You might think that songwriters who create a lyric first are likely to be poets, but that’s not always the case. Some poetry works well as song lyrics, but only if:
- the poem has universal appeal: it speaks of issues and situations that most people would identify with on some level;
- the poem taps in to the emotions of the listener, and makes them feel something;
- the poem uses a colloquial language style, with words that are likely to be used in casual conversation.
Lyrics Vs Poetry
Many song lyrics don’t work particularly well as poetry, if by poetry we mean written words that require many readings to catch the deeper, more poignant meanings. Many of John Lennon’s lyrics could be described as examples of poetry, but not all.
“He’s a real nowhere man/ Sitting in his nowhere land/ Making all his nowhere plans for nobody” (“Nowhere man”) works well as poetry, and stimulates the imagination. But “I want you/ I want you so bad/ I want you/ I want you so bad/ It’s driving me mad/ It’s driving me mad (“I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”) is hard to consider as poetry. But it’s not trying to be poetry.
That’s certainly not the same thing as saying that it’s not effective. The lyric for “I Want You” is just right for what it’s meant to do.
If you’re a lyrics-first songwriter, you probably move toward the poetry side of what writing words can be. But if poetry isn’t your thing, you can still be an effective lyrics-first songwriter. Here is a step-by-step procedure for writing a song by starting with the lyrics.
A Lyrics-First Method
There area many ways to do a lyrics-first song, so in this optional method, you’re going to 1) create a song title; 2) work out the chorus lyric; 3) work out the verse lyric; 4) create a chorus hook to support your title; and 5) flesh out the rest of the song.
Start by creating a line of lyric that might serve as a working title. In this regard, think of this procedure as starting with a chorus. Go for 1) universal appeal, 2) tapping into the audience’s emotions, and 3) a casual, conversational feel. Something like “I Love When You’re With Me”, which fulfills all 3 or those criteria. Now:
- Find a tempo that works with your title. Tap your foot, say your line over and over. Find a tempo that seems to convey what you’re feeling about that line.
- Find different ways (rhythms) to say your title. Try elongating certain words, shortening others, and then change things completely and find new ways. Notice how when you change the accentuation of different words that the subtext — the implied meaning — seems to change as well.
- Create a line of lyric to PRECEDE your title. This makes your title an answering line: “Love the times you talk to me/ I love when you’re with me“
- Create a line of lyric to FOLLOW your title: “I love when you’re with me/ and love to see you smile…“
Moving From Chorus Back to Verse
Now you need to start making decisions about how you see your title working into the song. You may like your title as an answering line, but if you think it’s more effective to start the chorus with your chosen line, focus on step 4 above and keep going:
- Sketch out a purpose for your chorus. To write more lines, you really need to know what your song is about. Good choruses aren’t just a collection of feelings. They’re reacting to something, and in this case, to something you haven’t written yet (i.e., the verse). So start sketching out ideas for what might happen in a Verse 1 that would make you say “I love when you’re with me/ and love to see you smile…“
- Finish your chorus lyric. Now that you know what’s going on in the verse, finish the chorus lyric. Remember to keep the tempo in your foot as you experiment with lines of lyric. Make sure all words sound natural, and are pulsed easily as you say them.
- Create a verse lyric. You know what your verse is about, but you need a lyric. So create words that lay out a situation or circumstance, that describes people and uses imagery. And above all, make sure it’s the kind of lyric that would lead naturally into your chorus.
Creating Melodies and Chords to Support Your Lyric
You’ve got a lot of your lyric written now, and so now it’s time to concentrate on melody and chords.
- Go back to your title line of lyric and work out a melodic and chord progression idea for the chorus. Work out a 2- or 3-chord progression, and try improvising a melody that works well with “I love when you’re with me.” You should be looking for something “hooky” — a melodic shape with an interesting rhythmic treatment. The chords you choose will dictate mood. Try playing Bb-F-C while improvising melodic ideas. And if you can’t come up with anything, try new chord possibilities: Dm-G-C, Dm-C/E-F, Am-Dm-G, etc. Remember that choruses are usually pitched higher than verses.
- Go to your verse, and create melodic and chord progression ideas. Remember that verses are usually pitched lower than chorus, so work out melodic ideas that keep your voice low, moving higher as it gets closer to the chorus.
At this point, the song should be taking on a life of its own. It gets easier to keep the flow going as ideas happen. Starting is often the toughest part.
Why Lyrics First?
The benefit to writing a song by working out lyric ideas first is that you’re working on the part that directly communicates with the audience: the words. You concentrate on shaping ideas, fashioning imagery and grabbing the audience in an emotional way that can keep them listening.
Starting with lyrics can also mean working out part of a song lyric, and then moving to creating melodies and chords right away. In other words, there’s no need to force yourself into sticking with working out an entire lyric, particularly if melodic ideas are jumping into your musical mind right away.