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Distinguishing Features Of A Lyrical Masterpiece


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  • Noob

I've been practicing songwriting for the last couple of years, mostly composing music (I've always listened more to the music in a song than the lyrics). Recently I started focusing on my lyrics. I want to write good lyrics. The first problem is I don't know exactly what it I'm writing. When you look up the definition of the word lyrics in wikipedia, it basically says "words". The second problem is I don't know what a good lyric is like. Could somebody explain to me exactly what a lyric is and what the distinguishing features of a lyrical masterpiece are? Please feel free to give me examples of lyrical masterpieces and what it is that makes them so good. I would like to know what I'm trying to achieve with my lyrics. Thank you in advance!

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hey

ok I'll see if I can help....

Writing anything to the best of your ability is always the aim

For a few genres lyrics are more important than the melody

For many genres melody is more important than lyrics

For some genres rhythm and tempo are more important than either lyrics or melody

The point is, whether it is important or not, as a matter of craftsman ship and pride ALL should be created to the best of our abilities.

Lyrics are not just words. Lyrics are words intended to be uttered in a musical context. A song is neither music, nor lyrics, but a unique combination of the two, where the whole is greater than the sum of it's parts... ie 1 + 1 = 3

It's a start... :)

Cheers

John

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  • Noob

One thing I've learned about lyrics is when you write a ballad with tempo around 60. The lyrics sound better when you write long lines in the verses and short lines in the chorus. With this you achieve rhythmic contrast and this technique seems to help a lot. I think contrast is a keyword, you have to somehow highlight the chorus. Another technique of doing this is to use some abstract lines in the verses and lines that project images in the chorus.

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I rather-constantly refer to Jimmy Webb's tour-de-force, Tunesmith. Which says a lot about every aspect of songwriting including lyrics.

But it also occurs to me that: "writing is re-writing." Whether you are talking about words or about music or both, it pays to remember that what we hear on the radio is always the finished work. The entire creative process that led up to it is now completely invisible. Therefore, it is tempting to imagine that the idea just blossomed into someone's head fully-perfect, like Venus popping up out of her shell at the edge of the sea.

Stephen King's tour-de-force, On Writing, is also informative because he actually shows you the first draft of a short story. The writing is, to be perfectly honest, mediocre. And yet, when you read the finished version a few pages later, it's quite professional. So, the point is: the main determinant of 'the finished work' is not "what first popped into Mr. King's head." Rather, it is "what happened next."

I don't think that "the great writers" of anything in this world have any sort of magic gift ... other than experience, craftsmanship, and perseverance. Their work is superb because they know how to polish it. (And, maybe, because "they put in all those hours of dirty work with a rag and a bucket of polishing compound (instead of just talking about doing it :whistle: )... and we don't.")

And... once again... we never see the "blood, sweat, and tears." Only the finished work-product, however it was derived.

Creativity is hard enough without us posting ourselves to unrealistic expectations...

Edited by MikeRobinson
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I rather-constantly refer to Jimmy Webb's tour-de-force, Tunesmith. Which says a lot about every aspect of songwriting including lyrics.

But it also occurs to me that: "writing is re-writing."

Yes - don't be afraid to re-write again and again. Also don't be afraid to combine ideas ... you might be able to combine two half-decent lyrics to make one really great lyric.

Also if you're just starting out you'll probably have to write quite a few lyrics before you start to get good at it. Just stick with it.

As has already been said - it largely depends on the style of music. What I would suggest first is to ask "What kind of lyrics do YOU think are great?" Is there any lyric that makes you wish you'd written it? Because that's really what you should be aiming for. I could easily list songs by Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits - but they may not be appropriate for the style of music you want your lyrics to work with.

The other thing you might want to do is listen to songs and pick out examples of BAD lyrics. Why? Because you will learn what not to do! One thing you are going to find is that there are a lot of bad lyrics out there - plenty of songs are carried purely by the strength of the music, which isn't to say that lyrics are unimportant because a good lyric is always an advantage.

Really there are several elements to making a good lyric:

1. Do you have something to say? It can be hard to really focus on a specific idea when you start out. I find that coming up with a good title can be a big help. Often I start out with a fairly vague idea when I'm working on a new a lyric. I might just begin with maybe just a couple of interesting phrases - after a while I start working out what the song is actually about and then it gets much easier! Sometimes when I get stuck I might read the news or watch a movie and then something will suddenly jump out at me, something that makes me think of the lyric I'm working on in a new way.

2. Always be open to ideas ... carry something with you to write ideas down. If you think of a phrase that has a nice ring to it, write it down, even if you don't have a song you can use it in. You'll probably get to use it sooner or later.

