Being the main lyricist for a band is arguably one of the most difficult positions in music that one can hold. You have to be part musician and part poet, and you have to learn a ton of rules and techniques that go above and beyond what the average musician would have to know.
Because being a lyricist and a musician is such a balancing act, there are a host of problems that can occur. In fact, there are way more than can be named in this article. However, time and time again there seems to be three main stumbling blocks that lyricists happen to run into.
If you’ve been having trouble as a lyricist, or just want to avoid running into to some all too common problems, you’ve come to the right place. This article will give you three great tips to help you on your road to being the lyricist you’ve always dreamed you could be.
Side note: Yes, there are exceptions to every rule below. No, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve found a flaw in my logic. They are the exceptions that prove the rule, and most of them are either purposefully breaking a rule as a part of a larger message (“I Am The Walrus”) and/or work because the other elements that make them up are so strong, (a lot of Bob Dylan’s work).
1. Not Simplifying Your Song
Ideally, every song you right should have one main point. Everything else in your song should work to flesh out this point (or in some cases cause the listener to reinterpret it). Think of your song like an essay. You have your thesis, a few points regarding it, and then a few supporting details.
A common problem with a lot of lyricists’ songs is that they don’t follow this. By not outlining and sticking to one clear point their song becomes almost unintelligible. It confuses the listener, and it keeps your song from resonating with your audience.
To use the essay analogy again, imagine if an essay about the history of Coca-Cola had a five-paragraph section in the middle about party clowns. This would (rightly) confuse the reader and distract from the main point of the song.
2. Inconsistent Rhyme or Meter
You don’t necessarily have to rhyme to make a good song. You can also be relatively flexible with things like meter. However, you cannot have wild swings with either element. For example:
The red duck is red
He hides under my bed
Next to my bed is a trunk
It opens with a solid thunk
The example above would be okay. The syllable count is similar enough (a deviation of a syllable or two isn’t overly distracting) and everything rhymes. This on the other hand:
The red duck is red
He curls up on a blanket under my bed
Next to my bed is a chest
It opens loudly with a very solid thunk
Would definitely not be okay. It doesn’t flow well, and quickly abandoning a rhyming scheme is distracting. Again, in certain situations this could work, (for example, it could be used as a technique to increase tension or draw attention to a line), it’s just not something you should do without a larger purpose. This isn’t the most elegant analogy around, but hopefully it illustrates the point.
3. Being Overly “Artsy”
If you analyze the work of your famous poet, you’re most likely going to see that the complexity and beauty from their point comes from the subtlety of their language. They don’t use overly descriptive phrases to sound deep, because by doing so they remove the audience’s agency.
The reason that a lot of poetry and/or lyrics resonate so deeply with people is that the author leaves room for the words to resonate with the audience. They leave their work open to interpretation so that the audience can fill in the gaps with their own experiences or expectations.
There’s a famous story of Ernest Hemingway winning a bet with some friends to see who could write the best novel with only four words. His response was “baby shoes; never worn.” These four words tell a huge story because they’re so open to interpretation. The story you thought of when you read them could be about a couple who miscarried, or it could have been a variety of other situations.
The lesson to learn with this anecdote isn’t that Ernest Hemingway was awesome, (even though he was!), it’s that in order to have a piece of media that resonates with a variety of people you have to leave enough gaps for them to insert themselves into.
Bonus: Use Relevant Themes
This isn’t necessarily a tip to make a better song, which is why it isn’t getting a number of its own. Rather, it’s a way that you can help your songs become more popular.
Something you should strive for if you’re looking to appeal to a wider audience is writing songs with themes that are both relevant to a wide number of people (heartbreak, having a lame job, having a p.o.s. car) and easily identifiable in a song. There are countless examples of this, and pretty much every famous artist has at least one.
To do this, just pick something that’s happened to you in your life that happens to other people. If you have a tense relationship with your folks, write a song about it. If you had a significant other cheat on you, put your experience to music. Just make sure that the basic storyline is easy to follow.
Writing a good song is hard, and writing a great song is even harder. While this article may not give you all the information that you need to start pumping out hits, it can give you a leg up on your competition.
And most importantly, don’t forget to have fun and write music that artistically fulfills you. We may not all get to be famous, but we can all have a great time playing music.