Can you learn how to write lyrics?

 

Learn how to write lyrics?

The story goes like this: I was reading Friendfeed and came across a link to a site about How to write Lyrics and thought to myself “Well that’s a bit presumptuous isn’t it?” On visiting the site I found advice which seemed to recommend ‘tuning in to the music of the spheres’. Bah humbug said the little critic sitting on my shoulder, so I left a terse drive-by comment and moved on thinking no more of it. Then the original author read it and called me out, so good for him. We’ve had a good chat since during which I realised that I’ve never written down my own story about getting to grips with the songwriting process, so here it is as promised.

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My problem with writing lyrics

I picked up a guitar and learned to play when I was about fourteen, mostly devising my own versions of favourite songs by ear. Songs by people like Loudon Wainwright who is possibly the greatest lyric writer of all time, are music staveusually pretty simple in terms of the chord structure and I’d always loved to sing. Very soon I wanted to write my own songs because that’s what any musical artist seemed to need to do in those days, and it’s still the case today, if not more so. I found that the music came pretty easily, just out of experimenting with the sound of new chords and progressions, jamming with myself for hours on end so to speak. The lyrics, on the other hand, were problematic. I kept a notebook with two ends. At one end I wrote down rough drafts and odd verses, full of crossings out and rewrites. Then when I thought I had a finished song together with music I’d copy it to the pristine end and feel pleased with myself for having completed one. The trouble happened within a few days or weeks when I’d try to play the new song again and decide that it’s rubbish. Often the crossings out and rewrites had made it worse, or the original material was based on a really bad concept in the first place. Part of the problem was that I hadn’t fully understood that song lyrics are not poetry, and many of the most sucessful songs look pretty awful if you try just reading them as cold print. And teenagers are always very self conscious, so amongst all of this, just a handful of songs emerged which stood the test of time. “Hold on Below” is one of those from my early teenage period, together with Puddles and The Show Carries On.

The theory of idealism

Because I didn’t understand why sometimes, rarely, I was able to write lyrics that I was happy with, while at most other times nothing good would come out, I began to entertain the theory that the inspiration was coming from somewhere “out there” rather than from within. That fits with a philosophy of idealism which is common enough in our society, and prevalent amongst artists but which I now view as particularly unhelpful. I could go for months and even years at a time without writing a single song, waiting for the right conditions in which the muse would arrive. I even wrote one about that very idea which contained the line “I’m just the man who held the pen that wrote it down” which is very similar to the concept at the How to write Lyrics site where it says “I don’t write music, music writes through me”.

My new approach to songwriting

If you have ever read published authors advising hopeful writers on how to write a novel, the advice usually comes in the form “Sit down at a desk and start writing. Then continue writing every day for at least eight hours until you have written the first draft”. They have to treat it as any other job, otherwise it will never get done. So I decided a few years ago to try the same approach to songwriting. I knew I had a song which I wanted to write, a ballad about a journey I had made. I planned myself a day to write it, and decided that I would spend the day on a river boat cruising up and down the Thames, making good use of the all-day ticket.

how to write lyrics on board Mercedes Thames cruiser

I took with me paper and pencils, and maps to remind me of the journey. There was a convenient table on the boat so I installed myself there and got everything out, knowing I had all day to get the song lyrics written. I love being on boats so this had been a great idea, and within a couple of hours I had about eight or nine verses written so I could afford to take an enjoyable lunch break. That song remains unchanged (well, apart from the pronunciation of Ugijar) as “Winter in Andalucia” for which I get requests from time to time, and it’s a nice one to play if I ever feel like quietly fingerpicking and can remember all the lyrics.

Intentionally writing song lyrics

So this was nothing short of a revelation. If I set out deliberately to write a lyric, I could do it!

Songwriting trip

A few years later, I was badly let down by a companion with whom I’d planned a holiday. I decided to go anyway, as the flight and car were all booked up, but instead of trying to have a holiday by myself I would treat it as work and do lots of writing. I said I would write a CD, which meant writing enough songs so that maybe ten or twelve of them would be worth keeping. Eight would do it at a pinch, and I had a week, so one song a day seemed reasonable.

Writing lyrics on an Aeroplane

I started writing the day before, and made good use of the time on the plane. After a day or two on the road I didn’t restrict myself to writing sat at a desk. In fact I often started composing a first verse or so while walking.

