Songwriting – Lyric Questions
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We ask you a few questions about your lyrics to help you determine if you have a good idea or need to go back to the drawing board
Does your song have a good idea?
Can you tell the idea to someone else like a film idea pitch? Are they interested in it? Or is it another version of the same thing that has been written over and over?
What about the subject matter? Is the song about something a lot of people would care about? There is nothing wrong with writing for yourself alone or a specialty market, but be aware you are doing that and don’t get frustrated or disappointed when no one cares about your song.
Love songs are prevalent because in the prime music buying time of life that is the biggest emotional crisis facing the audience. Falling in love, falling out of love, getting hurt--all of these emotional experiences are interesting to people who buy records.
Is what you are saying interesting and relevant to your target audience? Tastes can vary considerably from person to person. Life is full of variety. But there are general areas where you can be relatively sure someone may or may not be interested in the topic of your song, and which target audience may or may not find it interesting. For example, a country audience isn’t usually interested in a song that’s set in Minnesota. You might want to change the locale to Tennessee, or Texas, or a similar place.
Can you state the theme?
Not necessarily what it says – but what it means.
Does it have a fresh twist, a new observation; say the same thing in a new or different way?
A song can have a subject and theme. They are not necessarily one and the same. For instance, the subject of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” is a woman named Eleanor Rigby, but the theme of that song is loneliness. The subject of Robert Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues” is his car, but the theme is sex.
Does your song have a story?
Does your story actually say something? To paraphrase an old screenwriter adage, “the king was walking with a pretty girl” is an observation, but “the king was walking with a pretty girl as the queen came around the corner” is a story.
As good as it is to have a strong idea, the idea needs to be set up and delivered for maximum effect; that is the art of story telling. You can tell a narrative factually for instance--just giving a sequence of events--or you can build it like a ghost story around the fire at a campout when the woods echo with mysterious sounds, the moon is full and everyone is edgy anyway. That is what makes the difference between a reporter and a storyteller.
Does your lyric story have a beginning, middle, and an end? In other words, does it develop in a linear (or any other) way? If your song is saying basically the same thing in each verse, from beginning to end, why should the listener be interested after the first verse and chorus?
Structural patterns--internal forms that lend a coherency to the whole--are very important in lyric development. For instance, if your song is about colors, each verse could deal with a different hue: blue, red, and yellow.
The last verse is usually where everything comes together somehow--where there can be a “ twist” (a rainbow, for instance in the case of the color song)--a turn of phrase or word that carries a meaning other than what was obvious and that deepens the emotional feel.
Can the listener understand it?
A lyric shouldn’t be simplistic, but simple is good. A song serves no artistic purpose if it is not understood. My classic reference is the Zen of Hank Williams, Sr. You know and understand every word of a Hank Williams record. And so did every country listener. And yet there is an emotional depth and truth in nearly every line. That is genius.
Does your song say what it means clearly, in a simple, easy to understand way? Could you read it to others and have them know not only what you are talking about, but also what you are trying to say about it?
You might have someone read the lyric out loud to you and explain what it means to him or her; how do they perceive the idea?
Having people outside of your writing process read your lyric can provide valuable insight. They are usually more dispassionate and less emotionally attached to the material and can see it more for what it is than what you want it to be.
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.