might not be the kind of song you wanted to write, but it will give you some practice lyrics-wise. On Thursday night, I wrote a song about a princess which involved unicorns for a friend's daughter. It wasn't the most insightful song in the universe, but I had fun writing it.

11-09-2009, 04:49 AM
I am usually in tesco, or in the car when some idea hits me. the triggers for the ideas are usually hearing an inspirational bit of music, seeing something cool or reading something cool. I find watching live musicians particularly inspiring.

Usually the whole idea - melody and lyric hits me at the same time. then it is just a case of working it up into a song. the idea usually (for me at least) contains some element of what i want to say.

Eg. i had the inspiration, 'you're a long time dead, so you'd better start living' once that idea was with me, it contained the thematic idea for the song, and i just wrote lyrics on advice on how not to waste your time while you're alive, get it? you can hear it here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RT6VOCtYfM4
the style inspiration came from listening to Madeleine Peyroux, John Martyn and a study I was doing on gypsy jazz progressions, the lyrical one was from seeing miserable people on the metro, people working their lives away and forgetting about the fun in life

then there is structure. basically most songs will have 3 verses 3 choruses and a middle 8. I've never written a song like this in my life but it is a good starting point to aim at in that it makes you look for a structure to underlie the song.

I think also it is good advice to say that don't be afraid to write silly, childish, rubbish, nonsense, cheesy, corny, clichéd 3 chord tricks. Probably your favourite songs in the world contain one or more of these elements.

on the whole i think you can't force it, try to write art for arts sake not for any contrived or faux reason. something that helps me often is to consider the audience/listener and to think about what i want to say to that person, or people.

lastly, people who have trouble writing lyrics are usually not confident about singing. so, sing more covers and more songs by other people, you will find that not only your voice improves but your toolbox of lyrical tricks gets bigger and smarter.

11-14-2009, 06:49 AM
A preface: this is essentially the (fairly basic) lesson on songwriting that you'd get if you'd take a class at Second City (the comedy theater) that had some songwriting or song-improvising component. It works well for me. However, you could point at practically every point and say "That's not true! What about X" and provide examples where it's not followed. That's absolutely right; these "rules" are really guidelines that often work well, but which you should feel free to ignore when you feel it would be appropriate.

It focuses on the technical elements to get you writing. I find that when I do that, the artistic elements often seem to take care of themselves.

Hope it helps.


There are two basic song structures: Verse-chorus and tagline. A verse-chorus song has a full chorus that will repeat several times throughout the song, with some number of verses between. A tagline song will have, instead of a chorus, a single line that repeats at the same point (usually the first or last line) of some or all of the verses. Either basic structure can also have a bridge, about which more later.

Start with your thesis: what you're trying to say with the song. "I love you"? "Puppies are neat"? "Unemployment rocks"? "I hate ball-point pens"? "I'm going to tell you a story about the magical land of Zabnaginac"? All fine.

Come up with the title next. The title should be a statement of the thesis (or frequently, just the core element of the thesis, without the value judgment).

Next, work on the chorus. (Or tagline, which fills the same role.) The purpose of the chorus is to state your thesis. Not to advance the story or argument, just to state it. The chorus doesn't need to be complicated--individual lines are often repeated within the chorus, and sometimes the whole thing consists of the same line repeated four times. The title will generally play a significant role here.

Next, the verses. This is where you support your thesis - where you say why puppies are so neat, or why you hate ball-point pens, or where you tell what happened in the magical land of Zabnaginac.

Each of the verses will have roughly the same melody, meter, and rhyme structure. You don't need to stress out too much about this at the start, because whatever meter and rhyme scheme you create in the first verse, you'll just follow in future verses.

For rhyming, common schemes are AABB, ABAB, ABCB, AAAB, and the like. Don't be a hero; feel free to use a rhyming dictionary or online source like Rhymezone.

To keep the meter on track: In general, each line will 'fit' if the number of syllables in it is within one of corresponding lines in other verses. So if your first verse has lines with 7, 7, 12, and 8 syllables respectively, a verse with 6, 7, 11, and 9 syllables will probably work, whereas 5, 6, 8, 11 probably won't. However, this is something you have to work with your music director (i.e., you, in this case) on; because of the way words are accented even lines with the same number of syllables don't always work together, while other times some words can be rushed to make a line work.

Finally, there's the bridge. This doesn't need to follow any prior rhyme or meter scheme. There are two possible purposes for it: It can intensify your thesis ("puppies will save the universe") or contradict and challenge it ("maybe ball-point pens are useful after all"). If it's the latter, then you've probably got to provide some resolution to it; either you recognize that it exists but it's still wrong ("You may like ball-point pens, but quill pens are still better") or that the challenge is right and you'd better adapt ("I guess ball-point pens aren't so bad.")

And with that, you've drafted a song's lyrics.

Obviously, you may want to edit at some point--adjusting meter to make words flow better, rewrite lines to make them more elegant, strengthen some point of the thesis or the counterpoint to it--whatever. But basically, you're done.


11-14-2009, 09:10 AM
wow, seeso, thanks. That is great advice that i've really taken to heart. Thanks to the OP for the post on a topic I just happened to be looking for!

11-22-2009, 08:17 AM
A lot of songwriters start with a hook or a chorus. From there, they flesh-out their ideas and complete it.

I am not a prolific writer, but when I write a song, it takes me all of about five minutes. I begin playing around with a melody and a mood. After just playing around with that a while, I start thinking about the mood and when the time is right, I sit down to write the song and in a few minutes it's completed. I don't typically change anything either.

My mother was pretty much the same way, but she only wrote a few songs with lyrics and melody. Mostly, she just wrote lyrics and a co-writer, Hillman Hall, wrote the melodies. I watched them put together many songs in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

When I work with a co-writer, they often only contribute one or two lines and that lights a fire in me and the rest comes very fast. Again, a few minutes and it is done.

Most songwriters do their best writing in a certain mood or with a certain feeling that they put to words (and melody). That is why music has often been called the highest form of expression. If you can capture a particular mood and draw inspiration from it, that just might become your best work.