Writing Better Lyrics - Tips and Techniques


Image courtesy of Arijit Saha of Pixabay


This is a lesson from my 6 week songwriting class. It is not meant as a substitute for the real class, but it contains many of the key points, in a rough outline form.


Key topics:

  • Kinds of Lyrics

  • Choosing a Topic

  • Avoiding the cliché

  • Correct Emphasis

  • Consider word length

  • Write to the melody

  • Alliteration

  • Assonance

  • Metaphor

  • Personification

  • More Techniques

  • Rhyming Patterns

  • Starting Before, On or After the Downbeat

  • What makes a great lyric?


Kinds of Lyrics

Narrative/storytelling - normally found in the verses

Choral / anthemic - normally sound in the chorus


Correct Emphasis

I hear a lot of songs that are hurt by wrong emphasis on syllables.


I’ll just make up an example:


“She was quite the sporty one

Played all day on her accordion”


If you read this, it sounds great, because you automatically put the emphasis on the correct syllables…. especially the ones at the end of each line.


“She was quite the SPORT-ee one”

“Played all day on her ah-CORD-ee-un”


But writing it in a song so that the emphasis falls like this would probably not be good:


“… SPORT-ee one”

“… a-cord-ee-UN”


It’s a small thing, but it causes the listener to be knocked out of the song for a second while they figure out what just happened. It doesn’t sound natural. “Accordion” is always pronounced with the emphasis on the second syllable.


I have a songwriting friend who does this as part of his style. I think he does it on purpose. But it always makes me blink when I hear it.


“I walked a mile and thought about YOU

There’s nothing else that I can DO”


YOU and DO need to get emphasized. But my friend would phrase it like:


“I walked a mile and thought about YOU

There’s nothing else that I CAN do”


Unless you can make that sound great somehow, don’t be like my friend. :)


Alliteration

Repeating a first consonant sound. Examples:


“Whisper words of wisdom, let it be.” - © The Beatles (Lennon-McCartney)

“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” - © Joni Mitchell


Rap / hip-hop is FILLED with alliteration. I'm sure you've heard it. Some of it is very clever.


Assonance

Repeating similar vowel sounds in close succession.


"I lie down by the side for my bride / Fleet feet sweep by sleeping geese” - Pink Floyd


Again, Rap / hip-hop is FILLED with assonance.


Images

In the last class we talked a lot about writing to the emotion, and using IMAGES to convey emotion AND to convey a lot of information with very few words. This is absolutely essential!


Metaphor

Much like using IMAGES to convey emotion and info economically, metaphor is a very powerful tool. It allows you to elevate your song to a different level. With metaphor you are making comparisons between the narrative content of your song and concepts that have a completely different set of emotions and meaning behind them.


Even something as simple and not terribly original as saying “This place is Heaven” is a metaphor. We immediately know that the singer adores this place in a non-trivial way.

Personification

This is a specific way of using images, by imbuing them with human like qualities.


“Lightning danced above my head”

“That old Ford coughed as I fired him up”

“Vines like fingers climb the house”


You’re painting pictures again but making them alive in a way.


More Techniques

There are many more devices that can be used to make your lyrics more compelling and interesting. We could study them for weeks:

* Consonance - repeating the final syllable earlier in the line (“he pushed the light too tight”)

* Onomatopoeia - words that sound like what they represent (“buzzz”)

* Hyperbole - exaggeration for effect

* Simile - metaphors using like/as


The Bottom Line

Should you use all of these in the same verse, or even in the same song?

Probably not. It will sound forced and phony. These techniques should be used to their best effect, and not overdone.


Rhyming Patterns


There are a million ways to rhyme your songs. No matter how you do it, the important thing is that it feels natural - like it was meant to be that way.


We will use this song of mine as an example of different ways you can rhyme your songs.

But of course you can listen to any song ever written to get an unlimited number of examples.



