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Lyric Writing 101: Part 1 - Articles Surfing
Lyric writing is much like any other style of writing, the more time you spend working on it, the more you will grow as a writer. So what exactly are lyrics? Song lyrics can basically be thought of as singable poetry. The Oxford dictionary defines the word ‘lyric’ as 1) (of poetry) expressing the poet’s thoughts and feelings, usually briefly and in stanzas, songlike (a lyric poem) 2) (lyrics) the words of a song. By using this definition, we can assume that the process of writing lyrics draws from some of the same techniques used in poetry.
Why write lyrics? This may seem like an odd question, there are literary hundreds of answers to this, but it is something you will need to ask yourself before you start. Is it because you have a story to tell, because you want to express a particular emotion to your audience? Some write purely for themselves, like a kind of personal therapy. Or perhaps it’s simply because the human voice is an important part of the style of music they are written for.
What do you want to say? Most lyrics are written with a message or some kind of effect in mind. You will need to have a clear idea of what you want out of the lyrics or you will run the risk of creating weak lyrics. Weak lyrics tend to resort to clich'd, generic and boring phrases when they are written solely to ‘fit’ the tune. On the other hand, don’t be carried away with the message, make it a point for the lyrics to be somewhat cryptic. Do not ‘spoon feed’ your audience, plant the seed of your idea and let the audience come to their own conclusions.
As with all forms of creativity, lyrics are an expression of personal ideas, beliefs and themes. Lyric writing is just a matter of expressing these beliefs and feelings. As with most forms of writing, it is best to write about what you know. Because everybody has their own experiences, emotions and beliefs, it becomes hard to give an exact instruction on how to write, everyone has their own opinions on how it should be done. The most I can do in this series is give a guide about how to go about finding your own style by learning from the music that you listen to. This is a great way to learn, as many of the bands you listen to have learned, and draw influences, from other established artists.
There are several ways you can write lyrics:
* Create a melody & write lyrics to accompany it; or
* Write a set of lyrics & add the melody to it; or
* A combination of the above two examples, i.e. do both at the same time.
So, where do you actually start with the writing process? Well, there are countless possible ways (too many to mention here). It really is a matter of preference; every lyricist has his or her own style, much like any artist. A couple of simple ways that are an excellent way to begin are as follows:
1) Start with a possible hook line or chorus and work around it
An example of this can be taken from Coldplay’s hit “Yellow”. The song was derived from a first line that came about from where the band was on the night, as explained in October’s SOS: “‘Yellow’ was written at Rockfield when we where there. The studio we were in is called the Quadrangle Studio – the studio is along one side of an open courtyard, and we went out one night, and because there were so few lights, the stars were just amazing. Guy just came up with the line ‘Look at the stars.’”
2) Start with a title and work around it.
For example, using “Written in Sand” as your title, you can brain-storm around this idea: The phrase suggests that which can be washed away; it also brings the phrase ‘written in stone’ to mind; the word “sand” brings to mind the words like flowing & changing, which brings the words time & water. The word “written” suggests fate or destiny. So a possibility that the song will be about how you can change your destiny. Now there is a basic theme that you can work around.
Tools Of The Trade
What are the tools of a lyricist? One would obviously think a pen and paper (or a computer & word processor) plus the creative mind of the lyricist and the possible use of a musical instrument. There are other tools available for the lyricist to take advantage of, these may seem painfully obvious, but they are quite often overlooked by many people.
Dictionary – A dictionary is an essential tool for any writer, not only for spelling but word meanings. English is a dynamic language, words are constantly being added so it is important to keep an updated dictionary on hand, a 20-year-old dictionary may’ no longer contain the latest words and meanings. It is important not to be too abstruse for your audience but neither is there the need to overuse the same monosyllabic words. It may be of use to keep a couple of different dictionaries (i.e. Oxford & Macquarie) this is because some word meanings may differ slightly, and can be used to colour your lyrics.
Thesaurus - A good dictionary can be supplemented with a thesaurus. The use of a thesaurus is a great way to avoid over-using words and can even inspire your ideas leading them to new directions. This can be very usefully whilst brainstorming.
* -- * This is just a simple word-association game; that you can easily apply to any word. Look up the word ‘remains’ in your thesaurus, you are shown: debris, fragments, leavings, leftovers, remnants, and scraps. Now look up ‘debris’ and you will find it also has: flotsam, litter, pieces, refuse, rubbish, rubble, ruins, wreckage and waste to add to your word list. You can do this with as many of the words you like. Some of these extra words will have no use for what you are working on but there may be those one or two words that will fit perfectly.
