Just like any artist, a songwriter should always be improving their craft. The wonderful and daunting thing is that there are so many aspects of a songwriter’s task. Production, melodies, instrumental skills, and lyric writing are just a few factors which add up to a hit. Having gone to a music school, the one thing I found that got little attention from many musicians was the lyrical aspect of songwriting. As an English Literature graduate and poetry fan, I’m big on words, and lovewriting lyrics. So here’s my top 3 tips on making your lines sparkle.
1. Rhyme: Less is Sometimes More
Verses in pop music are usually constructed with some form of AABB, or ABAB rhyme scheme. 'A' or 'B' relate to the rhyme at the end of the line. So if you had an AABB rhyme scheme, it would maybe be something like this:
A: I tell regular lies
A: I’m so sick of Ontario guys
B: ’Cause the Kensington crowd
B: Never sing, never dance, never shout
That’s from one of my songs, ‘Montreal’. So you can see, the most common way of rhyming in songs is to stick matching words on the end of a line. What loosens this structure up a bit and can create more interest is when we introduce almost-rhymes. Do you see above, how I did a straight rhyme with “lies” and “guys,” and then paired the almost-rhyme with “crowd” and “shout?” You can even go a little further by pairing words that share letters but have different pronunciations, like “ghost” with “lost,” or “after” with “never.” An extremely tight rhyme scheme where everything is locked into perfect rhymes will weigh down on a song like a heavy blanket. Anyone else a fan of Des’ree’s “Life?”
I don’t want to see a ghost
It’s a sight that I fear most
I’d rather have a piece of toast
And watch the evening news
Ghost… most… toast… the rhyme scheme here is suffocating. The one thing that redeems it slightly is the completely blank line at the end of the verse that gives us a point to breathe… before the next verse hits us (having said that, this song is definitely on my guilty pleasure playlist).
So lighten up your rhyming, every now and then. It’ll give your lyrics a little lift when used wisely. Alternatively, you could leave the final words of each verse blank or only rhyme occasionally, and create links within your phrases by internal rhyme and alliteration.
What I love about certain songwriters is the way they really use their lyrics to put you in a certain time and place. People often think specificity in songwriting can alienate the listener, but when done right, it gives it a real edge. Don’t be afraid to lock your song into a setting. What sounds better: “I saw you on the street” or “I saw you down on Dufferin Street?” Take whatever image you're presenting and see how you can make it more specific — it’s going to really help the listener create an image in their mind. One artist that really pushes this is Lana Del Rey:
Well, my boyfriends in a band
He plays guitar while I sing Lou Reed
I’ve got feathers in my hair
I get down to Beat poetry
What is she trying to communicate here? Her boyfriend’s in a band, he plays and she sings, she wears her hair stylishly and likes poetry. But the specificity of the lyrics she delivers create a huge picture, and you can start a mind-map of references… how does Lou Reed’s songs and sound relate to what Lana is singing about here? What sort of lifestyle and values are contained in the words of the Beat poets? How do the feathers in the hair add to those connotations? Slowly, images and impressions come together to create a world within which the song can live.
Try to substitute ordinary words for something more specific. Instead of sitting under a tree, why not under a magnolia? An orchard? A great oak? Instead of the street, why not the tarmac? Instead of the stars, how about the constellations or a particular one, like Orion?
Brands are good for this too. He lit a Marbolo. We drove the Mustang. She read the New York Times. All are far more evocative than cigarette, car, newspaper.
This tactic will definitely develop the sense of place, time and story in your lyrics, and give the listener new ways to personally identify with your song.
3. Lyrics To Fit The Melody
The way lyrics and melody work together should never be ignored. The placement of consonants and vowels on certain notes can make or break a phrase, it can turn something beautiful into something clunky and un-singable. Think about big, long notes you might have at the end of important melodic phrases. What kind of sound do you feel would sit best on that note? An aah or an oh, perhaps. If you put a word with a very closed vocal sound on an important note (especially at the end of a phrase), a word such as “mint” (I don’t know what kind of song you’d be writing where the word “mint” was on the money note, but I’d love to hear it), then you’re detracting from the emotional impact of that overall phrase. The marriage of words and melody is so important, especially for the vocalist on your song. Think about Adele, who has these big belters of choruses:
We could have had it all
Rolling in the deep
You had my heart and soul in your hands
I’ve bolded the big, important notes in this section. You see how “all” and “soul” are big, wide vowels, with plenty of space to belt it out?
Similarly, I often find when I try to fit too many consonants into a phrase, it becomes difficult and unsingable. Too many "sk" or "st" combinations can make a verse stumble. The best way to figure it out is to sing the lines aloud as much as possible, and even if you just have a melody, start singing it and see what sounds naturally want to fall upon certain notes.
An example of how lyric and melody can miss the mark is in Lorde’s “Green Light”. Lorde is a fantastic lyricist, however the chorus in this song fell a little bit short.
‘Cause honey I’ll come get my things, but I can’t let go
Oh I wish I could get my things and just let go
If you’ve listened to the song you’ll know that the moment with the most pressure in these phrases lie on the word “things.” But for such an important place in the song — almost the crux of the chorus — why would she implement such a closed word? The ‘“ing” of “things” snaps the line shut and any emotion that could escape from singing this word will fall short, because it’s sound doesn’t allow for much. Similarly, Lorde misses a trick here by using a word which doesn’t even conjure up an image: “things” is flaccidly vague.
So there you have it. Three ways to up your lyric game. Now go forth and make some music! Grab a notebook or start using your phone to write things down. And tell me: how do you write your lyrics? What are your favourite tips and tricks? Let me know in the comments below.