In my early years of running my recording studio in Nashville, I had the privilege of demoing songs for quite a few hit songwriters. This provided me with the opportunity to observe, up close, not only the work habits of super successful songwriters but also an in-depth look at what made up their songs. I’ll never forget the first time I glanced over at the lyric sheets of one of these songwriters. There was almost nothing on it! I was so used to putting every single thought and feeling down in my lyrics that I wasn’t sure what to make of a lyric that cleanly and concisely picked a moment in the human experience, described it and was done. Over the years, I’ve come to truly appreciate the power of a simple lyric. Here are a few of the reasons you should give serious thought to keeping your lyrics as simple as possible.

Simplifying Your Lyrics

1. Simple lyrics are easier to remember

One of the keys to getting people to listen to and like your songs is to give them something they can remember. The sooner your listener can remember your lyric, the sooner it will get stuck in their heads and the sooner they’ll start to sing along. I’m not saying your lyrics shouldn’t be about important subject matter. On the contrary, the more simply you can express a serious concept, the more quickly your listeners will get it.

2. Simple lyrics are easy to learn

If one of your goals for your songs is to have an artist cut them, it never hurts to put yourself in the artist’s place. The simpler your lyric is, the easier it will be for an artist to learn. Whether a song is easily learned or not is not the ultimate goal but it certainly can’t hurt. It might be the deciding factor between two songs that an artist is considering. It’s hard enough to get a cut as it is, why not give yourself every advantage?

3. Simple lyrics force you to get to the point

One of the hallmarks of a great lyric is that it reaches out and grabs a listener immediately. It doesn’t spend a lot of time working its way around to the message of the song, actively draws the listener in with only the essential information and then nails them with the chorus. By keeping your lyric simple, you won’t have any choice but to say what you mean in the most powerful, effective way.

Simplifying Your Lyrics

4. A simple lyric will match the average listener’s attention span

Given that it’s not just going to be our moms listening to our songs, we should realize that the typical listener is not only easily distracted but only devotes a small part of their already short attention span to what you have to say. You’ve only got a limited amount of time to convey your message. The more straight ahead your lyric, the greater the likelihood you’ll get your listeners attention in the minuscule amount of time they’ve unconsciously allotted your song.

Conclusion

Instead of an in-depth conclusion, I thought, instead, I’d describe the lyric for one of the most popular songs of all time. The Temptations “My Girl.” The lyric consists of three verses – two lines each – and a two-line chorus. Eight lines in the entire lyric! Now that’s what I mean by simple.

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9 responses to “Four Ways Simplifying Your Lyrics Can Make Your Songs Better”

  1. Hi Cliff,

    I hope you may have the time to briefly respond to my workflow question. How would you organize yourself in this situation? I get ideas for tunes: anything from an interesting title or concept to a full verse that just comes out, to almost an entire complete tune with verses, hook, and bridge. Then I leave it alone and have moved on to the next idea that pops into my head. I have a few hundred of “in progress” ideas, but none ever get fully finished. Do you work an idea to its completion linearly, or do you keep jotting down ideas, then come back to the ones that interest you to work on some more until you get it completed?

    Your input would be greatly appreciated.

    Thank you very much for your valuable time!
    Dave Schaefer

    • Hi Dave,

      If I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s that there’s NO “right” way to write a song. However, you might want to put aside one day a week for finishing ideas that you’ve started. That way you can create a situation where you’re free to put lots of bits and pieces out there knowing that on that one day, you’ll focus on finishing one or more of the ideas.

  2. Rich Luca says:

    How about “Rock and Roll Part II” by Gary Glitter: one word – HEY. Played in sports arenas for years …

  3. Dave Kinnoin says:

    Cliff, as usual, your points are spot-on. You just helped me choose between a 2-bar and 4-bar bridge. Thanks.
    Dave Kinnoin

  4. Cliff’s lyrical explanations are like a Jimmy Hendrix Riff !

  5. Frank D Howe says:

    Hi Cliff,
    I get what you’re saying (and indeed I’ve noticed how big hits often have little lyrics) but what if your own taste handicaps you into just always trying to make a story out of things because you yourself are the only one who ever bought some of the stuff I’ve bought (not least songs written to the old Country ethic of having to have a beginning, middle & end so It kind of justifies itself and makes enough sense to still be thinking about when it’s over)? My problem is I just love a great story lyric (example Dick Feller’s “Jocko & The Trapeze Lady”! Wow, I’m probably the only one who ever broke down and cried every time I tried to sing it – but it’s in my top 3 lyrics of all time still (may even be the top)! Of course, Mr Feller would have starved to death waiting for airplays on it which may have got it more sales than it had (good job he wrote *Some Days Are Diamond”, etc., and saved the day aye) but “Jocko” is still his top song to me.
    I know that some of the biggest hits in history (more so for the past 20 years or so), had lyrics that were sparse and lots of them made no sense at all (weren’t meant to) but were catchy tunes kids could hop about to. But they would make poor listening say in a car for anyone other than a kid, on a journey where to ponder a good well constructed more involved (if only slightly) lyric is, to me, far more acceptable/necessary. Merle Haggard could write a book in half a dozen lines – but few can accomplish that. On the other hand Shell Silverstein wrote books and called them songs (but still had success from them).
    Long and the short of it : I like to write songs that please me now. I long since accepted I will be unlikely to ever write a radio hit and make a living that way (good job I’m a decent carpenter – all be it I’m still working at 71 – guess what? Yep, to finance my writing I’m that hung on it)! But I’ve tried writing throwaway lyrics with bouncy tunes and find no satisfaction in writing them (or a market for them either come to that)! Perhaps that’s not surprising when based in good ol’ rural Norfolk UK?. So, like I started out saying: It’s possible to love writing and enjoy (or at least be quite pleased with) the results. While at the same time, in terms of having big success, being entirely handicapped by personal taste and the desire to write to please that taste?
    A long lifetime of failing to get ones songs ‘out there’ can do that to a man – Ha 🙂
    Take care, and keep up the good work Cliff! Too late for me to change but others will doubtless benefit – and I love your posts and reading the comments.
    Frank

  6. Kurt Gundersen says:

    Great stuff as always Cliff! Certainly lyric writing is often the perfect example of “less is more”. I find when I force myself to pare it down, I tend to get more crisp and find that the song almost, in and of itself, becomes more artistic because it can create an artistic ambiguity and becomes more poetic. If I spell it out, it takes more words AND it can get weighty. If fewer words can suggest it, more of it becomes open to interpretation and what the listener may feel. Then it can mean more things to more people. And that can be powerful! I think occasionally if you can get a lot of words out in a rhythmic, fun way, that can work too but only occasionally. Cheers!

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