Ever wanted to write songs? I think we all have at some point. The key is to know how to write song lyrics.
When I was at college, studying Creative and Performance Writing, there was no class on the subject, although they had a guest lecturer once! It’s both a simple and a complex process. Even though that is a contradiction, it is the case. First off, it isn’t necessary to play a musical instrument, or even be trained in music to write good lyrics. However, it does require some basic, innate ability and inclination. It also requires a strong sense of rhythm.
If you are looking for ways and methods of writing lyrics, however, it can be assumed that you at least have the inclination. You don’t need a good singing voice, either. A couple of my favourite, and perhaps greatest, song writers are Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. I wouldn’t consider either a great singer, however, I thoroughly enjoy listening to them sing their own songs.
Even though I write lyrics, I can’t say that my method is a thought out or step-by-step process. I play a couple of instruments but mainly acoustic guitar and I find when I write a song, I do both the music and the lyrics at the same time. Both come to me entwined as a single piece, and for a long time after I write a new ballad, I can’t sing the words without my guitar. I haven’t developed this as a method, it just works this way for me. Both the music and the lyrics are interwoven and integral.
It’s a good idea, especially to start with, to have a tune in mind, one that you know well and like, and change the words to your own. You’ve no doubt heard ‘covers’ of songs with alternate words. Often you’ll find that, as you develop your own lyrics, the tune will change as well and become your own. If you develop your own melody, that’s all the better.
There are similarities to writing poems but it is really a different process; for one thing, the rhythms are quite different, and are presented in a different way. It’s fun to play around with and have a go at creating how the words work within the rhythm. Be careful not to force the two together, though. They need to marry willingly, not at the end of a shotgun.
As in any writing form, it’s a good idea to focus on something that really interests you and see where it goes. One thing is to avoid straining to make a rhyme work or putting in too many words to suit the melody – words can be stretched over several (or even more) notes. They can also be truncated to fit – but both methods need to be handled thoughtfully.
Your aim is to tell a story and perhaps one of the easiest ways to start is by focusing on the basic writing rule of beginning, middle and end. The story can be one of emotion though, as is the case with most top hit songs, i.e. usually love and especially the loss of love. Ballads are often the most straight-forward for beginner lyricists as it is easier to tell a story with the above rule of beginning, middle and end.
Just as reading is a vital tool for writers, listening to songs, especially the lyrics, is a vital tool for songwriters. We often listen to a song and hear it as a complete thing: the music, the words, the emotion. But, for seeing what the lyricist did, focus just on the words and see how they fit to the music and how they create the emotion. It’s a form of deconstruction, even though it’s not that basic either, because a song is, necessarily, an ensemble of elements. People do write songs though without writing the music, and people write the melodies of songs without writing the lyrics. You can, too, if that is your inclination.
If you don’t play music, tap your foot to the words even if you don’t have a specific melody in mind. This will help create the necessary consistency in rhythm even if the words don’t exactly fit. Remember, the words can be truncated or stretched to fit the notes, plus you can add ‘oh oh oh’ etc. You can also buy a metronome at any good music shop; or, if you prefer, use the second hand on a clock, at least initially. There are also online metronomes which you can find by using Google.
Always aim for a chorus or refrain. This is what most people know a song by; and is usually what catches their attention. This should be where you put the most basic and repetitious lines; also in the melody if you are writing that, too. The verses can be more complex or less catchy if that suits your piece.