As a longtime songwriter and – often specifically a lyricist – I’ve had a chance to observe why and how lyrics work. While it’s obvious that the words can tell a story or create a mood, what’s less obvious is what happens when you take a step back and look at the role of the lyric in the larger context of the entire song. Below are a few things to keep in mind when you sit down to write your next lyric.
I refer to this concept as “the hippocratic oath of lyric writing.” What this means is simple. If your lyric doesn’t sound natural and feel good to listen to, it doesn’t matter what you’re saying, it won’t work. Music is an aural medium. Before most listeners ever take the time to figure out what a song is about, they’re simply responding to the notes of the melody and the “sound” of the words. If your word choice is stilted or your phrasing is unnatural, listeners will be distracted and turned off by your lyric before they even know what you’re talking about. Telling a great story is important. Making the words of the story sound good and natural is equally important.
Quite simply, lyrics have to be sung and poetry doesn’t. This creates an additional set of rules about which words you choose and the criteria you should apply when choosing. Certain words sound good sung and some simply don’t. It’s easier to sing words with long vowel sounds for example. This is the primary reason, in my opinion, that the word “baby” shows up in pretty much every pop song ever written. The long “a” and “e” sounds are easy to sing and sound great.
I think by now you should be getting the point that it’s as much about the sound and feel of a lyric as it is the actual story. Words and images can be compelling without necessarily telling a coherent story. Words that bring up strong associations do a lot of the lyricist’s heavy lifting for them. There are plenty of songs out there where the words sound and feel great being sung and the imagery is compelling even when it’s not totally clear what the song is about. That’s all perfectly fine and works just as well as a linear storyline.
While country is a very literal, storytelling genre, pop, in general, is more about the sound of the words than the actual story. Hence the appearance of the aforementioned word “baby” which rarely adds a deeper meaning but sings beautifully every time. The key with lyric writing is knowing not only the content that each genre requires but also the general approach to story and narrative. Do your homework before you consider writing lyrics in a genre that is new to you. It will make a big difference in the way your song fits – or doesn’t fit – within a particular style of music.
Obviously it helps to have a topic that is meaningful to you before you’re ready to write a lyric. And the inspiration behind your writing is always going to be a part of the process. That being said, it’s as much about style as it is about substance in the lyricist’s world so it might be worth keeping the above observations in mind the next time you sit down to write.