Wednesday, March 11, 2009

more on writing lyrics

the students brainstormed a list of things that make for good lyrics and then we made it into a handout. What else should we add to this list?

Writing Lyrics
Topic – what’s the song about?
• Beware of hackneyed, over-done topics:
---> How about a misogynistic rap song about how you’re the best rapper, the toughest gangster and how all women love you? BORING!
---> Love songs? Well, 90% of pop music is about love and relationships, so if you’re going to do a song on that topic, you’d better have a new take on it.
* Think about topics that you don’t often hear in songs. (This is one of the great things about Kunjabunja titles – they often make you write about topics you’d never think to write a song about.) I’ve never heard a song about getting stuck in an elevator with someone who hums along with the elevator music, or a song about why hermit crabs are cooler than giant squid, or a song about the Pythagorean Theorem, or a song about the Financial Aid Form, or a song about a guy who always uses orange (never yellow or green) highlighter pens, etc. etc. etc. You can take a real story and change some of the facts (a song about George W. Bush in 2004 deciding to pull out of the Iraq War, or do a fictitious story about what happened behind the scenes in a real event (e.g., a song about John Wilkes Booth hiding in the Ford Theater, waiting for Abraham Lincoln to show up so he can assassinate him, but he’s really got to pee, and he’s not sure how long he can hold it), or just do a song about a real event, but concentrate on some tiny obscure detail of it (e.g., a song about the design on the tie that George Bush was wearing on 9/11).

Wordplay I – the sounds of the words:
• Rhythm – vary it up a little. Make one word long and slow and then cram a whole bunch of words into one space. Set up a pattern of rhythm and then break it.
• Rhyme – remember internal rhymes too; rhymes don’t always have to (or only) come at the end of a line. Sometimes not rhyming when a rhyme is expected is a powerful way of focusing people’s attention. (There’s a They Might Be Giants song that does that: “you're the only one here who can tell me if it's true. / That you love me and I love… me” – you expect to hear ‘you’ because it rhymes with ‘true’)
• Repetition – a good tool to emphasize something, but beware of beating your listeners over the head with something that is repeated too many times.
• Alliteration / Consonance – repetition of similar consonant sounds together, like “the sun settled on the south hill with sudden color”
• Assonance – similarity in sound between internal vowels in neighboring words, like, “Yo! Yo! You better go mow that fro you’re growing”

Wordplay II – the meaning of the words:

• Irony – sometimes it’s a great tool to say the opposite of what you mean.
• Metaphor – Instead of just coming out and directly saying what you want to say, why not say it indirectly with metaphor? But beware of using clichéd, obvious, or over-used metaphors.
• Imagery –This is crucial in good songwriting. But beware of using clichéd, obvious, or over-used images.
• Storytelling (beginning/middle/end).
• Call-backs – weaving in a theme. (Sometimes it’s fun to just pick some idea at random and challenge yourself to work it into the song at certain points. Like polar bears. Even if your song isn’t about polar bears.) Think about weaving in your theme in different ways each time.
• More than one thing going on. The lyrics mention one thing, but really you’re talking about something else. E.g., the song seems to be about how the spotted owl is disappearing, but really it’s about how all your friends are growing up, getting married and moving to the suburbs. That’s much more interesting than a song that’s just about the spotted owl, or a song that just comes out and baldly says “golly, all my friends are growing up, getting married, and moving to the suburbs.”

Other things to keep in mind:
• Brevity / the concise nature of songwriting. Remember that you don’t have to have complete sentences, or pay attention to the rules of grammar. Ask yourself – can I take out this word and still get across the general idea? Think of the famous William Carlos Williams poem: “so much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens.” It conveys so much with so little.
• Use your thesaurus. For each word, ask if there’s a better word, a less-used word, a more interesting word.
• Avoid cliché’s!
• Use specifics! Avoid generalities. This is very important. With one specific example, you can get an idea across succinctly.
• Show don’t tell. Instead of saying, “It was a very cold day”, say “I could see my breath puffing through my chattering teeth”
• Don’t spell things out for your listener. Let them figure it out for themselves. You just give them the clues.
• Set up a pattern and then break it. This could be with the rhythm, or rhyme scheme, or with ideas, or with the structure of the song.


flamingbanjo said...

Why are so many TV shows about murder? Why are there so many about romance and its complications? For the same reason there are so many murder ballads and love ballads: These things address basic human drives and are inherently compelling. Everybody wants love, everybody's afraid of dying. Stories that speak to the basic drives (self-preservation, reproduction, companionship) carry the biggest "charge."

However, this also means that people are used to having those buttons continually pushed by much of the entertainment they consume (especially that form of entertainment known as advertising, which tends to be extremely insistent and manipulative in how it does this.) So while these topics will always be near the top of the list in popularity, they are the hardest to address in some new way.

One of my favorite things about the Beatles lyrics as they entered into their psychedelic period is the way they continued to write songs that were ostensibly about girls and falling in love but were really about different topics -- Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds is an obvious example, but think of a song like Lovely Rita, Meter Maid: What makes this song interesting is not the narrator's relationship with Rita (he is quite attracted to her!) but the fact that she is a meter maid, and there weren't any other songs about meter maids. It spends a lot of time describing her outfit.

Another cool thing good writers do is to use the familiarity of these themes to their advantage -- look at a Tom Waits love song for examples of how to dwell on specifics ("He gave her a dime-store watch and a ring made from a spoon") while letting the listener infer the generalities. He doesn't have to tell you "they were in love" because the listener has heard plenty of love songs and understands this without being told. It is not a song about love in general (like, say, "All You Need Is Love", which you have to admit is a little preachy) but about a specific love affair that happened between two specific people in a particular time and place. By filling the song with compelling imagery and leaving out unnecessary explanations, it encourages the listener to construct a little movie in their mind.

Or, in the words of Mr. Waits himself:
"A song should have some weather, the name of a street, and something to eat."

done.made.said said...

how about using words with no meaning. like lah or doo or flarful harful merrh. sometimes just singing the damn melody without any thinky type words is very powerful. sometimes they're just human mouth noises with some variety of pitch and sometimes they're the hook.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for song writing tips. Yes, some times the rare topic may hit peoples’ hearts and become popular but is it universal? I don’t think so. Sometimes the message can be pure fun, and sometime the message can be very serious. Songwriting topics can be love, anger, sadness, a funny situation, death, relationships, the world and politics, inspiration, etc.

Recently I have visited a site which is full of song writing ideas, song writing tips and more. I hope it will be helpful for the songwriters who read your blog.