Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Writing Lyrics: Finding the Music in Words

Michael Lydon has contributed columns regularly here about the writer's art, but for this installment we asked him to tackle a form of writing with which he is particularly familiar: songwriting. Lydon has written about popular music since the '60s, and he also writes and performs his own music. Here he presents some songwriting advice from his "sometimes agonizing, sometimes blissful experience."

A lyric — from lyra or lyre, ancient Greece's equivalent of today's guitar — is writing written to be sung. Since lyrics include writing from The Iliad to "Happy Birthday," and lyricists from Shakespeare to Tupac Shakur, the subject is clearly vast beyond all reckoning. Yet trying one's hand at writing lyrics can be an enjoyable and rewarding challenge for anyone who loves to write. I began waxing lyrical decades ago, and I'm still scribbling and polishing, polishing and scribbling. Here are a few tips from my sometimes agonizing, sometimes blissful experience.

First, take the time to summon up the hundreds, if not thousands, of songs you already know, lullabies you heard in your crib, hymns you heard in church; songs you've danced to, romanced to, and sung along with; songs that made you laugh and cry; songs from movies, songs from Muzak, songs from other centuries and from countries and peoples all around the world. We all swim in an ocean of songs.

Ask yourself: why do you love songs? What do songs give you? What do they tell you about life, about yourself? How do songs reach your heart? These questions have no set answers, but ask them and you'll sense the mysterious power of these fluid sounds that surround and connect us.

Next, think of songs by songwriters you greatly admire. Any of their lyrics you know by heart, write down; any you know partially, look up in songbooks or online, then write them down. Study them: how many words in each? Are the words short or long, common or obscure? What's the rhyme scheme, or is there one? Does one verse follow another, or do new verses alternate with repeated choruses? Do the lyrics have a core theme, tell a clear story, set up a believable mood? Why do you like this writer's lyrics? Try writing something inspired by them.

As you start to put words on paper, remember: words have a music all their own! First, last, and always, words are sounds, and we speak them over a wide gamut of pitches from high to low. Many words have a customary pitch that can't be easily changed: try saying teeny in a deep voice or rotund in a squeaky voice. Words set up strong rhythms, from the staccato rat-a-tat-tat of one syllable words — "the cat ate the mouse in the house" — to the legato flow of multi-syllable words — telephone, afternoon, comfortable — that build to and fall from accented climaxes. Speaking mouth-filling words with gusto — frankincense, rambunctious, dilapidated — takes us halfway to singing. As the melody contributes to a lyric's meaning, the lyric contributes to the melody's music.

Some of my songs begin with a catchy few notes that pop up when I'm playing guitar, but most begin with a catchy few words that nag at me until I expand them into a song: "Midnight in Manhattan," "Nobody Knows," "Do You Remember?" This may be my biggest tip of all: in chatting with pals, watching TV, or eavesdropping on ladies gossiping at the laundromat, be on the lookout for pregnant phrases that suggest far more than they say. One day recently I scribbled down, "Maybe," and on another day, "Not Just Yet." In "Not Just Yet," I heard a forlorn guy begging his faithless gal to leave "not just yet." In "Maybe," I heard a dozen possible moods, from cynical: "Maybe you thought I loved you, maybe you thought I cared…"; to silly: "Maybe I'm crazy, maybe I'm nuts, but baby, I love you, no ifs ands or buts"; to romantic: "Maybe the stars will stop shining, maybe the seas will run dry, maybe someday I'll stop loving you…" None of these scribblings have I followed up on yet — see what you can do with them! — but the point is: find your suggestive phrase and gnaw on it like a dog gnawing on a favorite bone until it gives up its marrow of meaning.

A symphony, like a novel, may encompass a dozen moods, but a song, like a short story, does best when it sticks to one. The more I play great songs, the more I am impressed by how master lyricists hew close to their one core theme, whatever it may be. "Georgia on My Mind" doesn't go wandering off into Alabama, and "Stormy Weather" doesn't have a verse about a mild day of mixed clouds and sunshine. I tried to follow such examples in my song, "Tell Me Lies." The first verse sets the scene: a guy and gal in bed, the guy seeing through her lies:

I know you're leaving, it's no surprise
I see that long gone look deep in your eyes,
But darling, tonight, shut out the light, and
Tell me lies.

In the second verse the guy challenges the gal to tell even bigger lies:

Put your arms around me, whisper in my ear
Maybe you could work up one phony tear
Make 'em outrageous, make 'em contagious,
Tell me lies.

In the bridge — a contrasting middle section that many songs contain — the guy confesses that his bravado is a vain attempt to hide the pain her lies inflict:

In this wide and weary world
What's one more broken heart?
So soon we get old
So slow smart
I face a lifetime without you
Tell me anything tonight, I'll believe it's true

In the last verse he returns to his cynicism about her lies:

Tell me if it don't work out, we still be friends
Tell me that these wounds will one day mend
You play it cool, I'll play the fool,
Tell me lies.

Mentioning the contrasting bridge reminds me to say: yes, you need to keep your lyric focused on your song's core theme, but you can't be a Johnny One-Note. Even if briefly you need to see your theme "from both sides now," as one well-known lyric puts it. Oxymorons — closely placed opposites — enliven lyrics just as they do prose (think of Dickens' "best of times…the worst of times"), and they can make a lyric a memorable catch phrase: "First you say you will, and then you won't," "Sometimes I'm happy, sometimes I'm blue," "If, baby, I'm the bottom, you're the top!" I've long loved the old blues lyric:

You may be high, you may be low,
You may be rich, you may be poor,
But when the Lord gets ready,
You got to move.

Every songwriting book I've read stresses the importance of vivid images, words that paint precise pictures of the people and places you want the listener to see. The old standard "These Foolish Things" gives us snapshot glances into the world of the singer and the song: "A cigarette that bears a lipstick's traces, An airline ticket to romantic places..."           

True enough, but don't forget the value of mystery to lyrics. Hints and metaphors can say as much in a lyric as precision. Ira Gershwin's evocative "The way you wear your hat" doesn't tell us how the woman wears her hat. The sharp pictures in "These Foolish Things" soon flow into a magic image: "My heart has wings." "Georgia on My Mind" shows us the "moonlight through pines" clearly, but its bridge — "Other arms reach out to me, Other eyes smile tenderly" — moves us into a dreamy world where bodiless sirens swirl around the singer, tempting him to stray from the straight-and-narrow. One of my songs, "Love at First Sight," paints a couple remembering the Chinese lanterns and the swing band on summer night they met at a lakeside casino. In the bridge the singer comments:

By now we've had a while to look each other,
We've seen what time can bring to lovers...

"Well, what does time bring to lovers?" complained a singer when I played her the song. "Give me an image!" I didn't change a word. Having sung the lyric countless times, I'm convinced that the vagueness of "what time can bring" gives each couple listening a chance to fill in that vagueness with whatever details time has brought them.

We've barely scratched the surface of lyric writing, but enough for one column! In time I'll hope to return to the subject and explore with you weighty questions of perfect and imperfect rhymes, phrasing and rhythm, and best of all, how to get love, laughter, and music into your lyrics. Until then, if you're already a lyricist, keep polishing; if not, give it a try. If writing lyrics seems daunting, never give up — accentuate the positive, everything's coming up roses, and when you're smiling, the whole world smiles with you!

Click here to read more articles from Word Count.

Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

Investigating the roots of a nonsensical Beatles refrain.
Buddy Holly, Wordsmith
Thoughts on the songwriting of Buddy Holly on the 50th anniversary of his death.
Faith in the Headlights
We talk to Roseanne Cash about writing lyrics and writing prose.