Creative Walking

Zoom back a few years and during a sparse phase for songwriting there was one song which emerged from out of a camping trip. Filling two large water containers then tramping back downhill, the rhythm of my gait started me off humming and then I shut myself away for half an hour and wrote some lyrics to the new tune. That’s Mondura Dam.

So during my deliberate CD writing trip I fell back on the creative walking technique once or twice, and then made sure I memorised the verse or two composed in my head, so I could write them down and elaborate after I got back to the hotel. Incidentally I don’t think I could do that with a companion.

How to Write Twenty Three Lyrics

By the end of that trip I had no less than twenty three new lyrics which I’m still using as base material. Gernika, Cormorants and The Wreckers Prayer all came from then, and there are a few more which may also represent some of my best work. So I’m definitely convinced now on the question of how to write lyrics, that the deliberate method is the best one for me. The same philosophy probably stands for other forms of writing and creativity as well, like this blog post for example, which I planned yesterday and then got out of bed this morning with the deliberate intention of getting it written and published.

 

Links

  1. The Songwriters Circle – support group
  2. Andy Roberts Music page at DARnet
  3. Free Download Andy Roberts songs from last.fm
  4. Free Download, music player and widgets at Andy Roberts on ReverbNation

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26 Responses to Can you learn how to write lyrics?

  1. Tom Smith says:

    I used to write a lot of songs.. all the time… they were never planned, completely spontaneous and often worrying. I’d be singing some disturbing lyric and wonder where the hell it came from.

    Then they just stopped. Like that.

    Now I have to “put time aside” to write lyrics. They still sort of come from the same place, somewhere slighty worrying deep down inside, but they don’t come unless I cajoule them out.

    BTW, Sophie has written a book about ways of cajouling ideas onto the page. It does work, but it still feels like cheating to me…

  2. visitor says:

    i have a heart for music. I have my own guitar and i had it since i was a sophomore in high school. I dont know the proper or standard ways to write lyrics( because i created my songs without the intention of it becoming a song) because i never realized i would need to learn it. Until now, looking back at my compositions which came from my own journal ( my journal is not a notebook or anything i could use to write my thoughts, it contains records of me singing while playing arandom tunes in my guitar), all of it seems to have the same unfinished melodies. Like the ending isn’t much catching or something to be remembered. I think ,i now need to learn it the right way, I have plenty of emotions to spill, but i don’t know the right craft .

  3. visitor says:

    thanks

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  5. Myarshay McDaniel says:

    I still dont get how to write better songs faster then having to try to write it for at least 45 minutes.

  6. Rachel says:

    well, i’m 15 now, and i started playing the guitar at about 13/14, same as you, and i have to say, you’re quite an inspirational person!

    =D

    thanks, mate

  7. Calum says:

    thanks mate this has sorta helped … music flows through my fingers but lyrics and me just dont go … i will definatly sit down and just try and write things for my songs, i have a lot of songs currently sitting as instrumentals and its not all great 🙁
    but thanks 🙂

  8. silentfox says:

    thank you for this writing lesson:)

    • Andy Roberts says:

      You’re very welcome if you found any of my story helpful. Feel free to link back to the article from anywhere you feel people might find it useful.

      • Lexi says:

        hey,
        i write a lot of poems ( have a look at some on my blog – angeltearsinthenight.blogspot.com ) and i also have a passion for music so i was wondering if you had any advice on how to turn poems or the themes in my poems into actual lyrics?

        i would really appreciate the help

        thanks,
        Lexi

        • Andy Roberts says:

          Well the simple answer Lexi is just to start singing them! There are some examples amongst your poems which have a regular meter and ryhme, and through trying to sing them – especially accompanied – you could make any changes necessary to knock any lyrics that don’t quite work into shape. You won’t need to be an accomplished musician by any means to do this, if you can play three or five chords on a piano or guitar, that’s often enough to compose subtle and sophisticated songs which work really well as a demo. If not, you can learn in a few weeks if you put some time in to practice.

          The longer answer is that it’s kind of an iterative process. You can start with a tune or start with some lyrics, it doesn’t really matter which, and then develop the tunes to go with the lyrics, and alter the lyrics to fit the developing tune. I usually go back and fore several times. Sometime the original lyrics have a rough idea of a tune in mind, sometimes not.

