If you ask most songwriters what their biggest challenges are when starting something new, you’re likely to hear the topic of lyrics come up. I can immediately relate to this as I personally feel that the music you are writing can convey emotions on a level far deeper than any words can begin to articulate.
That being said, I love getting stopped in my tracks with a great line that makes me go. “I totally have been where this person was when they wrote this.”
In this article, I’m going to share with you my perspective on how I go about writing lyrics that are meaningful to me in seven simple steps. Let’s get started.
About the author
What do I need for writing song lyrics?
Before we get into the steps, I want to lay out the bare essentials of what you’ll need to start writing lyrics. You’ll need:
- pen or pencil,
- smartphone (recording device),
- rhyming dictionary.
Here’s how to write lyrics in 7 steps:
- Listen to what the music is telling you
- Sing a wordless melody
- Transcribe the gibberish
- Find relevant words
- Find words associated to the relevant words
- Find your theme
- Say what you mean
Step 1: Listen to what the music is telling you
Before you write a single word, sit back and listen to the music you’ve written and simply pay attention to how it makes you feel.
I’m going to keep things relatively generic here because the complexity of human emotion is broad to say the least. To keep things simple, ask yourself how the music makes you feel.
Is it sad? Is it happy? Is it angry? Is it pensive and melancholy? Or is it more subtle and nervous? What are the emotions associated with what’s written?
Dynamics also come into play here. Is it a super quiet song or super intense and loud? Or both? Write down the mood and dynamics of the piece.
Further reading: Which comes first? Music or lyrics?
Step 2: Sing a wordless melody
At this point we’re going to walk through the process of what’s known as “scatting” which is in essence, improvising a wordless melody or rhythmic vocal pattern to pre-existing music.
Play your song a few times and just start mouthing out a bunch of nonsense syllables. It’s really that simple.
Approach this improvisation with what will probably feel like a weird amount of passion but take it seriously. Scat these lines as if you mean everything you say even if nothing is actually literally being said yet. Do this until you’ve got a “wordless melody.” (Or vocal pattern if you’re doing metal and are a screamer.)
Step 3: Transcribe the gibberish
Listen back to your rough phone recording and begin to look for “word-sounding” sounds. (i.e sounds that could become words.) Listen closely to see where the consonants begin and end. Where do the vowels sit in the context of this wordless melody? Count the syllables.
From there, try to take all the sounds that sound close to words and write down what words you think they sound like the most. Fill up a page of these words and don’t worry if they don’t make sense yet. We just want a page of real words that sound just like the gibberish ones.
Step 4: Find relevant words
At this point, your job is to find words that adhere to the sonic and emotional qualities of the music. This could be a poignant or clever phrase, an interesting rhythmic structure, or even the sound of the words themselves.
Step 5: Find words associated to the relevant words
Take the list of words you have so far and see if you can find any other words that associate with them using a dictionary and thesaurus.
Try to find 10-20 different words that relate to each other and write them on a separate sheet of paper.
Step 6: Find your theme
Now that you have your list of words and variations, take a look and see what kind of thoughts come to mind as you read them. Do they point to a specific theme? Or maybe even a memory? Do they create pictures in your mind?
Spend 5-10 minutes exploring this to see if there’s a particular narrative that occurs when you start thinking about the words that you’ve written down.
Step 7: Say what you mean
By now, you should have an idea of where to take things lyrically so from here on, I would suggest that you maintain authenticity in what you are trying to convey as much as you can.
Say what you mean. Don’t try to be something you’re not. Be authentic to your own creative voice and the music that you’ve written. If poetry is your thing, then go for it, but if it’s not something that feels natural to you, say it as you were in a conversation and own it.
At the end of the day, it’s the emotional content of the material that’s going to resonate with your audience, so if you don’t believe it, neither will they.
The craft of lyric writing is a process unto itself. One that lives inside the process of songwriting as a whole so when you think about it, it’s a process within a process.
Like I said before, having some simple guidelines can be a huge help in getting the creative gears going, and once you’re there, you can let go of it all and follow your instincts. As with any skill, writing lyrics is a practice that only improves with time and repetition.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the article and if you’d like me to share more ideas like this, let me know in the comments!