lyrics

How to Write Lyrics That Are Both Meaningful and Memorable

The best lyrics say something meaningful in a memorable way. That’s the balance we’re all trying to strike in our writing. But often when we succeed in getting one half of the equation, we lack the other:

  • Problem #1: Your lyrics sound poetic but say nothing
  • Problem #2: Your lyrics say something but lack poetry

So how do you remedy these two issues?

One really effective way to do this is through a kind of Socratic dialogue, where you ask a series of questions that produces memorable, meaningful lyrics in a natural way. You can do this yourself, or you can do it with a co-writer.
In this video I talk through the process using an example from one of my songwriting students. Underneath the video I’ve transcribed (and summarized) the writing process so you can follow along with the video, or read through it separately to better understand how this all works.

THE ORIGINAL LYRICS:

Please believe me

This wasn’t easy

I need my freedom

Want you to free me

SOME ISSUES I FLAGGED (ALL EXPLAINED IN THE VID) 

The first pair of lines is great:

Please believe me 

This wasn’t easy

They tell the truth in a simple, vulnerable, endearing way (that rhymes, of course). I see a few reasons why the second two lines are not as strong as the first two:

1) The second two lines don’t expand on the thought generated in first two (the theme of difficulty)

2) The second pair of lines doesn’t give the listener any new takeaway (the verses are all about her needing freedom, in so many words)

3) We’re repeating freedom and free me which is a bit awkward

4) In the story, the point isn’t really that she wanted him to free her — it was that she left him in pursuit of her own freedom 

ENTERING THE RE-WRITING PROCESS

Now let’s get the second pair of lyrics working as hard as the first. As is so often the case, the answer is hiding in the question. Or the solution is hiding in the problem, if you like.

“What exactly wasn’t easy,” I asked?

She said, “Well I’ve never been the type to let go very easily.” Ah, okay. Letting go is what is not easy. Can we turn that into a lyric? Which became: 

To let it go

And let it be 

Well done. Now we’ve got the accuracy we need, and a bit of poetry too. The two “let its” sound nice following one after the other. And we’ve got both meaningful and memorable. Still, it seemed like we could do better. It’s back to the foundational idea, which we probed further:

Please believe me

This wasn’t easy 

“It wasn’t easy, but you still did it anyway,” I pointed out. “Why?” 

“I need my freedom!” she repeated. Sometimes you just don’t know another way to express what you’re trying to say. When that happens, it can help to just open up your brain and think out loud, which she did: “I don’t know, it’s like a feeling racing through me.”

We can certainly work with that. A big part of being a good songwriter is being a good listener. That means listening for ideas, meaning, and insights, often fluttering by in little unassuming phrases like “racing through me.” It’s a great bit of visceral imagery, so we added it in:

I need my freedom 

Racing through me 

“Okay, we’re getting hot on the tail of something good here,” I said. “But it’s not really the ‘freedom’ that’s racing through you as yet, is it? Because we’re talking about how it wasn’t easy to take the leap. You’re still on the precipice. What more can we tell the listener about that moment?” She came back with: 

I can’t name this feeling 

Racing through me 

A great step forward. Now we’re addressing the confusion, or perhaps the doubt, that attends every big life decision or change. But let’s push on. “Is the heart of the issue that you can’t name the feeling?” I asked. Then we had the ah-ha… It wasn’t easy to face the feeling! Now we’ve got it: 

Please believe me

It wasn’t easy 

To face this feeling

Racing through me

In the end, what wasn’t easy was for her to face the feeling that she was ready to move on from her relationship. And we said as much in a really artful way.

So there you have it folks. Meaningful and memorable and true and poignant and simple and universal and everything you want a great lyric to be. Hope this little transcription-of-sorts helps with the video.

Enjoy chipping away at this wonderful craft we call songwriting, and if you’d ever like to book a co-writing sesh or a songwriting lesson with me, here’s where you can do it (and even grab a free trial if you like). Cheers!

I Wish I Wrote That: “Signed, Sober You” by HARDY

I love it when a song just levels me with sheer craft. Like… it’s so good, it makes me mad. But it also makes me smile. And I can’t decide whether I want to pick up a guitar or throw in the towel once and for all. Yes, when that happens you know you’ve stumbled across a winner. And HARDY’s “Signed, Sober You” is one such tune:

There are a million things to love about this tune but let me just share a few thoughts on why it’s such a fine piece of songwriting.

1. We’re in the scene from line one

Third shot down, I’m in trouble

I love this opening line. “Third shot down, I’m in trouble”. Bang! Right away, we’re thrust into a bar scene with our hero. You don’t need to be watching the video to see the flickering neon beer signs, sense the pool table off in the corner, and practically feel the chunky wooden bar underneath your forearms. From the first six words we’re sucked into the world of this character. It’s instant drama—and we want to know what happens next.

2. A healthy dose of suspense

Stumble through the front door, gone as it gets

Flip the kitchen light on, there it it

On the fridge, just my luck

“Read this if you’re drunk”

Something is unfolding. We know that much. But what exactly is this all about? The details are coming slow and steady but we still don’t quite have the full picture. Even as the note on the fridge appears, we don’t know who it’s from. And if you’re like me, you might assume it’s from the lover who recently left him. But like me, you’d be wrong.

3. An original idea, expressed simply

Don’t think about it, mister

Don’t even touch your phone

I know you think you miss her

But I promise you, you don’t

There’s healing in the lonely

Sit back, kick off your boots

And you’ll thank me in the morning

Like you always do

Signed, sober you

Arrgggghhhhhhh!! So. So. So. Good. Now we finally understand what this song is all about. I love the plain-speak, “Don’t think about it mister, don’t even touch your phone.” It’s a great example of how you to don’t need big words to convey big ideas. As Mark Twain put it, “Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.”

4. Playing with language

There’s healing in the lonely

I particularly love this line in the chorus. What an original expression. He transforms the word “lonely” from an adjective into a noun—if not a proper noun: The Lonely, capital L, right? A lesser writer might have said, “There’s healing in feeling lonely,” or “There’s healing in the lonely times.” But as writers we’re free to bend, twist, push, and break the language. Whatever it takes to get the message across.

5. Making every word count

P.S., there’s pizza in the freezer, Dumb and Dumber on the TV

It’s so stupid, that’s what you’d be

To go diggin’ through her Instagram

If you’re thinkin’ ’bout that, read this again

Pizza, freezer, Dumb and Dumber, TV—the details continue to paint the picture. We’re back at our hero’s apartment. Look at how Hardy uses the word “diggin’”. He could have said “lookin’” or “checkin’ out.” But he found a far more visceral word, far more active and emotionally charged. It perfectly reflects the desperation of the narrator.

6. Zooming in, zooming out

Yeah, well remember last time that you hit her up

You heard some other guy, how much does that suck?

That set you back a month, yeah, trust me, old friend

You don’t wanna go down that road again

In movie-making, an actor’s performance will feel very different when it’s shot close and tight, versus far and wide. We have the same perspective tools available to us in writing. Thus far, we’ve been zoomed in on the details of a single night. Here in the bridge Hardy zooms out to give us the bird’s eye view to help us better understand what’s at stake for our character.

7. A twist at the end

Don’t think about it, mister

Don’t even touch your phone

I know you wanna kiss her

But I promise you, you don’t

It’s always a nice stroke of craft to give the listener a little something extra at the end of a song. Hardy swaps “miss” for “kiss” here, just to put a cherry on top.

I could go on and on, but I’ll stop here. Well done compadre!

Hope you enjoyed this breakdown and if you’d like to book an online songwriting lesson, grab a freebie right here.