Rhyming Dictionaries - These particular dictionaries are specifically generated for poets and lyricists. They do not define words as most dictionaries do; they merely list words that rhyme. Some scorn the use of this particular tool, sighting that it is all too easy to rely solely on the list of rhymes than to put a little thought into your rhyming structure. It is also true that many people waste a considerable amount of time listing the words they know to rhyme only to lose the train of thought they were on thus, killing the creative process. If used sensibly, like a thesaurus, a rhyming dictionary can be a very useful tool.
Other Dictionaries - There are other dictionaries available that may be of use to a lyricist. One that comes to mind is the ‘slang’ dictionary. I’ve only seen an “Australian Dictionary of Slang”. Most countries use their own form of slang so I would assume that there are others available. It really depends on what you are working on and who your target audience is, but they may help to put that finishing touch, or stamp of authenticity on a piece. Check your local bookshop for the range of other dictionaries available.
Other Means - What other tools are available? There are many other ways to help with the creative process. Listening to a wide range of music can be helpful, don’t just listen to your normal ‘style’ of music, there are thousands of different music styles around, explore these possibilities. Music has been inspiring people for thousands of years, so it seems logical to turn to it when it comes to your own musical venture.
You may not like some particular styles of music, but you can get an idea from them that you can convert or merge to your chosen genre. If done correctly, it has the potential of being a powerful piece of music that is unique. This is why it is important to be open to all styles and ideas. Some of the most ‘controversial’ bands have reached the popularity they have, simply because they have a unique sound and the ‘message’ they want to convey is something that their fans can relate to.
Bands like Korn, Limp Bizkit, Staind, Linkin Park and Disturbed are given the music ‘title’ of nu-metal (or nu-music) simply because they utilize a wide range of musical sub-genres within the ‘rock’ genre. This can be seen in other more established merges such as ‘country-rock’, ‘pop-rock’ and the recent surfacing of ‘Latin-pop/rock’. If you look throughout music history (particularly that of ‘rock & roll’) you can see this trend more clearly. What do I mean by mixing the different genres? Below are some examples of what I mean.
* ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ by Queen is a perfect example of genre mixing. The song has three distinct phase changes within it. It starts off similar to many ballads, then phase changes to a ‘light opera-ish’ stage, and phase changes to ‘rock’ before changing back to the ‘ballad’.
* Another trend that is starting up is adapting a song from one style of music and transforming it to another. An example of this can be taken from many of Staind’s songs. The album version of their song ‘Can’t Believe’ has a distinguished ‘rock’ sound. But if you listen to the MTV: Unplugged version, you will notice that (although the music has the same tune) it is acoustic and is sung in a more ballad-like tune.
* -- * In Australia, the radio station Triple M’s Breakfast Show has a ‘Musical Challenge’ in place where they put musicians (both local & international) “to the test”. The Challenge: give a song to a band which is the total opposite to their normal style and get them to ‘remake’ it. Triple M has released some of these songs on CD (proceeds going to charity) if your interested in listening. Some of the songs used: Radiohead’s “Creep” performed by country singer Gina Jeffreys (one of the stations most requested songs); Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” performed by rock musician Richard Clapton, Men At Work’s “Down Under” performed by The Russian Red Army Choir (now one of their most popular songs); Silverchair’s “Freak” performed by country singer Troy Cassar-Daley; the list goes on. It’s well worth the listen.
Apart from listening to these different forms, you could simply go to a site like http://www.getlyrics.com and just read the lyric form of different musical styles. You can easily use the above example and apply it to just the lyric process of some of these artists and merge it to your own music. There is a wealth of knowledge to be discovered from established artists, only if you are willing to look. It may not be ‘conventional’ but then, throughout history, music has been about breaking down pre-existing barriers
As you can see, there is a lot more available to the lyricist besides the simple pen and paper. If used wisely these various tools can help to hone your skills as a lyricist, bringing the best out of your work. Naturally, there may be other tools available that haven’t been mentioned here that the lyricist can use. By all means, use whatever comes to mind. You are only limited by your imagination.
Look out for Part 2 of this series, where you will learn how to accompany words with music by writing Alternate Lyrics.
Copyright © 1995 - Photius Coutsoukis (All Rights Reserved).
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