3. Is it likely that anyone wants to hear what you have to say? What makes your lyric worth hearing?

4. Style: How are you expressing your idea? I don't want to say that cliches are a bad thing, but be aware that there ways of playing with commonly used phrases that can make them more interesting, just by twisting a word or two around. It's not just what you say, it's the way that you say it.

5. Are you telling a story, talking about your feelings, or what? A song can be primarily story-driven, feelings-driven or a combination of the two. Some songs tell a complete story from beginning to end, while other songs might just outline a particular moment in someone's life, with the backstory just implied. You could even use a series of seemingly unrelated scenes, or moments, to make some kind of point. Some songs talk of the writer's happiness or unhappiness (which might be either fictional or derived from real life). If the song is talking about feelings, then there are different ways this can work. You could say "I'm unhappy because my lover left me" - or you could write directly to your ex-lover: "I'm unhappy because you left me". Using the second approach will result in a more confrontational kind of lyric.

6. Even if you write a very "personal" sounding lyric, remember that the song doesn't have to be about you. You can always make up a character and write about them.

Edited by thepopeofpop
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  • Noob

Thank you guys for all the great comments! I think it's becoming clearer. Maybe it's a good choice not to always write about myself. Okay, so I have this lyric (the first part of the first verse):

Sometimes I feel like you don't understand me

It's like you're living in a different world

Sometimes I need to let things be the way they are

I can't change them

Cos' it is too late, our time has run out now

You look at me like I'm a stranger

Is this a good start? Do you see where it's heading in the chorus?

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Thank you guys for all the great comments! I think it's becoming clearer. Maybe it's a good choice not to always write about myself. Okay, so I have this lyric (the first part of the first verse):

Sometimes I feel like you don't understand me

It's like you're living in a different world

Sometimes I need to let things be the way they are

I can't change them

Cos' it is too late, our time has run out now

You look at me like I'm a stranger

Is this a good start? Do you see where it's heading in the chorus?

I think it's a good start. I can imagine a melody fitting those words. Also there is a definite viewpoint in the lyrics - the relationship between two people is breaking up and the writer feels that there's nothing that can be done.

If I was writing the lyric I would make the next line "There's nothing that can be done" and then repeat it two or three times, while changing the chords, as a "pre-chorus" buildup to the chorus itself.

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  • Noob

I think it's a good start. I can imagine a melody fitting those words. Also there is a definite viewpoint in the lyrics - the relationship between two people is breaking up and the writer feels that there's nothing that can be done.

If I was writing the lyric I would make the next line "There's nothing that can be done" and then repeat it two or three times, while changing the chords, as a "pre-chorus" buildup to the chorus itself.

Interesting. If I only knew how to practice the ability to "see" the following piece of the story, get it to flow so to speak. I know this is the crucial part for me. How have you practiced this?

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That's a good question. Flow was something that took me a little while to master. When I started writing songs I mainly wrote lyrics for the first few year or so - because I thought I needed to get better in that area. That may have been a mistake - I got better at expressing myself and I guess I developed a style, but my lyrics were not well-structured. There were too many words and not enough "shape".

When I started writing "proper" songs with music the effect was that over time the lyrics started to flow better because I was considering the musical structure - the "what comes next" and "how do we finish" areas in particular.

If you don't write music then something to consider doing is to find classic songs - pop songs or whatever genre you like best - and look at how the lyrics work in those songs. Look at the words written down (you can google most song lyrics) and listen to them at the same time while the song is playing. Or take an existing piece of music and write new lyrics for it - don't worry, it's quite legal to do this - some professional lyricists do this when they get stuck. This way you're writing something that already "flows" and you can see for yourself how it works.

Also, be critical about any song you hear. Some songs have bad lyrics - when you hear a bad lyric think about what you would do to improve it. I've often been inspired in this way - hearing a song that did something poorly and thinking "I could write a much better song about that subject".

Also when listening to a song you've never heard before, try to guess what the next line will be. You might be surprised to find that your guess is better than the actual words in the song. If it is better, then you can use it! As I say, listen a lot, be critical, and you might start to become a bit of an expert.

Edited by thepopeofpop
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  • 2 weeks later...

Something that pops into my head when I read that lyric is: "When you say 'I', you mean 'you.' Not 'me.' I want the song that I'm listening to, to be about me."

In other words, I really like to listen to lyrics that establish, and then thoughtfully develop, a common ground that both of us can then share. You're pointing out things, and I'm projecting myself into the situation you've created and I'm nodding in agreement. (Or recoiling, as the case may be.)

If the lyric is simply about you, and your girl, then I'm not going to engage with that nearly as strongly as I would with a lyric that draws a connection between your situation and mine.

With this kind of creative writing, which is so very highly compressed, a tremendous amount of meaning can hinge upon a single word. A turn of a phrase... A metaphor... It's tough to do this.

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