We all secretly dread lyric-writing, don’t we? There is nothing harder than writing some lyrics to an existing melody without completely messing up your groove.
I used to spend weeks on writing a few lines and even then I wasn’t happy with what I had.
Well, after struggling with metaphors, rhymes, stories and grammar for the major part of my life, I realized that some lyric-writing techniques you learn in books or conservatories don’t really apply anymore.
In this article, I want to demonstrate my 3 biggest insights into what it means to be a lyricist of the 21st century.
Knowing these 3 outdated techniques and what to do instead will help you WRITE FASTER, because they take away some of the limits you’re setting yourself. You will WRITE BETTER, because they open up new alternatives in your writing. And lastly, you will WRITE MORE CLEARLY, because you will use less abstract language.
So without further ado, here are my 3 outdated lyric-writing techniques you’re still using:
1. You‘re Trying To Rhyme EVERYTHING
This is an easy “trap” to fall into. Almost every writer I know rhymes in pretty much every other line of their lyric.
And of course you CAN rhyme, but you absolutely don’t have to, either. There are plenty of massively successful songs out there that have almost no rhyming at all.
Listen to Zendaya’s “Replay” or Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars” and check out how few of their lines actually rhyme.
When I first realized that you don’t have to rhyme in order to make something groove (I had my breakthrough while listening to Limp Bizkit’s Indigo Flow), I started experimenting.
2 lyrics later I found that NOT using rhymes actually does three really cool things to your songwriting:
- You are not bound to certain vowels, meaning you can just write whatever you want.
- You immediately sound DIFFERENT than most writers
- Your lyrics will sound more “lyrical”, more eloquent
Try it now: Take a lyric you’ve already finished and change one of the rhymes into a non-rhyme (I know, it’s not easy to make it groove, but trust me). Sing both.
See how all of a sudden the rhymed version sounds blunt and almost comical while the one without the rhyme just flies off the page?
2. You Write In Blocks Of 4
By this I mean writing 4 lines of text for each 4 bars, meaning 4 or 8 lines per section.
This is another one of those ways where you lock up your creativity. Blocks of 4 even LOOK like little prisons if you turn the page on its side. 😉
What I suggest doing instead is experimenting with blocks of 3 or 5. Check out Zendaya’s “Replay” and Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars” again: See how they don’t stick to a 4-line pattern?
Do you notice how open, fresh and unique this sounds?
Moving on to #3…
3. You Express Yourself Through Metaphors
This is another one I see tons of beginning and intermediate songwriters use.
Metaphors seem like a good idea at first glance because they make you sound smart and sophisticated. They allow you to say things like “I want the listener to make up their own mind” – sounds like a great deal, right?
Well, let me tell you a story. A couple of years ago, a good friend of mine asked my opinion on one of his lyrics. I can’t really recall the exact lines but the chorus was something along the lines of:
Left a hole inside my heart
My mind sinking into darkness
(the rest of the lyric was written in much the same tone)
What is the problem with this? Sounds cool, right? Here’s what our conservation sounded like:
Me: “Er… This is about death, right?”
Him: “Yeah, of course”
Me: “Well, it SOUNDS nice, but thing is, all of this could also be about someone after a break-up”
Him: “What!? You’re shitting me!”
(With this new point of view, he went through his lyrics again under much cursing. Turns out break-ups aren’t really Death Metal material)
What can we learn from this?
To him these lyrics were clear, but they were clear because HE KNEW WHAT HE WAS TRYING TO SAY.
The risk in using metaphors is to overdo it and to completely lose all connection to the audience.
So be careful in using and selecting metaphors and never overdo it. Be CLEAR and DIRECT.
A good example for clear, relatable use of metaphors is Taylor Swift’s “Welcome To New York”. You always know exactly what she means with every metaphor – check it out!