          If you commit yourself to performing the song/poem in public somewhere, then that usually leads to a further process of refinement.

          I hope this helps, looking forward to hearing more about your song writing
          Cheers
          Andy

  9. Tom Smith says:

    Turning poems into lyrics is easy. In general, if the poem is “any good” it had something worth singing about.

    Poems have great ideas, or “hooks” … Rip them out for the chorus.

    Randomly repeat a random word in any line. This breaks up the original meter and adds a required “dollop of emotion”

    Remember to keep the chorus slightly brain-dead ala Manual, nana nana is good.

    And there you have it! Try it it works! Honest…

  10. Stellan says:

    Hello I like this article on writing lyrics.
    I wrote a little guide on lyrics also.

    //Stellan

  11. Cole says:

    Hi im 14 but,
    Me and my band are doing alright with the music but we can’t seem to get any lyrics down.
    We play a sort of heavy rock/metal kind of genre.
    Does anyone have any advice for me? 🙂

  12. Elly says:

    “Part of the problem was that I hadn’t fully understood that song lyrics are not poetry, and many of the most sucessful songs look pretty awful if you try just reading them as cold print.” – Incorrect and an annoying statement which is misleading to readers.

    As far as music is concerned it depends on what your focus is. If your focus is the Music itself then lyrics can sometimes be completely irrelevant to almost the extent that they can seem as though they were probably obligatory as opposed to being crucial. And there’s the grey area, which I believe most people I in, whereby they have a love of both writing and making music. There’s also another end for people that for whatever reason write better than they play; Talent, is a spectrum.

    And to say Lyrics isn’t Poetry is bizarre. Look, whether you want to call yourself a musician, a lyrical artist, a singer/songwriter, lyricist, troubadour, instrumentalist or any other label is completely irrelevant. To caste off studying Poetry, Poetic Meters and Poets when looking to write better, “Lyrics” is self-harmful. Lyrics are Poetry, the definition is exact, their purpose although differs, indeed. But most Poetry is written musically when written with an ear to the effect soft, loud, short and long syllables have on the English language, and the patterns they can create (i.e. Iambic Pentameter). Knowledge of the English language, of Poetic meter would make you a better, “Songwriter” (or whatever you call yourself, again: irrelevant). It infuriates me the way self conscious musicians deflect a blow to their ego when they cannot write to their own ambitions straight away, instead blaming it on some imaginary concept that they somehow hadn’t realised. Words are important. Songs are messages. If you ignore Poetry, a craft dedicated to sending messages, you are stunting your own, “Artistic” -growth. Period.

    Rant over/

    • LindaH says:

      First an aside. I’m not sure you do the power of your rant any good by your random use of capital letters and confused tenses. It’s bad for my blood pressure.
      The words lyric and poem are not interchangeable in English and have quite separate definitions. A poem may be described as ‘lyrical’ but that has quite a precise meaning in literary criticism. A song lyric may or may not be poetic whilst still being a good song.

      Song writing and the process of writing lyrics is not the same thing as writing poetry. A song may be a great song but its lyrics may not work as a stand alone, flat on the page, poem.

      I would like to define what I mean by poetry a little more carefully here. I do not mean just anything with a rhyme, a simple repeating verse form. I mean a fully formed poem in which every word and rhyme is carefully chosen to produce or add to a mood or an effect.

      I just do not think that song lyrics have to be crafted in quite the same way. The words can be woven together with the music to make a whole. I know there are poems that become songs, many of Roy Harper’s songs can be read as poems for example. Leonard Cohen’s often start out as poetry first but this is not a requirement or a criteria for judging the worth of a song.

      I still believe that a good song is not necessarily a good poem or vice versa. It’s not a lack of ambition on the song writer’s part but rather a difference in purpose. So I think song writers should study songs they admire rather than poems, song writers, not poets.

