Lyrics - Art & Expression
Updated: May 5, 2020
Expanding Your Palette.
Expression has many forms. In songwriting, words are the front lines of our communication. They pull the listener in, create intrigue and interest, and tell a story. The musical aspects of expression in songwriting – melodies, musical lifts and patterns – also affect a listener deeply on their own. When words and melody merge together to become one expression, we have the art of song. It becomes something more than the sum of its elements. We begin with an idea, but how we express it will determine what it becomes, and how it affects the listener. The style in your songwriting is shaped not only by the lyrical and music colors you have in your ever expanding palette, but the way you combine them. As we develop and hone our craft, I have always felt that balancing what comes natural with awareness of technique and causality of our approach is a powerful combination. The art and the craft can then work together to produce great results. To me, the craft is what gives the art its place to live. It’s the frame to the painting, and the map to the treasure. As a great writer once said, ”To write is human, to edit is divine.”
In lyric writing, like any good writing, we must be concise. Not that it has to be inherently short, but as the great literary guru William Strunk Jr famously said, “every word tell”. Phrases that say a lot, and words that say more due to the context in which they are used – these are the kind of elements in writing lyrics that give a song it’s depth. When a lyric and melody are glued together in some connected, organic way, then we are on to something good. A lyric and a melody should sound like they sprang out of the same well. And sometimes they do, in a moment of stream of consciousness creative flow, but sometimes as songwriters we need to do the pairing. Melodies have a mood, and words have a message. Combining the right mood with the right message is key in expressing an emotional thought. We must have awareness of this in our songwriting.
Poetry is a whimsical, frolicking expression of words and emotions and thoughts and ideas. Songwriting can be more direct, more literal, and more conversational at times, but, for me, having a poetic view of the world and in our descriptions of it can often lead to those lines that sing well, and say a lot. Alliteration and poetic nuances to songwriting can give us a less analytical and more soulful style of expression. As we loosen up our inner self editing process as we write, sometimes great phrases begin to appear. We can then edit in ways that use the best of the poetic clay we unearthed, but help it take on more shape and clarity. We can connect the thoughts and find a flow to it, and then step back and see if what we have is a cohesive verse in some way, whether more abstract or more literal, that works. If not, we craft the art a little further until it does. Be adventurous with words. We can always tame them down if we go too far, and sometimes that’s the only way to know that we’ve reached far enough. The shallow pond is comfortable, but it’s the unknown depths of broadening our creative thought that will always call us to explore. Tap the poetic well, it is deep with possibilities.
Hooks favor the bold.
In writing hooks, not only a hook to a chorus, but conceptual hooks as well, I’ve found that really, really stretching and pushing for new ways of looking at things is so key to progressing as a songwriter. We have to be willing to recognize when we haven’t stretched enough. After that, it’s on us to do the imaginative exercise and abstract thinking that might lead to a unique angle and hook to an idea. Maybe it’s a surprising perspective, maybe it’s an unexpected word or phrase used to apply to something in a way you’ve never heard it applied to. Maybe it’s a fictional story that has characters and happenings that take the listener to an interesting scenario, relatable but imaginative. Genres have much to do with hook styles. Country music can be much more about telling stories, but vibe and emotional texture is found there as well. In Pop music, we may need more vibe, less literal story, but again there are exceptions. Expanding our songwriting into new genres may require some artistic control of our expression at first. That is the craft. We just can’t lose the art and originality in the process. That will always be what’s most important at the end of the day.