On Becoming a Lyricist (for Musicians)

  • Written by Angela Predhomme

Music 101- A weekly series about how to succeed in music.

It seems to me that by nature, everyone is either a word person or a music person. With a background of piano lessons and school band, I was definitely a music person. Melody is my strong point. However, to be a good songwriter, I, like so many of my fellow musicians, had to learn the craft of lyric writing.

To a few, lyric writing comes naturally, but I guarantee that the best lyric writers out there have put considerable time into developing their craft. Some lyric writers are not necessarily good at melody or groove, but they can write lyrics that will cut straight to your heart and top the charts.

Collaboration is a great thing, and when we pool our strengths with people who have complementary strengths, songwriting magic happens.

However, if you’re a music creator and you want to write your own lyrics, there is a lot to learn.

The Unavoidable Lesson for Musicians

I must admit that when I started writing music, I didn’t care much about the lyrics. I know, I know. You must think I’m crazy. I guess I was. My first original song (never released) was called “Yeah.” Brilliant, right? I was just putting words over the music because that’s what people do to call it a “song.” I treated lyrics like an afterthought.

Eventually, over a period of years, I came to terms with the fact that it’s the LYRICS, not the music, that most commonly resonate with the listener.

We musicians hear music differently. We hear the melody, the groove, the chord changes, and the musicianship in a recorded performance. We FEEL music. I’m not a neurologist, but it seems like truly feeling the music, letting it take you somewhere, or following the lyrics of a story are things that happen in two completely different parts of the brain.

Fast forward to the present, I understand that the lyrics in a song are unequivocally everything. Before, I didn’t understand why some songs with less than stellar melodies were huge hits. But now, I’ve come to understand how most people hear music: words, words, words!  

The Best of Both Worlds Merges in Pop Megastars

Let’s look at a couple masters of pop: Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran. They are musical people. They write memorable, solid melodies that stick in your head and appeal to a sense of music with their lovely phrasing and musical resolves.

However, both Swift and Sheeran are phenomenal lyricists. These songwriters are superstars for a reason. They have mastered BOTH the arts of lyrics and melody. This is why they are two of the top-selling artists in the world. They inspire me to strive for excellence in both of these very different aspects of songwriting.

How to Write Great Lyrics

The first step to becoming a killer lyricist is to acknowledge and accept what I did: The weight of lyrics in a song is greater than the weight of the music, no matter how good the music is.

I had to learn to hear music as a non-musician, and you should, too. This means listening to what the lyrics are saying and how those words make you feel. Do they make you feel a connection to the song? Do the lyrics get their point across clearly, or could they confuse someone who might hear the song on their streaming app and knows nothing about you?

Once you accept that lyric writing is a venerable art, you can set out on the long road to developing your own lyric writing. It’s a process. I’m still working to improve.

I strongly recommend peer-to-peer songwriting groups. There are many online or local songwriting groups. Also, you can pay a fee to be part of groups where you get coaching and feedback from professional songwriters with proven track records. If you think someone is charging too much for a critique, then keep looking. There are affordable resources that help developing songwriters.

Having your lyrics reviewed by pros will point you in the right direction, but you need to bid farewell to your ego. Honest, constructive feedback can be painful, but it’s helped me tremendously. We need to accept that our first lyrics will probably not be our best lyrics in their original state.

Revising is the air you breathe. Good songs are written, but great songs are rewritten.  

Lyrics Vary by Genre, but Standards Are High

Depending on genre, lyrics have different styles or focuses. Country and folk are lyric-centric genres that have historically relied on easy-to-follow stories. In the past, some pop and rock were more purely music-centered, with room for poetic lyrics that maybe you didn’t fully understand. That was more acceptable in the past than it is now.

I mean, look at the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ 1989 hit “Give It Away Now.” Catchy as all get-out. But what exactly are they giving away? Whatever it is, they thought you should give it to your mama, your papa, and your daughter. And there is “no time for the piggies or the hoosegow.” They never say directly what they’re talking about giving away. It’s all inference or interpretation.

This kind of mystery in lyric writing is less heard in today’s popular songs. Listeners expect to know what you’re talking about. People don’t have time to figure stuff out. They want the message to be right there, with no decoding required.

Today, there is a very high standard for lyric writing. You should be saying something interesting, and you need to say it clearly. You need to deliver a first line that grabs people and makes them want to hear more. Just listen to any popular song and analyze its first line, and you’ll see it’s a strong lyric that sucks you right in.

That’s not an accident. Lyrics are your pitch to the listener, your invitation to compel them NOT to skip over a song or artist they’ve never heard. How good does it have to be if they’ve never heard it? Really good. The competition is intense.

Just Keep Writing

Writing lyrics is a skill, just like playing your instrument. Practice is the sure way to improve. I’ve written over 100 songs, and my more recent lyrics are a heck of a lot better than my first little masterpiece, “Yeah” (yes, that’s sarcastic).

For an artist or singer-songwriter, I believe the best lyrics come from an authentic place, and are communicated skillfully. What you have to say is important. What you have to say is probably relevant to a lot of other people who feel the same way.

Music listeners are just waiting to connect with someone who understands what they’re going through, shares their perspective, or is thirsty for a little inspiration coming out of their Bluetooth speaker. And the best way to reach into the listener’s heart and connect with them is by expressing your authentic self through your lyrics.

So, buy some songwriting books or read up online, join a feedback group, and keep on writing! No doubt we musician types will all keep improving our word skills if we keep applying ourselves.

Bio: Singer-songwriter Angela Predhomme’s music has been heard by millions through television, film, radio and streaming. Her soulful songs have been featured in the popular Hallmark movie “Christmas on Honeysuckle Lane,” Lifetime’s hit show “Dance Moms,” commercials for ING Bank and Fiat, and more.

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