The art of writing lyrics


Many of you probably know by now, I am working with the metal band Unsun. What started out to be a one-off effort has turned into much, much more. I have now submitted to them lyrics for four songs and am now working on a fifth. I’d worked in the form years ago with a band that I was in, so the process wasn’t altogether unfamiliar. So… I thought it would be a fun distraction to chat about my process (along with some tips and tricks) on writing lyrics for bands.

My writing has extended to numerous forms:

  • Haiku
  • Poetry
  • Fiction
  • Non-fiction
  • Stage plays
  • Texts

Of all of those different vehicles for the written word, the writing of lyrics might be one of the most challenging, yet rewarding forms. You might be thinking — how hard is it to write lyrics? You might find it hard to believe, but there are far more pitfalls than you can imagine. For instance:

  • You must avoid heavy handed meter and rhyme
  • You must ensure the lyrics fit the style and message of the band
  • You must tell a story in a very short period of time
  • You must avoid cliches

It’s not a huge list, but once you start the writing process, you find out just how challenging it is to avoid those four pitfalls.

Beyond the usual traps, where do you begin? How do you start writing the lyrics for a song? For me, it’s simple — I wait. I don’t force the words to come out. I forget about the process of writing until the kernel of an idea hits me. I do this for one very simple reason — when an idea really hits me, it’s almost always a keeper. This thread of an idea might be a single line. Here’s a fragment of the chorus for the lyrics to Pretty Mess (written for Unsun):

Come alive
Play outside
Show your party dress
Moan with me
And all will see
You darling pretty mess

How this song came about was the tile. The juxtaposition of the two terms pretty and mess appealed to me on numerous levels. I knew I wanted to write a song with this title — so the first thing was to figure out how to work it into a chorus. When I laid down those two words in LibreOffice a very clear story came to life. I’m working all of the lyrics into an apocalyptic theme, so I knew well the environment. ¬†I went ahead with a standard rhyme scheme:

  • A
  • B
  • C
  • D
  • E
  • C

As many of you know, I tend to break the rules… a lot. But since there are few hard and fast rules (if any) in the writing of lyrics, I was free to make my own. So I try not to use the same rhyme scheme with every song (else wind up reading like Emily Dickenson).

Here are some of the rhyme schemes I’ve used so far:

  • A
  • A
  • B
  • B

And

  • A
  • B
  • C
  • D
  • Break
  • E
  • F
  • G
  • D

One of my favorites so far:

  • A
  • B
  • C
  • C
  • D
  • D

It goes one, as you can imagine.

Outside of rhyme scheme, here are some other tips:

  • If you have an idea, but can’t seem to get it out — write it in prose. Somewhere in that prose the core of the lyric will emerge.
  • Analyze other songs to see what works and what doesn’t work.
  • Keep a consistent structure and pattern throughout the song — even if that pattern is unique to that song and your style.
  • Create a back story for the song.
  • Decide who’s telling the story and why before you start writing.
  • Do not use the same structure for your chorus — it needs to stand out from the verses.
  • Don’t get stuck in the same metric pattern (this isn’t Shakespeare — so there’s no need for iambic pentameter).
  • Always use opposites. It’s really an incredible feat when you have light lyrics against a backdrop of dark sounds. Never hesitate to have light and dark play off of one another.
  • Use your words judiciously. Shoving too many words within a line can cause problems for singers and composers.
  • Be aware of the vowels and consonants you use. Understand certain vowels and¬†consonants are harder to sing than others. Make sure you play to the strengths of the singer.
  • Don’t “fill” a verse or chorus just to serve a rhyme scheme.

The craft of lyric writing is an incredibly fulfilling one. This is especially true when you hear your words brought to life with music and voice. The first time you hear this you will understand the true power of the written word in a way you may never have experienced.

And if you’re not a lyricist, or have the opportunity to write for a band, I still recommend you try your hand at penning lyrics. Not only will it lend you a greater appreciation for what musicians do, it’ll stretch and hone your writing skills.