I remember when I was in middle school, I felt like every one of my peers around me found something that they were SUPER into, and nothing could dissuade them from sinking all of their time into that thing. One day, when my best friend gave me a journal she didn’t want, that thing that I could lose myself in came to life. Every emotion of my pre-teen existence could now be expressed in a way that could be listened to and shared, if I so wanted, in a way where people might care more about listening. In the coming weeks, I almost filled up that journal with lyrics that later gave me the confidence to start writing my own music.
As you might imagine, the lyrics weren’t great at first, but it gave me a great starting place where I could find out how and why to structure my words to make a song. About 15 years later, I met with an extremely talented songwriter, and actually broke down the “science” of why certain things within songwriting work. This, combined with my later-developed passion for writing and poetry, gave me the tools I have today to write a song on just about anything.
By going back to your old writing, and pushing aside a lot of the cringe, hopefully you can see why your writing at the time wasn’t the work of an expert. Maybe you are missing context or punctuation, or maybe you don’t have a point to what you’re writing entirely. There are plenty of songs out there, some of them extremely famous, that follow these same principals. If the song you are trying to write wants to focus on other things aside from lyrics, that can and should be perfectly fine, as long as other elements of the song are willing to take a front row seat. But this article is all about the lyrics, so those kinds of songs aren’t what we are aiming towards here. Going back to your old writing and just simply taking some time to analyze why you were writing this song and where it came from at different point is your life is an excellent way to start gearing up for songwriting from a lyrical perspective. In my opinion, you’re able to reflect upon the times that gave you a lot of emotion, and what you did with it inside of a song. A lot of the early stages in songwriting is reflection and seeing what sticks. You and your past self are a great place to start on this journey, and as you add in more elements, you’ll also see just how far you’ve come.
If you haven’t got the notebooks filled with bad poetry like I did, or maybe want a different perspective after doing the above exercise, there are so many other things you can do to get started on the right foot when you’re first trying it out. For anything that involves writing, you’re going to need to grab a journal, and write down any feelings or reflections that come up. You’ll be surprised not only how deep your feelings can go about certain topics, and how easy it is to let it all out once you get in a flow. You’ll want to do this throughout your songwriting process, as well as through the exercises I list in this article.
If you aren’t someone who is more naturally adept in writing, look at the lyrics of a song you hate, one where you know your childhood self could write something better on a napkin at the dinner table. Do the lyrics make sense? Do they flow? Why don’t you like them? For me, knowing why something *doesn’t* work is the first step to knowing what DOES work, and WHY. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule of why something works or doesn’t, but if you aren’t used to writing your own lyrics, start here and take some notes. Now, let’s find a song where the lyrics make you feel something, a song that just lets you slip into the feeling the artist is trying to portray. Do the same thing here – why do these lyrics work? What elements do they have to connect with the listener? What is the difference between this song you love and the one you hate?
Take a second to write down these reflections. Keep this by you while you write your own music. Sometimes when we begin to create on our own, we get lost in chasing a vibe of another song or creating the perfect kind of song, but forget to write what we actually like. I find that, in the beginning, sticking to this kind of method will give you songs where you’ll feel more authentic, even if the songs themselves aren’t “good” yet. You’ll at least have a great starting place once you pick a genre and kind of song you’d like to write. Writing after the styles of popular musicians isn’t a bad thing (unless you’re just straight-up plagiarizing their work), but my aim for this article is to empower you to express yourself through your own creative process, which makes that end product aggressively and uniquely yours. If you want to do this after you’ve mastered writing in your own way, so be it, but starting that way off the bat doesn’t help you as a creative. There is nothing wrong with doing this while noting a few of your biggest influences, and in fact, I think this is a crucial part of finding your unique writing style!
Identify your influences
Now that you have begun to explore your own voice and style, I think it’s good to start looking at who your influences are as well. Your influences are instrumental in how you write, and sometimes even *what* you write. We even sometimes use our favorite artists that we revere and respect to determine what good lyrics are, and what about them makes them better than other artists’ lyrics. Understanding where your muse is, and perhaps even where your style came from, is the best way to get to know yourself as a songwriter and know what kinds of songs you want to write. Find an artist who exemplifies the kind of art you want to create. Analyze everything, from their rhyme scheme to the way that they use their lyrics to accompany other instrumental parts of the song.
