Does this sound familiar?
“I am really struggling with writing contemporary lyrics. I am more of a storytelling guy when I write, but maybe it’s just a habit. Maybe you can share some practices, exercises and techniques to get out of the songwriting rut and start building songs lyrics in a more contemporary form (like songs of Imagine Dragons, One Republic, Halsey, other modern writers)?”
Based on this question I got from Jevgenij, how do you write contemporary lyrics? On this blog I’ve talked a lot about why storytelling in lyrics is dead, but what do you do instead?
Well, here’s 3 tips for making your lyrics sound like the 2010s.
1. Melody Comes First
If you’re struggling with storytelling in your songs you probable write your lyrics before you start with the melody or you have a very clear idea what needs to happen story-wise in each part of your song.
And if this was 1980 I would applaud you…
Because this is a great way to write songs and an admirable one. I love a good story (even though music is not the best way to tell a story – find out why here).
But if you want your music to sound contemporary I recommend you try the exact opposite approach: Write all of your melodies using only bullshit lyrics (yes, this is the actual term I use on a daily basis).
In other words, just let your mouth sing whatever lyrics it wants – focus entirely on the melody.
Only when you have a good basic melody start writing lyrics.
My approach to power learning has always been to go for the exact opposite of what I’m doing at the moment – usually you end up somewhere between the two approaches and more often than not in perfect balance.
Here’s what usually happens when I do this:
I will sing some words that don’t make sense together but they will usually sound nice because intuitively, I pick vowels that are comfortable to sing.
Then when I write lyrics, I use those same vowels in my final text. This makes sure that my lyrics sound great and make the most of the melody.
If your problem is writing a strong, commercial melody you can find out more about that here.
2. Show, Don’t Tell
If you’ve ever read anything about writing you will have heard this phrase.
The good news: This goes for lyric-writing as well.
The bad news: It’s very counter-intuitive.
I’ll give you an example:
The man felt uncertain and didn’t know what to do.
How does this make you feel? Do you feel uncertain or indecisive as you read this? Do you feel anything at all (boredom doesn’t count)?
So how can we turn this line into something worth singing about?
What about this instead:
Hands kneading warm sleeves, his pupils buzzing flies.
How does this make you feel? Hopefully it will at least make you feel something. And maybe, just maybe it will actually make you feel a little uncertainty and indecision.
What has changed?
In the first example, I’m describing things from the outside like an observer. I tell you what I see.
But what I don’t do is give you something emotional that you can hold on to.
This is what the second phrase does: It gives you something concrete. Something you know. Something you can relate to.
Don’t tell me you’re sad or in love. Show me. Be real. Be specific.
3. Lyrics Are NOT Poetry
Above all remember that you’re not writing text and putting music to it.
Music and Lyrics need to form a unity.
This means a myriad of things. Here’s just 3 of them:
- Don’t shy away from repetition. It’s ok to repeat a single line over and over again for your chorus.
- Nonsense words are allowed. Na na nas and Woo-hoos are ok. Really. Your audience will love you for them.
- Don’t get stuck in the same old ABAB 4-liners. Let the melody determine where you go, even if that means breaking with conventional structure.
For more unnecessary things lyric-writers do, continue here.
QUESTIONS (Answer In The Comments)
- What are your favorite contemporary lyrics and how do they use “show, don’t tell?”
- What other differences between writing poetry and contemporary lyrics have you noticed?