by Steve Lipman
A painting is composed of shapes and colors, arranged in such a way to create a cohesive picture for the viewer. Painters become better with practice by showcasing their art and developing a personal creative process - most of the time. Sometimes, inspiration works in mysterious ways.
A song is very similar to a visual masterpiece. Each sound, phrase, and word - arranged in just the right order - elicits an emotional or intellectual response from the listener. A song is an intangible creation, built of many parts to achieve a myriad of effects.
Just as the visual artist might dive into the world of their craft, songwriters and lyricists are well-served by doing the same. Great lyrical songs touch their listeners by combining the impact of their words with the emotional power of its music. That’s why I suggest you ask the following questions about the song you are trying to write.
- What Do You Want to Say?
Painters often take time to visualize their work before the brush hits the canvas. Developing a guiding statement for your lyrics - what they want to say - keeps your message top of mind as you work. The question is: What is the subject of my song?
- Who Are You Writing To?
The listener may be the person you are addressing in your song. It could be someone else - someone who broke your heart or stole it. Or, it could be a series of rallying statements for the world at-large. Regardless, a song always speaks to someone or something.
Understanding who the song is speaking to gives lyricists direction with the finer details of writing such as tone, character, and point of view.
- How Do You Want to Say It?
What’s the emotion behind your message? Is it an aggressive call-to-action? Or, a sweet tune for the love of your life? Just as there’s a difference in what we might say to someone we’re mad or happy with, the emotional and psychological origins of your message should come out in your writing.
- Now What’s the Right Word?
Next, you need to think about the lyrics (words) in your song. Again, who is speaking them, and to whom, will help you determine how the lyrics are heard.
The right words put the listener exactly where you want them. Great lyrics convey a message effectively when they are embodied by the music. A song should feel like a complete experience, meaning that everything that needs to be said finds itself in your lyrics.
Finding the right words is tough. Sometimes, such as in the case with Led Zeppelin’s “Rock n’ Roll,” a song can be completed in 15 minutes in the studio and get slapped onto an album.
On the other hand, Bob Dylan always said his song, “Tangled Up in Blue” took him “a decade to live, and two years to write.” Crafting great lyrics often takes care, patience, and time.
- How long does it take to write a song?
It could be somewhere between 15 minutes to a lifetime. Some songs are started but never finished. Sometimes the unfinished song is telling you that you don’t know enough about the subject you are writing about. And, sometimes, the passion behind the song dissipates. My advice is to write a song until you can’t write it any more. The song will let you know when it is completed. Learn from it and move on to the next song.
It’s what made “Tangled Up in Blue” take two years to write, and “Rock N’ Roll” take 15 minutes. If your song feels complete, it is. If it doesn’t feel complete, then it needs more work.
- The Next One will Always be Better
According to veteran songwriting coach Randy Klein, writing a great song requires drawing from past experiences.
Each song you attempt to create is a demonstration of your understanding of song craft, and of your ability to draft lyrics that make an impact. As you work on your current piece, it’s always helpful to reference past pieces and utilize the lessons you learned from their creation.
- Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.
Many songwriters forget there is a lot of power in the rewrite.
Perhaps one of the most effective ways of battling writer’s block - what many people may call “hitting the wall” - is by taking a different approach. More often than not, the first draft of a song is a collection of ideas which should be considered temporary.
Rewrites allow you to explore a different direction with your song, while using elements already created to guide the way. Many songwriters are completely surprised by what comes out of them during the rewriting process.
- Test Your Audience
If you’re inspired to write a song, it means you want to communicate something to someone else. Having a sample of who that “someone else” is may be invaluable to your editing process.
A phrase may resonate with us because it comes from within. Yet, it’s not uncommon for something meaningful to us to fall on someone else’s deaf ears. That’s why workshopping your lyrics with trusted listeners can inspire valuable revisions, or tell you the song is on the wrong track altogether. In this instance, remaining humble is key.
In the end, it’s your voice.
You may be sitting there asking yourself, “Does every songwriter incorporate each of these eight steps into their songwriting?”
The answer to that is absolutely not. Just like any form of art, songwriting is a personal journey, the success of which is most clearly determined by whether you’re happy with the finished product.
Any songwriter who wants to get better at writing lyrics can use any number of these steps to help them along the way. You may also decide you want to study songwriting in college, or take the journey on your own.
Either way, it’s your words, your voice, and your message going into people’s ears. Treat each song like an individual experience, a singular journey to navigate - and remember to always enjoy the process just as much as the finished product.
Steve Lipman is founder of Inside Music Schools, a music school admissions consultancy based near Boston, MA. He has experience counseling aspiring professional musicians from performance and songwriting to music production and music business. Having spent more than 40 years at Berklee College of Music as Director of Admissions, Assistant Dean of Students, and as Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs, he is one of the country’s leading experts on contemporary music education and college admissions.
For information on the 25th Annual USA Songwriting Competition, go to: https://www.songwriting.net