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Writing Lyrics: A Step By Step Example

12:34 pm Songwriting

Writing good lyrics is hard. Writing great lyrics is very hard. I’ve written hundreds of songs, with hundreds of sets of lyrics, and I can’t think of a single one that I would consider to be truly great. But hey, a good set of lyrics is OK too, and I have written a fair number of those!

Maybe you’re at the stage where you’re not even sure whether you’ve written any good lyrics yet. Maybe you’re not sure that the way you’re going about it is effective, or maybe you don’t really have a way of going about it and as a result haven’t actually gotten started yet. If this is you, what are you planning to do about it?

One possibility is to listen to a lot of music, paying special attention to the lyrics, including their structure and use of repetition, rhyming patterns, etc., then try to imitate what you’ve heard. Or, you can get one of the many books on the basics of songwriting and learn the theoretical underpinnings of successful lyrics. You could also “learn by doing” by just dashing off a bunch of quick songs without worrying about whether they are any good, just for practice. Actually, a combination of these approaches is probably the best way to go.

(Commercial message: My eBook Cheap Advice On Songwriting bags the theoretical approach, presenting 60 specific tips on getting ideas for lyrics, novel song structures, etc.)

Lyrics are typically not made up in order, from the first line in the song to the last. Like a movie whose scenes are shot out of order for technical reasons, the parts of your song may emerge in any sequence. The cool line you thought of first may end up being the third line in the second verse!

Step By Step

Just so you will have at least one concrete example of how (reasonably) good lyrics get written, I will quickly walk you through through the process that led to the words for my song “Drive.” I chose this song as an illustration because (a) I wrote the lyrics first, with only vague attention to the chords or melody, and (b) the song is recent enough that I can actually remember writing the words!

In the beginning, I wanted a song with an insistent riff that was set in a futuristic dystopia like that pictured in THX1138 and similar movies. I remembered the scene in that movie where the “hero” escapes from the thought police by hopping into a fast car and roaring off, which gave me my first lyrical idea: Get in your car and drive.

It seemed natural to repeat that line twice, but a third time would be too much, so I used the semi-obvious “alive” rhyme in a different third line, and then I repeated the original line once more. This gave me something that felt like a chorus I could return to throughout the song:

Get in your car and drive
Get in your car and drive
You want to stay alive
Get in your car and drive

Before writing any more specific lines, I thought about what the verses and bridge should be about - they had to say something that would go with the repeated advice to “get in your car and drive.” I decided that the verses would be the narrator being paranoid (perhaps rightly so) about something unspecified that was “coming to get him,” and the bridge would be him surrendering to the authorities.

Note that by this point, I had moved away from the specifics of THX1138 and was designing my own nightmare. (In point of fact, the guy in the movie doesn’t get caught because the money budgeted to chase him runs out.)

The Verse Is Yet To Come

With all of this in mind, and indulging my penchant for repetition, I came up with the following two verses:

Verse 1
I saw another one just last night
Right up over the hill
It was one of them ships all right
Comin’ in for the kill

Verse 2
Where there’s one there might be three
Right up over the hill
Like some movie on TV
Comin’ in for the kill

(I figured one or more “ships” appearing “over the hill” was sufficiently threatening.) For the bridge, I wanted to break away completely from the riff as well as from the rhythm I had been using, to emphasize the drastic change in the storyline at that point. I pictured the surrender scene in my mind and wrote out the bridge just as you see it here, without worrying (yet) about how I would ultimately set it to music:

Don’t take me I’m innocent
(Tell it to the boss, tell it to the boss man)
I support the government
(Tell it to the boss, tell it to the boss man)
Don’t take me I’m innocent
I support the government
I support the president

With the bridge completed, I had my lyrics! You may find yourself going through a process like the one I have described when you work up your next set of lyrics. Here’s hoping it’s at least a good set of lyrics!

(Please enable popups for this site if the mp3 player does not appear, or just click the mp3 link to listen.)

Drive (Bendig) (mp3, chords, lyrics)
Mark Bendig: vocals, keyboards, percussion
Jack Burgess: keyboard sax, drum/bass programming

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