Thursday, April 17, 2008

Lyric Writing: Theory

Welcome to the introductory post of lyric writing at Today we will be discussing the theory behind the lyrical side of songwriting. This post won't fully prepare you to write your own lyrics but it will help to set important groundwork that we will expand upon with each part in the series.

Just like any poem or short story, lyrics have the power to take our imagination on a journey, to inform us, to put a question in our heads, and to soothe our souls or instigate inner turmoil. That said, writing lyrics isn't just for yuppies looking to score a quick buck in the music industry.
Instead of a guide to Pop startup, consider this as a grassroots approach, if you will.
For this project I decided to pull out one of the greatest tools in my research arsenal, Unfortunately, the results I got back were mostly the piranha sites for seemingly bogus songwriting contests. The content sites I came across could be described, in my opinion, as fluff adsense pages. The sole purpose of their existence, it would seem, is to generate money with the promise of better content through adsense links. This isn't to say that there aren't great internet resources to help the aspiring lyricist, but it does go to show that any serious writer will need to put a lot of effort to get any real information from the net on this subject. It wasn't long before I decided to abandon the search and filtration process and move toward printed publications. My selections for this projects were: Songwriting for Dummies and Songwriting: A Complete Guide to the Craft by Stephen Citron

Both of these books opened my mind to just how expansive this subject is, and just how much those other websites left out. I decided early on that there was no way I could possibly cover all of the aspects of songwriting in a single post. In fact, it would likely take nearly a month of well thought-out posts to cover the true heart of the subject with enough meat to leave you with anything more than a basic understanding. Since I'm no expert, this approach seemed off skelter. I have, instead, decided to split my post into a three-part series that will cover theory, inspiration, and structure. Consider this series as the beginning of your quest to broaden your horizons. It could be nothing more than an experimental deviation from your routine, or it could possibly open the door to a path that leads you to a life of songwriting that you never imagined. Whatever the case, I hope you enjoy what I've put together.

What does it take to write lyrics?
Formal music training is not a must. It can help, but it isn't required to write inspiring, powerful lyrics. Many successful songwriters collaborate with other artists to create award-winning songs.

Not all songs need to be serious, either. If you're feeling the tingle of a funny bone, go for it. Lyric writing is like any other type of writing in that you take an idea or ever a string of ideas and expand on it. An important starting point is to take those ideas and create a "thesis," a one sentence description that explains your lyrics. All ideas throughout your song should find their grounding point in this thesis. If there is no clear connection between a particular line and your thesis, take it out and save it for another project.

Here are some samples I have created. It sounds more daunting than it really is.

I failed the drug test because I ate a poppyseed muffin. (The Poppyseed Muffin song - not based on actual events).

Three men go off to war, only one returns.

A man is tempted with adultery, but remains faithful.

A girl finds out she's pregnant and doesn't know what to do.

A piece of terminology you may run into in the lyric writing scene is the Lyrical Hook. This is the part of the song that summarized the message. This is what makes the song identifiable to people and evokes comments such as, "Oh! This is our song!" The lyrical hook should be at least somewhat, if not totally, evident in the title. Ever hear a new song on the radio and tried to guess the name? Effective titles will play a strong part in the lyrical content. Think "Amazing Grace" or "No One" by Alicia Keys, Kerry Brothers Jr., and George D. Harry. But don't let this limit your title selection. Take a moment, if you will, to check out "Tire Swing" by Kimya Dawson (impromptu performance). This was on the Juno soundtrack, a movie I enjoyed immensely - wonderful banter.

As a final point to the theory section of lyric writing, I would like to touch on lyric types.

Songwriting for Dummies lists a few as concept-driven, story, and love lyrics, as well as current events, novelty or humor, parody, and inspirational.

My favorite example is "Stan", written by Eminem, Paul Herman, and Dido--sung by rapper Eminem, as it falls under the story-driven type of lyrics.

Whatever lyrical type you choose, writing lyrics is an amazing way to tell a story. Some of the most powerful ideas can come in form of comedic jest or solemn reflection. Your homework for this post is to pick a lyrical type and formulate your thesis. Once you've done that, click here for an outside lyric writing reference.


Demi'urge said...

Hi. I really enjoyed reading this piece about lyric writing. I'm glad someone can recognize it among the other forms of writing and actually take the time to speak about it. I was wondering if you would like to contribute to my music blog. It's not fully launched yet but it will be by June 1st. It's It would be greatly appreciated if you can contribute. You can contact me at Take care

Jim Murdoch said...

You might want to research the books available of song lyrics sold on their own merits like the lyrics of Lennon & McCartney, Bob Dylan and Lou Reed.

I've a blog coming up in a couple of weeks where I quote a chunk from a song because it's an excellent example of the point I want to make.

Unknown said...

Sure demi'urge! Let me know how you'd like me to contribute.

Be careful Jim, quoting lyrics can be tricky business, make sure you're okay with copyright. I know it's a bit issue when writing fiction books as well, certain permissions must be granted and sometimes the authors of the lyrics like to have a bit of compensation. Not everyone sees that as a form of flattery and promotion of their work, for whatever reason.

Ken Armstrong said...

I put up a couple of my lyrics over at my place in honour of your post!