Songwriting – Lyric Problems
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Pre-teen, Teen, Adult
Learn how to identify problems with your song lyrics, and how to fix them.
Is the lyric narrative focused?
Does your lyric stay with the story line and develop the idea gradually line by line, and section by section, to a coherent, whole?
Sometimes a lyric is like a conversation when someone talks and talks and you kind of know what they mean but you don’t really understand exactly what they are saying. Or they speak with a strong accent and you can’t quite get what they are saying. It gets frustrating. A listener won’t stick with that type of expression.
A song lyric is emotional and connects with both the head and the heart. You don’t want anything that breaks that flow and connection.
There should be a logic and pattern to your imagery. Imagery is an expression that uses a mental picture or concept. Make sure your metaphors and images work together to build the theme of the song and connect with any imagery and metaphors used within the chorus itself.
Imagery and details that don’t serve to keep the story moving forward only confuse or throw the listener off track in trying to understand your story line. Try to keep every word, every idea, and every verse flowing forward and supporting the main idea of your title/hook/chorus. Be ruthless in editing. A great line may sound good on its own, but does it help tell the story of your theme and make a point?
Does your lyric have a linear flow?
As has been apparent, I like telling a story from beginning to end, and I think the listener appreciates that form. But sometimes just putting your most interesting verse first can keep the listener’s attention.
Sometimes the idea is more or less apparent, but the way it is expressed feels indirect and vague. Can your listener follow along, line by line, with the developing idea, to an interesting resolution and satisfying artistic statement that speaks to the heart? People like artistic pieces of a puzzle being skillfully put together to create a whole picture.
So many songs I hear meander. They go in one direction, change gears, turn a corner, and then come around the block to say something. It’s more difficult for the writer to intentionally say something clearer, but much easier for the listener to understand.
Does each verse build toward and add relevant information to the theme? (Not just saying the same thing in a different way as the verse before and after it, but also adding something to the story). It doesn’t have to be a novel; in fact it shouldn’t be a novel. But it should strive toward haiku (or the Zen of “White Christmas”).
This may seem basic but I run into it: does your speaking perspective, the POV (point of view) of the lyric, stay the same? In other words, if you speak to a “you” in your lyric, is it the same “you” in the last verse as in the first? People sometimes change the perspective, for instance by speaking to a “you” that is the girl (or guy) in the song, and then addressing the listener as a “you” later in the song. It tends to confuse the perspective for the listener.
Be careful also of metaphoric continuity. A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a name or quality is attributed to something else that isn’t literally the same.
For instance, she can have snow white skin and fiery eyes. You can roll down the highway and probably even fly down the tracks, but if you head out on the highway to keep that train a rollin’ till your ship comes in you might be mixing more metaphors than the listener can keep up with logically. You might want to go through your lyrics and pick one aspect of your metaphoric imagery and stay with it through your song.
Another flow breaker is the laundry list lyric in which each verse and line is just a list element to fill space and doesn’t move the story forward but treads water beating the idea to death (speaking of mixed metaphors).
For instance, a typical list song could be one about loving someone everywhere, with each verse filled with the names of states. A laundry list form can be effective, though, if there is an internal reasoning to the order of the list or a build of the emotional or relevant content.
Paul Simon’s “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” is a clever send up of the form where he actually makes the laundry list itself compelling with distinctive phrasing and interesting rhyming scheme and delivery.
For the most part though, songs that employ the laundry list form become very repetitious and predictable very quickly.
This article is excerpted from “Michael Anderson’s Little Black Book of Songwriting” available at michaelanderson.com
Michael Anderson is a songwriter, artist, producer, and author who has written songs for John Fogerty, Juice Newton, Pam Tillis, Phil Seymour, Rebecca St. James, and others in rock, pop, country, and CCM.
His songs have been featured in films and television, including recent season finales of “American Idol” and “The Voice”.
He has been a staff writer for EMI and BMG Publishing in Nashville, as well as MCA /Universal and Criterion Music in Los Angeles.
He wrote the #1 country single, “Maybe It Was Memphis”, several #1 CCM singles, and won a Dove Award for “Hard Rock Song of the Year.”
As a solo artist he has released seven albums, including two on A&M Records, two on EMI / Forefront, and three independent releases.
At the Musicians Institute in Hollywood he teaches professional songwriting and artist development, and wrote the songwriting curriculum for the Independent Artist and Vocal programs. He also teaches private lessons on professional songwriting at Westwood Music in Los Angeles, Ca.
He is a member of the Greater Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church in South Central Los Angeles and sings in the Mens Chorus.