One of the more daunting things I’ve come to realize in my years of writing songs is that when it comes to getting cuts, you’re not only competing against all the songs being written currently but also against every song that’s ever been written. Fortunately, to balance that out, we also have the opportunity to learn great songwriting from any master who’s ever written a song. To that end, I’ve put together five tips that I’ve learned from some of pop music’s finest writers from any era. Enjoy!
Cole Porter is often remembered as a “clever” songwriter and, indeed, his lyrics are both witty and sophisticated. But the reason his songs are remembered almost a century after they were written has to do with more than just cleverness. Cole Porter’s songs have real heart as well as great internal rhyme structure and clever turns of phrase. Clever is good but clever paired with sincerity and genuine human emotion is great.
Whenever I’m speaking to a young songwriter who has a two page lyric and is struggling to pare it down, I reference the Motown hit “My Girl” written by Smokey Robinson and Ronald White. The ENTIRE song is a few two-line verses, a two-line pre-chorus and a two-line chorus. Lyrically, there’s almost nothing to it and yet it was a huge hit for the Temptations. I understand the need to tell your listener as much as you can but when it comes to songwriting, less is almost always more.
Never underestimate the power of a good “nah, nah” or “sha, la, la” when it comes to making your songs catchy and memorable. Thinking back to my early career as a bar performer (a period I refer to as playing “Brown Eyed Girl” for drunk people), I remember clearly how much the audience loved to sing along to that chorus full of nonsense words. I’m not saying that all of your songs need to use this device but from time to time the best words to use aren’t words at all.
As a songwriter whose primary contribution is lyrical, I struggled for a long time understanding the value of melody. But, with the exception of our mothers and paid song consultants, almost no one listens to the lyrics of a song the first few times they hear it. Instead, it’s the melody that grabs your listeners’ attention first. A catchy melody makes all the difference in the world and Paul McCartney was a true master at creating memorable and enduring melodies. If you’re like I am and pride yourself more on your lyric writing, make sure you pair yourself with a great melody writer if you really want your songs – and interestingly your lyrics – to shine. A strong melody will give you a chance to get your listeners to pay attention to your lyric eventually but without a great melody, it’s an uphill battle to get your lyrics across.
Most of us think of lyric writing as a way to communicate your song’s message. While this is certainly true, taking advantage of good phrasing, consonants and alliteration can turn your lyrics into a rhythmic element in your songs as well. Peter Gabriel’s lyric writing goes a long way towards adding rhythmic complexity to his already groove-based songs. All this to say, remember to give some thought to how your lyrics sound and feel as well as to what they’re saying.
Whether the above-mentioned songwriters are your cup of tea or not, the lessons remain the same. When it comes to learning your craft, make sure to take the time to analyze your favorite songwriters’ work. Often, the things that move you in your favorite songs will be the same things that will move your listeners in the songs that you write.