I tried an experiment with one of my songwriting students last week, and had wonderful results. The student’s lyrics often felt unnatural, fragmented and even unclear. The harder we tried to incorporate new lyric writing tools, the more difficulty she seemed to have writing a cohesive and engaging lyric. What we decided to do was to put down the guitar and write a lyric by itself – no chords, no melody, not even a rhythm. The assignment was to sit down and write from the heart – to write a free flowing lyric that meant something to her, forgetting rhyme and figures of speech and the other lyric writing tools we had previously discussed. We could put music to it later; we could shape the words and the phrases later. The result was the absolute best lyric that she had written, since we began working together. Was it perfect? Was it finished? By no means. But it was a wonderful start because it flowed naturally. It was engaging because it was real. It had feeling and emotion.
Multi-hit songwriter Alan Shamblin (The House That Built Me, He Walked On Water), once said that many times he will start with this type of “free-flow” writing. He said that if he could lose himself in the idea, the the heart of what he wanted to say would just “fall out on the page”.* That was our experience as well.
The second step for this student songwriter will be to put music around her new lyric, knowing that the lyric will need to adjust. There will be tweaks and changes, but the foundation is there and will not need to change. We will identify a hook and center our adjustments around it. We will look at rhyme and assonance and figures of speech, and add them as needed. But the idea and the underpinnings are all already there for something wonderful.
I’ve found that many young songwriters start with a musical idea and then try to fit a lyric to it. Try doing it the other way around and I believe you may find the message of your song to be much more “gripping”, moving or inspiring. Convey your heart in your song. The music is simply a bed for your message.
* From The Secrets of Songwriting by Susan Tucker. Copyright 2003 Susan Tucker. Available here at Amazon.com.