  13. Thomas Campbell says:

    I’m 14 years old and i struggle with writting songs,

    But recently i have discovered a method which works rather well,
    I pick out my main chords and write any lyrics to them, no matter how daft or silly,
    As I’m a teen my head is normally filled with discusting thoughs anyway,
    basicly, i would replace the “silly” lyrics with ones that fitted better and rhymed to creat a serious song,

    I also walked home one night, after walking a mile with still one mile to go, i began jotting anything that came into my head, down onto the notepad on my iPod, its amazing how much more creative you are when you have time to think by yourself

    • Andy Roberts says:

      Those are two very productive methods you describe there Thomas, thankyou. Did you know that Paul MacCartney’s “Yesterday” ( love it or hate it) was originally composed with the lyrics “scrambled eggs”?! And lone walking is definitely conducive to writing lyrics and originating tunes, you’ve got the time and thinking space,m and also the rhythm of the two feet. ( Probably not many tunes in 3/4 time get thought up that way though 🙂

      I don’t about jotting onto an iPod though, can you do that while walking or do you have to stop and break the flow? I find that with repetition, I can memorize a few verses of a new song while walking, as long as I write it down as soon as I get to the destination.

  14. Daph says:

    Hey there,
    I just read your article because I’ve recently joined a band who were looking for a vocalist. The thing is, they didn’t have lyrics either, so technically the position I’m currently trying to fill is vocalist and lyricist, but the melody is not my own. It’s strange how the lyric-production method works. During our rehearsals, lyrics come to me spontaneously, and sometimes they actually sound good, but then when I want to work on them in retrospect, I can’t remember the tune they went with. The way I did it at our second rehearsal was I would try and say something sensible, write it down as soon as I’d said it, and then keep going.
    My question is this: if the melody is not my own, and the words seem to fit at the time, how can I stop myself from re-editing every time we perform? Of course, there are some things that are spontaneous that fit quite well, like a few screams or oooohs and aahs.
    My problem with my lyrics is that when I read the lyrics in retrospect, I think they might be good anthems but they still are almost nonsensical or with recurring themes (love, loss, loneliness, alcohol, rock ‘n’roll…). To give you an example, during a heavy rock song we were working on, I actually wrote/said something like “I would trade you for a new guitar, don’t think I love you so”. The chorus of that one is about the joys of rock ‘n’ roll and how it’s the kind of music that has to be loud. However, I don’t know what to do with it. Where do I begin with a song whose melody I can’t remember?

    Apologies for writing such a long-winded question…
    Daph.

    • Andy Roberts says:

      Hi Daph,

      If I understand correctly your problem is that you compose your lyrics to fit melodies which are either spontaneous or else copied. You capture the lyrics by writing them down but forget the tunes.

      The answer it seems would be to capture the singing as well, then you can listen to it back and learn how to recreate the bits which work for you, just like learning to understand somebody else’s song and make a cover version, except that it’s your own. Any kind of recording device wil do, an old cassette recorder, a camera with video setting, mp3 dictophone, or a laptop computer with mic or webcam.

      New songs always start off quite fluid, and can develop a lot as performances go by but once you start to make a few recordings and listen to them back, the later versions become more definitive.

      Hope this helps and good luck with your songwriting.

      • Daph says:

        Dear Andy,
        Thank you very much. I will try that, see what comes of it. 🙂 I think I also have to plan a lyric-writing session, even without remembering the melody, just to refine and polish the lyrics, so at least I have something to work from. If I have that, then I can scratch out words, or change them on the spur of the moment. Also, one of my bandmates said that he would rather not have infantile lyrics (I’m guessing he wanted something more poetic as opposed to ‘I went to a bar and I got wasted’ just because I couldn’t think of anything at the time) , so that means they will definitely need changing. 🙂

        Thanks again! 🙂

        Daph.

        • Daph says:

          For your amusement:
          I’m also having a little trouble because whenever I bring up love I end up using gender neutral lyrics, as the band is made up of 3 guys and one girl, so those are dangerous waters. hehe 🙂

  15. Connor says:

    I don’t know if this is still on going but I’ll write this anyway, might help.

    So my problem is I have several songs, but I’ve never been a confident singer and never wrote lyrics, well, I have, but they just don’t seem to want to work. Another problem would be making the lyrics have their own melody, as I enjoy music with both rhythm guitar and lead making a third melody is becoming difficult, as when I try to put the selected theme lyrics over the music I ended up singing the lyrics in the melody of the lead, which isn’t what I want! Did you ever encounter this? How can I stop it?

    Also the problem of making lyrics in the structure of rhyming poetry keeps getting me, ah, it’s so frustrating.

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