See also: How to Write Songs that Suck
I prefer lyrically-driven songs to music-driven songs because I think lyrics are a song’s backbone. But lyrics—especially good lyrics—are hard to write. And even after writing 40+ songs for myself, I’m still not sure I’ve ever written a good lyric.
You will need to write lyrics unless you only plan on writing instrumental music (or you will need someone to write lyrics for you). Either way, you won’t escape the need to write lyrics. So here are 3 ways to come up with and write lyrics.
1. Title First
This is a common suggestion for songwriters and lyricists alike. Before you write a single verse or chorus, decide what the song’s name is.
- Choose a title. It should be something that would catch your interest and make you want to listen to the song. There are no hard rules on titles, and you can always change it later, so let go and imagine.
- Write lyrics inspired by the title. Try to incorporate the actual words of the title in your lyrics if you can.
- Edit and revise. Line by line or on a more structural level.
Writing songs with a pre-set title is a great exercise if only because it forces you to write cohesive lyrics around the title. If the lyrics can’t tie back to the title, maybe they shouldn’t be in the song.
Titles ignite the creative pen because naming something gives it pre-set characteristics that you can variably interpret. However, titles can stifle innovation because those pre-set characteristics may box your lyrics into a small area when they would otherwise expand into a story that the world needs to hear.
2. Theme First
Where titles stifle innovation by being too precise, writing around a theme opens the box up significantly while still providing a helpful framework for your lyrics. So pick a theme and write about it!
I’ve compiled a (rather long) list of some themes for you to start playing with. Don’t be afraid to mix and match some of these suggestions to get even more themes.
- Friends and Enemies
- Peace and Strife
- Joy and Sorrow
- Patience and Impulse
- Community and Individuality
- Revenge and Forgiveness
- Despair and Hope
- Kindness and Cruelty
- Right and Wrong
- Justice and Corruption
- Gentleness and Harshness
- Discipline and Unruliness
- Lost and Found
- Sacrifice and Selfishness
- Doubt and Certainty
- Life and Death
- Natural and Supernatural
- Expansion and Isolation
- Work and Play
- Family and Strangers
- Growth and Shrinking
If looking at this list didn’t give you some ideas, I’ve got one more suggestion for you.
3. Melody First
Now I know this is specific to people with access to instruments. The Internet gives us access to some virtual instruments which evens the playing field.
As important as lyrics are by themselves, it’s not a song until you have a melody. The relationship between melody and lyric can take a “meh” song and make it great.
So instead of worrying about the words, start with the song itself. Write a melody for your verses, choruses, and bridges, and then let the music tell you the theme and title your words should fit. Having a melody helps with all sorts of lyrical trouble areas.
- You already have your syllable count (and probably your line count) set out for you, so you just have to fit words in.
- If you need to add another line or two for your lyrics, you can just repeat parts of the melody.
- You won’t need to worry about rhythm because the song will already choose that for you.
- Rhyme will be less important because you’ll have such a solid rhythm, giving you more lyrical freedom.
Writing melody-first makes lyrics more like a puzzle to solve than a song to be sung. Which can be fun and inspiring! or it can make songwriting a drudgery.
I recommend trying a wide variety of lyric writing techniques. And if you’ve never written a song in this way or that way, don’t knock it till you try it. Once you’ve tried it you can decide what about it works (or doesn’t) and modify it for the next try.
Songwriting should be fun. Which makes playing with different methods less about creating an epic song and more about having a good time, and hopefully crafting something awesome out of it in revision.
What do you think—how do you write lyrics? What other ways have you used for writing lyrics? What would you recommend for someone who is just starting on their lyrical journey?