An artist who exemplifies what good lyrics looks like to me is without a doubt, The Contortionist. Since their first album in 2008, The Contortionist has changed their lyrical style quite a lot. But throughout that time, they have stuck with a theme of either a complicated series of lyrics that create a feeling for the listener, or repetition to build up to something later in the album. Although their lyrics are less likely to follow traditional song structure or tell a story the same way a pop song might, I think these guys understand how to truly connect with their listeners from a lyrical perspective. As you listen to the vocalist’s words, you descend for a moment into the feeling that they are trying to portray.
“All at once I could view the entirety of space-from “Causality”
A moment of isolation welcoming paralysis
Follow the cord which projects and makes the decisions for you
Adaptation brought introspection”
As a young writer, this style is something that I realized I loved in my own writing. I started to fill up my notebooks with prose and poetry, and with influences like Tool and even Whitman and Emerson, this started to creep into my songs as well. The Contortionist is a great example of a band who relies on a heavy use of prose in their songs to really paint a picture with their lyrics. While it’s true that too much prose can be bad for a song, the use of prose, especially in the progressive metal genre, is one that is almost always met with open arms.
So, for me as a songwriter, prose is very important and knowing how to position it in my song to create an emotional connection to my listener is my main goal. Whether that is the same for you, or whether it’s to create an earworm pop hit, you have figure out your influences and discover what it is about them that makes them so important to your craft. From there, you can use that influence to create your own art. Who knows, maybe someday you’ll even become someone else’s influence.
Common song structure
This next part only really applies to you if you plan on writing in more traditional song structure, and plan to use things like rhyme and repetition, as most popular artists do. Even if that isn’t your jam, I think it’s important to know the rules first so you can break them.
Traditional song structure goes a little bit like this:
beginning/intro verse 1 pre-chorus chorus verse 2 chorus bridge chorus outro.
Following this structure, your first verse is usually twice as long as your second. Each line should also follow a similar rhyme scheme, with perhaps a beginning or ending phrase or word that goes in a ABAB order.
A great example of this is Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” in her verses:
We drove to Cali, and got drunk on the beachKaty Perry “Teenage Dream”
Got a motel and, built a fort out of sheets
I finally found you, my missing puzzle piece
You’ll see that each line has an ending word that rhymes with the next, going in AABB order, with “sheets” and “beach” being near-rhymes, and the same with “piece” and “complete“. When you’re writing, try out where rhyme feels natural. If you find that your rhyme scheme feels a little too forced, take a page out of Katy Perry’s book and see if near-rhymes will make a difference. I find that they make verses seem a little less elementary, but again, it all has to depend on the kind of art that you are trying to create. Either way, the site RhymeZone is your friend when trying to figure out what fits and what doesn’t.
Of course, not every song follows this kind of structure, in fact many don’t even include elements such as a pre-chorus or bridge, and are still expertly written and make perfect sense. Some songs don’t rhyme at all and they’re just as valid as a song that does! Listen to a few of your favorite songs. Do they follow this structure, something similar, or not at all?
Knowing how you want to structure a song is crucial in how you want the listener to perceive the feelings and messages of your song. If you’ve ever been to a modern church service, you’ll know that they are especially heavy-handed on repetition, because they want to drive home a message. In your own music, you don’t necessarily have to repeat the words that you want to emphasize over and over again. Even a simple repetition in your chorus or bridge are great ways to add some support to your song. You can also play with the structure, and cut out parts entirely to create a whole new feeling. What happens if your song doesn’t have a chorus? What about if you take the entirety of your second verse out? What if your whole song is made up of different quotes that then the listener has to piece together to find the meaning of what you are trying to portray?
Through your creation process, play with your words, and your art as a whole, and see how you feel at the end. If you are writing this song with the intention of performing it in front of people, keep that in mind so that you consider your audience. That could have a different effect then if you were writing it just for yourself.
Remember, this is YOUR art
With all of this, nobody can tell you what you are doing is right or wrong. There might be things that others warn against in your songs, because they will make them more confusing to follow or not as catchy, but in reality, you can make your songs whatever you want them to be. The first step is to know yourself in your songwriting, and to know what kind of art you want to create, and that’s what I have given you here. Just like in any visual medium, there are those who will criticize it, but art is meant to be seen and heard, and I say that if you have a few haters, you’re doing something right if you are truly creating from the heart. I want you to write songs as your most authentic self so that you can experience what it’s like to experience how freeing writing a song can be once you have a little practice. Let this article be a guide for you to truly feel out what creating a song is like, but don’t be afraid of just jumping in and trying it out.