When was the last time you tried to write lyrics for your music? Have you thought about what it took for artists to write those incendiary lyrics that send chills down your spine? Are you skeptical of your own ability to create the same kind of beauty? Read below to see how to do this yourself.
You are probably thinking, "Tommaso, lyrics are like poetry, and have to come from inspiration. It's not the kind of thing you learn, it just happens in the moment." I used to think this way about lyrics as well. But, over time, through practicing and listening to lyrics, I was able to improve my writing the way I will show in this article.
Before I get into it, I have to tell you that I wasted a number of years thinking I just did't have it in me. So, now that I've put time and effort, and seen the light, I'm hoping to give that back to you.
So where is the best place to get a start? It's as simple as listening to your favorite songs and analyzing what they are doing that makes the music so appealing to you. It quickly becomes like an easter egg hunt, where instead of chocolate, each pattern you find will be like learning a new chord.
To get started, I'll give show you a few simple places to start your search. There are three important places to start this journey. These are the basis of all lyric writing; you may know one or two of these, but even then you need to practice the third one. Which means you're already well on your way to becoming a lyrical genius.
Writing a song is not the same as writing a story. The biggest differentiator being the structure and the way it's arranged to music. Is there any repeating lines in music? Is the way sentences are worded similar to other types of writing? Are words structured in a similar way?
One example is in the popular song "Yesterday" by The Beatles, where the word "yesterday" begins and finishes each verse, and ends the chorus. Listening to the song, you may also hear how the words "yesterday" and "now" are used in conjunction ("Now I long for yesterday"). Interchanging and juxtaposing the two words leaves the listener with the impression that Yesterday was a better time for the narrator.
Of course, these examples are just a small sample of the true power of lyrical symmetry, but they are a good jumping off point for any beginning song writer.
Figurative language comes up very often in lyric writing. It is the opposite of literal language, that is whenever you talk in figurative language, you do not strictly mean what you are saying.
When you hear, for example, the song "Little Wing" by Jimi Hendrix, who writes, "She's walking through the clouds," Jimi doesn't mean that the figure is walking though a visible mass of condensed water vapor floating in the atmosphere. Instead, he's giving her an angelic, ethereal presence. This is an example of a Metaphor.
And, as a more colloquial example, when a friend says they've "fallen" for someone special, at no point did they actually fall face-forward into the ground, or if they did, it wouldn't have been at that person's request (hopefully).
(n the same sense, another common figurative saying is when a person says "they've stolen my heart," as they don't mean that someone ripped an organ out of their ribcage - again, hopefully. This time, however, we did not use a a Metaphor: "they've stolen my heart" is indeed a Metonymy. We'll look more into the difference in a future article.
If you take a look for little idiosyncrasies like this is in your favorite songs, and try being aware of the forms they take, you will get automatically better at using them yourself.
For this part, we'll have to make the assumption that the songs are being written in English. It will still work in stress-timed languages, like English, Dutch, Persian, Arabic, and European Portuguese, but different considerations must be made for syllable-timed languages like French, Finnish, Japanese, Italian, or Brazilian Portuguese.
To use the natural rhythm of (some) languages, you'll have to start by reading them rather than singing them. When you focus on the words, you'll notice which syllables in the words are stressed, and which ones aren't. Take this example from "Damage Inc." by Metallica:
FOLloWING our INstinct NOT a TREND / GO aGAINST the GRAIN unTIL the END
Both these lines sound like TUM-ta-TUM-ta-TUM-ta-TUM-ta-TUM, and the rest of the song follows the same pattern to build the effect, with words pounding like the music, which is a big part of what makes that song so punchy.
When you're starting out, it's advisable not to force this structure - words and their rhythm is a complex relationship, and as you work with the words over time, it will develop. Start by actively listening to music, and these patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables will become more obvious during the writing process.
Pick your three favorite songs at the moment. Anything from prog to punk to pop will work. Now, read each of the songs lyrics three times - one time searching for symmetry, once for word rhythm, and once for figurative language. Write down what you notice about the music.
After just those three, I know you'll pick up on what the musician was putting down that you didn't see before. As you start to think about the process, you'll be able to adapt these techniques that draw you in into your own writing.
Stay connected for more articles about the secrets of Lyric Writing as we start getting deeper and deeper into lyrical strategies.
Tommaso Zillio is a professional prog rock/metal guitarist and composer based in Edmonton, AB, Canada.
Tommaso is currently working on an instrumental CD, and an instructional series on fretboard visualization and exotic scales. He is your go-to guy for any and all music theory-related questions.
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