From the Song “Lower Alabama”


Raised on sunshine

Pure luck sanguine

White hot Summers

It ain’t just somewhere it’s heaven

To this Florida boy


The first couplet has a LAST WORD RHYME of “shine” and “guine”

The next couplet rhymes the last word “Summers” with an INTERNAL CLOSE RHYME with “somewhere”


I like to use end rhymes and internal rhymes.


End rhymes are like the first two lines… the last syllable(s) rhyme.


Internal rhymes don’t fall on the last syllable(s) of a line, like in this example. I make the rhyme, and it feels natural, but the line keeps going. The final syllables (“Heaven”) don’t rhyme with anything.


The last line doesn't rhyme with anything. It doesn't feel necessary.


What you could do is rhyme the same last word in the second verse, for a delayed gratification effect. I thought about that, but then I changed the pattern slightly in the second verse and it wasn’t necessary any more.


I thought long and hard about putting “sanguine” (optimistic) in the song, because many people don’t know what that means. But ultimately I decided not to write down to my audience. If they’re interested they can look it up. And I like using a word like that in an unassuming song like this one.


Clear jar moonshine

Half past noon and I

Found my friends in a

Fast red car on a slow day

On a nowhere-to-go day


In the second verse:

First first couplet starts with END RHYME of “shine” and “I”

The third line is double length and ends with “Slow day”

The last line ends in the CLOSE RHYME “go day”


So, am I breaking rules? Yes, but I get out of jail because of poetic license

I used the INTERNAL rhymes and LAST WORD RHYMES to create a feeling of one line going to the next in an interesting way

It grabs you and builds interest in the lyrics


Then what follows is the chorus:


Lower Alabama

On the Gulf Of Mexico

Lower Alabama

It’s a pretty nice nice place to go


But although I liked it as it was, I felt that the song needed a very strong part, so I added a second chorus. Technically it’s a bridge that happens twice:


I played Fort Walton Beach

Lower Alabama

And Port Saint Joe’s in reach

Lower Alabama

Lost in Perdido Key

Lower Alabama

Drunk in Florabama!

Lower Alabama

It’s a pretty nice place to be


More rule breaking? Why not. If it works, it works. But there’s a difference between not knowing the rules and knowing them but bending and sometimes breaking them for a reason … ultimately it just has to WORK.


She smiles like sunshine

Tastes like Key Lime

She can’t get sweeter

She knows I need her like breathing

In the salty air


Verse 3 is the same rhyming pattern as Verse 1:

The first couplet has a LAST WORD CLOSE RHYME of “shine” and “Lime”

Lines 3 and four have an INTERNAL CLOSE RHYME with “sweeter” and “need her”

The last line, again, rhymes with nothing


Late in Autumn

This place hits bottom

It’s a drinking town

With a boating problem

It’s Heaven

To this Florida boy


Verse 4 is similar to Verse 2, except that I close-rhymed the third line “problem” with “Autumn” and “bottom”

The other three lines rhyme with nothing


Almost every verse in this song has a different rhyming pattern. I don’t recommend doing this for the sake of doing it. But it does make the song interesting to listen to, even though most people won’t be able to put their finger on WHY.


Again - if it works - it works! That’s the only rule that really matters.


Starting Before, On or After the Downbeat


In the song above, Verse 1 starts with the first word “Raised” right ON the downbeat. The only verse I didn’t do that was Verse 3, where the word “She” comes before the downbeat. The choruses start right on the downbeat. The bridges have a word before the downbeat. It is unusual for me to have so many parts of the song start on the downbeat. If you remember I RECKON, those verses all start after the downbeat, and the chorus starts before (“There’s a KINDer word to say” where “KIND” is on the downbeat).


https://soundcloud.com/grantmaloysmith/i-reckon-feat-kym-d


That's it for this lesson - I hope it's helpful to you. If it is, please let me know using the contact form on my website!


Grant

https://www.grant-maloy-smith.com/contact







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