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What do you want your lyrics to actually do? Show us how desperately you want someone or how angry you are about something? Or do you want to your lyrics to make us behave a certain way, notice the homeless, start a revolution, or dance the night away?
At some stage you have to figure out exactly what you want to express. At first this might not be 100% clear. But you may have a general idea what you want to get across — that’s your theme right there: a basic notion or vision for the song.
Some songs have great big themes like “Anarchy in the UK” or “Strange Fruit.”
Others are more humble but equally compelling and straightforward — “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.”
Here’s Johnny Cash’s list:
“I love songs about horses, railroads, land, judgement day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak, and love. And Mother. And God.”
Elvis Costello’s is more contained:
“There are five things to write songs about: I’m leaving you. You’re leaving me. I want you. You don’t want me. I believe in something. Five subjects and twelve notes.”
Michael Stipe leans into the dark.
“It’s so much easier to write about angst and anger and fear and darkness and fucked–up feelings than to write about incredible intense happiness.”
Make the Familiar Personal
Songs oscillate around well-worn universal themes, just like books and movies do. They’re called universal because they’re relevant and important to so many people. In song, love is the dominant theme in all its highs and lows: the good, bad, and oh so very ugly.
But there are other significant themes — family relationships, friendship, escape and rebellion, frustration and disillusionment, “making it despite the odds,” needing to sing, dance or party on your own terms, and messages to unite, to be hopeful, to fight back, wake up or drop out.
A songwriter’s artistry comes from how you handle these familiar themes and put your own personal stamp on them. One must strive to individualize the lyric, and freshen it up. Professor Adam Bradley describes that process:
“Songs make the familiar unfamiliar, transforming common themes into language that, when set to song, excite the senses.”
But how do you go from a lil’ bit of something to being able to specify exactly what you want to say or what you want the audience to feel?
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On the Spectrum From Abstract to Direct
I think there’s a semantic spectrum for lyrics which runs from obscurity — where sonics (the actual sound of the word or syllables) matter more than direct meaning — through to gin-pure clarity, where you’re right up to your eyeballs in every detail of the song’s story. A songwriter can decide how clear or cloudy to make the lyrics of any song.
Your theme is the strategy for directing the way the lyrics will travel through the song — what Professor Pat Pattison calls “the journey of the song.” Your tactics should revolve around how distinct you want that lyrical journey to be.
One approach is trying to evoke a particular emotional vibe and all you’ve got is a cool metaphor or powerful image or words you want to use; words like “hurt,” “faith,” or respect.” These all happen to be great songs too, with not hugely clearcut stories in a fully narrative sense. They give just enough detail to let us fill in the blanks while exploring an attitude or an ambience.
Prof. Bradley notes: “A consonance of feeling can work as much as a well-rendered story.”
That attitude might be “get on up” where groove is centrally paramount and the lyrics strongly rhythmic, literally working as part of the rhythm section to make you move. The function of the words “don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”
A second tactic is working on your theme unfolding through a moment or an incident. Something has happened, someone said or did something or the song is “set” in a particular scenario. Songs like “Raspberry Beret” or “Drivers Licence” or “Me and Mrs Jones” use this.
More specific details are delivered within this type of lyric journey so we understand more clearly what’s happening, where and when. You can see this at work even in the titles; we get a certain amount of information straight away.
+ Read more on Flypaper: “7 Songwriting Rules and When to Break Them.”
Pound the Plot Home With Strong Lyrics
The third tactic is delivering your theme in lyrics that have a full-blown whoa-to-go story with a beginning, middle, and end.
Certain genres welcome this tactic and almost demand it, like folk ballads, country music and rap. Songs like “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” “Stan,” “7 Years,” and “The Gambler” are rife with clear details and a plot progression. Their lyrics travel as a sequence of events played out in real time audio.
All three tactics have their place — the point is being deliberate in which you choose to use. All but the most abstract song has some level of storytelling, some trace element that makes a good song a transformative experience for the listener. When you hear the song, your mood is shifted. (Period.)
Because lyrics are united with melody, they travel through time (literally delivered at the speed of sound) creating some sort of emotional response in an audience along the way.
This means the lyrics can be deliberately modified — enhanced, interrupted or delayed — by the music. The idea of a plot progression can be useful, where you chunk out what the lyrical hook will be, where the “build to a revelation” happens and where the payoff might hit. A storyline with Post-It notes for what type of song structure you want and what happens where can clarify things quickly.
But you can also unite the lyric thematic development with the melodic development so the song’s beginning, middle, end or that drawing in, the revelation and the resolution are intertwined. The way the music is shaped tells as much story or creates as much mood without a word being said.
Don’t stop here!
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