songwriting lessons

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!

In Songwriting, One Word is All it Takes

It never fails to fascinate me how one word can unlock an entire song.

I was in the gym the other day and “Speechless” by Dan + Shay was playing. It was the first time I’d heard it, and it was instantly memorable. With that one word they did what so many of us songwriters are trying to do—find a way to express something universal in a fresh way. “Speechless” is just another love song. But it’s love as seen through a very particular lens. That lens is the concept, and the concept is the word.

Not only does the song revolve around one specific word, but that word revolves around one specific moment. No one is speechless for any length of time. It happens in a split second that leaves you slack-jawed. Drawing on a specific emotionally-charged moment like that gives your writing clarity and vigor. Without that focus, you often end up in the land of platitudes and generalities.

Or take another single-word-titled love song, “Crazy” by Willie Nelson. One word, one concept. And not a terribly unusual word either. Both “Speechless” and “Crazy” are ordinary, everyday words. But in a good writer’s hands they take on extraordinary meaning.

Sometimes my songwriting students get hung up, thinking they can’t use words that have already been used. Get over that. Gnarls Barkley did when he wrote his own version of a song called “Crazy”. I’m sure there were plenty of naysayers telling him he should steer clear of that word. But once it was released, none of us seemed to mind as we all belted it out for about a year straight—while along the way it topped the Billboard charts, won a Grammy, and eventually ended up on Rolling Stones 500 Greatest Songs of all Time list.

Then there’s the question of how you sing that one word. Think about how Mick Jagger sings the word “Satisfaction.” Sat-is-fac-tion. It comes out of his mouth all choppy, both frustrated and orgasmic at once. The fractured delivery adds to the meaning.

Going back to the two versions of  “Crazy,” the same holds true.  Willie just about sighs that word, doesn’t he? You can almost hear him shrugging, shaking his head, as the melody lilts from high to low, low to high. Gnarls did the exact opposite. His “Crazy” was exasperated, bursting with energy, top of his range, a total unleashing of pent-up energy.

Same word, different feeling.

There are nearly 200,000 words in the English dictionary. Open it up, pick one, and turn it into a song. Or, the next time a particular word catches your ear in conversation, jot it down and see where you can take it. If all else fails, you can simply write your own version of “Crazy”.

If you want some guidance along the way, or you’d like learn more about the craft of songwriting in general, book a free trial songwriting lesson with me today.