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Writers Unite! Workshop: Song Lyrics

Writers Unite! Workshop

Song Lyrics

A note. A chord. A word. A phrase. A song transports us instantly to the moment we first heard it and often floods us with emotions that the memory invokes, joy, fun, passion, sadness, heartbreak. Music is life.

While melody and rhythm affect us, lyrics speak for us when we cannot speak for ourselves. As writing is an art form, writing lyrics is a specialized version of writing poetry.

Our Attraction to Music

Studies have shown that when listening to favorite music, dopamine, the chemical released when doing other pleasurable activities such as eating or sex, is released in various parts of the brain associated with the anticipation of pleasure and deep emotional responses.  If the tonal qualities of a piece of music evoke this reaction, adding words that have meaning to the listener will deepen the connection to the song and the emotional bond formed.

“Music affects deep emotional centers in the brain. A single sound tone is not really pleasurable in itself; but if these sounds are organized over time in some sort of arrangement, it’s amazingly powerful.”    

              — Valorie Salimpoor, neuroscientist McGill University

Lyricist vs. Songwriter

The difference between a lyricist and a songwriter is quite simple. Lyricists write the words to a song. A songwriter writes both words and music.


 “Lyricists are articulate and detail-oriented, with a keen eye for observing the world around them and the discipline to translate their observations and insights into the formal language of song.”  

                                                                                    — Berklee College of Music

Qualifications for a Lyricist

Formal education is not a requirement to be a lyricist. However, a degree in creative writing with an emphasis on poetry offers advantages in a competitive field. Focusing on an art or history education is also a plus as these subjects provide a strong overview of life. Courses on lyric writing are often part of the curriculum in college and university music departments.

While it is not necessary to play an instrument to write lyrics, it is a valuable skill to have. Understanding the importance of meter in music is as essential as it is when writing poetry, so familiarity with an instrument is helpful.

Writing Song Lyrics

Berklee School of Music offers five tips on how to start writing lyrics:

  • Record your thoughts:  in addition to formal education, journaling daily thoughts and emotions is a valuable way to accumulate ideas and underlying emotions for use when writing lyrics. Take the five senses into consideration, taste, smell, touch, sight, sound, as well as movement, as suggested by the article. These descriptors bring the listener to the exact emotion or visual that you need them to have to engage in your lyrics. Use the “small moment” of a particular sense, such as the waft of perfume or touch of a hand, to capture emotion.
  • Read the words, forget the music: Read lyrics written by others and not to the recorded song.By concentrating on the words and not the music, you will gain a better sense of the simplicity and structure of good lyrics. Pay attention to the hook the lyricist has used and the repetitive chorus that ties the song together. Consider the message you want to convey and use the “small moment” mentioned above to make your point.
  • Speak Naturally: Write as you speak in the language that you speak naturally. Don’t force a word or a rhyme, or you will lose the meaning. Berklee uses the word authentic to describe the language you use, and that word is powerful. As with writing a story, the words must be real to connect to your audience. Don’t forget to change tense as you do not have to always write in past tense but can also write in present and future tense to tell your story.
  • The K.I.S.S. Principle:  Keep it simple, stupid is a wise adage. Write in five to six lines of verse and create repetition in the chorus. Longer lyrics can become confusing and obscure the message.
  • Collaborate:  Reach out to lyricists and learn from them. Collaborate on writing lyrics, especially with lyricists who are also musicians writing their songs.

Other tips from sterostickman.com:

  • First Impressions:  The opening lines of a song matter. Use them to hook the listener and keep them listening until the chorus and the message of the song.

Short Sentences: “I lied / He cried / We were both / Terrified”

Specific Storytelling: “The laugh lines around her eyes / Told a story of loving compromise / But the clothes she always wore / End up screwed up on the floor”

Instructions: “Everybody, clap your hands / Get those feet moving, too / We’re about to get wild / No telling what we’re gonna do”

  • Experiment building on lines. Write a line, repeat it with another word, until you get to the meaning you wish to convey. This technique will keep your listener waiting for the next word.

“I really want you
I really want you to
I really want you to go
I really want you to go further

  • Become a techie. If you run into issues with selecting words or rhyming, a website like http://www.rhymezone.com can help by making suggestions for rhymes, near rhymes, and synonyms. Rhyming is certainly acceptable but remember not to rely on it when writing lyrics. However, as long as the lyrics are authentic, it can work.
  • Time Management. Working under deadlines and being able to manage time is essential for both the project and the content. Commercial compositionsare time-sensitive, airtime on radio stations, for instance, is crucial for the artist’s and publisher’s success. Being cognizant of how to manage writing a song that conveys a message in an acceptable time frame is necessary.

Career Expectations

At one time, professional lyricists were in high demand, but as more musicians are penning their lyrics that need has dwindled. That is not to say that this is not a viable profession. There are still opportunities as top-line songwriters within the recording industry if you have some musical ability and can write a catchy tune. Music publishers also hire staff writers, and a small percentage of dedicated lyricists work independently, promoting lyrics to music producers. Music producers recording rappers also hire staff writers to write lyrics for their artists.

There are also opportunities within the musical theater world to write lyrics with musical theater composers and book writers to produce musicals and adaptations. Opera companies need librettists who collaborate with a composer or work as playwrights creating the plot, characters, and structure of the opera.

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If you are interested in a career as a lyricist or are currently writing lyrics or songwriting and want to learn more, please check out this link. Berklee College of Music offers a free online handbook on lyric writing, which includes material from some of their courses.

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Author’s Note:  I am not a musician or a songwriter or lyricist. This workshop concerns the basics of writing lyrics. A considerable amount of the information included came from the Berklee College of Music website. Berklee is world-renowned for the exceptional training provided to music students.

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Resources:
https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_we_love_music
https://www.berklee.edu/careers/roles/lyricist
https://online.berklee.edu/takenote/5-steps-to-start-writing-lyrics
https://stereostickman.com/how-to-write-song-lyrics
https://learn.org/articles/How_Can_I_Become_a_Lyricist.html

Please note: the images used are free-use images and do not require attribution. Voice sheet music is from https://www.music-for-music-teachers.com/, a free-use sheet music site.