Are the words in a song really that important to a singer?
How important are the words in a song for vocalists, really? What kind of a stupid question is that?! A well written song should be able to bring in a listener on the strength of its melody and harmony alone, right? Well consider this. The relationship between words and music is what makes a song, by definition, a song. Words build into phrases just like
musical notes build into musical phrases and can be developed as such. Finally, the nature of the lyrics
defines the feel and the interpretation of the song.
But how do we do that? Your job as a lyricist is to write words that work with music. You can write the lyric before the music, write the lyric to already written music, or write them both together. However you do it, you will always be
working with at least three elements: ideas, sounds, and rhythms.
• Ideas are compelling concepts that you
can convey to the listener and the words
that will act as a the vehicle for those
• The sounds, the sonic relationship
words have with one another, will raise
a listener’s expectations, speed up or
slow down a song and can signal the
beginning and end of a song.
• The order and delivery of the words builds
a cadence that, when meshed perfectly
with the rhythm of the music, create a
whole that is greater than the sum of its
Much of the power of your lyrics relies on their
balance. In every aspect of our lives we try to
even things out—bring them into symmetry. That’s
why being able to create a regular rhythm is so
important. It gives you the ability to satisfy the
listener’s need for symmetry. Rhythm is created
by repetition of figures through time. Music and
language move through time and symmetry is
measured by the relationship between what has
been and what is now. So, if you have already heard
And then you hear another
you will hear the symmetry the two
together create as
da DUM da DUM…
And if we then hear two more
da DUM da DUM…
you see even more symmetry
da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM
You can start tapping your foot now. You have
established a regular rhythm. So an even number
of lines with the same syllabic count in each line
will create a balanced, even-feeling piece of prose.
Balanced lyrical passages will have an even number
of lines and a complementary rhyme scheme. But
a song of just balanced lyrics will feel like a gentle,
soothing lullaby. We add drama and tension to
the mix with the addition of unbalanced sections.
Featuring an odd number of lines, unbalanced
sections are great in helping to emphasize lyrics that
are presenting unstable emotions and imagery.
Every song needs to be a mix of balanced and
unbalanced sections. By having a mix or a split of
these sections, we build the listener’s interest. This
illustrates the idea of prosody, the supporting of
your meaning with your structure. Look at these
Slam the door and tell me
that you’re leaving
Say you feel a darkness closing in
Tell me that you’re gone I won’t believe it
Just another last goodbye
It’s ringing through the night
Run like a renegade
Run from the love we made
But we’ve gone too far too long
And we’re Too Far, Too Far Gone
The first section is unbalanced, supporting the
emotion of the scene; the second section is
balanced, stating the “truth.” As structures into one
another, the way they move should reflect the ideas
they contain: worrying, feeling off balance, and then
finding out everything’s fine, or feeling completely
content waiting here, loving you.
However balanced or unbalanced your section
is won’t matter if the words aren’t up to par. It’s
not enough to have a rhyming dictionary. Though
that is a good start. As a writer, you need to be
ready to find metaphor on a daily basis. Look for
connections. Ask yourself:
• What quality does my object have?
• What else has that quality?
Imagine a gate. Think of all the nouns, verbs,
and adjectives that go along with gate. Gates are
openings or hinges that can swing, slam shut, and
intimidate while being squeaky, sticky or rusty. So
we’ve answered our first question. But what else is
like a gate? What else is an opening to something
else? A college exam is certainly something that
opens up to new possibilities. Now we can build our
She felt locked out by the weight and size of
the exam. Her future hung on rusty hinges—
would the exam open the way or refuse
to budge at all? The last three questions
slammed shut on her hopes for a scholarship.
We just hit the tip of the iceberg for metaphors.
But what if you don’t have any idea of what to write
about? If you at least have a title for your song
then you’ll have something to work off of. Some
songwriters believe that a song title is simply what
you finally decide to put at the top of the page—
something you decide on after you’ve finished
the song—something that provides an interesting
How to Avoid Writer’s Block
angle on the lyric content. Time for a controversial
position: your title isn’t just something you put at
the top of the page. It is the centerpiece of your
song—the target area that every aspect of the song
aims for, controlling everything else. If there are
elements in the song that don’t relate to the title
somehow, they don’t belong in the song.
Even simple titles can carry a great deal of weight. A
title (or hook) gives you a great deal of information
immediately. For starters, it suggests ideas and
concepts through the specific and the implied. A
classic example of this is Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak
Hotel.” What does its title suggest?
1. A place you can check into or out of.
2. A place you can stay for a while, but no
one really lives there.
3. Perhaps a place that, if you check in, your
heart will be broken.
4. Perhaps a place that you go after your
heart has been broken.
With that setting, consider all of the questions
that have been brought up to the listener and the
songwriter. Why would you go there? How do you
feel about being there? When would you check in?
Or out? We instantly have material for the story of
Your title carries obvious thematic weight with the
meanings of your words. But your title, like any
other lyric, will have innate musical qualities. Look
at the phrase below and say it aloud a few times.
Don’t overthink it. Just repeat the phrase until the
flow of the words feels natural.
Cast Out the Demons.
Which word or syllable has the highest pitch? That
highest pitch word, whichever it is, will have the
most dramatic impact and it would make sense to
put it in the strongest musical position in the chorus.
But’s its all a matter of intent. With your song, do
you want to CAST out the demons, cast OUT the
demons, or cast out the DEMONS? How you set
the syllables rhythmically can express any of these
emphases. Finding a good title and building off of it
is just one of the many ways you can compose your
This is just a brief overview into how you can come
up with the material that will make up your lyrics.
Now why don’t you give it a shot?
How to Avoid Writer’s Block
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