As a teacher and leader of songwriting seminars, I constantly encounter a lot of songwriters at different levels, and for most people, the lyrics work creates problems from time to time. The struggle to be really happy with a song is usually for most people on the lyrics side.
If you think it’s easy to get melodies and nice chord sequences, it’s probably because you’ve been doing a lot of this. Then you have both a confidence in your ability to improvise and create music and easy to express feelings and moods in tones.
If you consider yourself weak at writing texts, there is really only one way to go: Write more text! Writing a lyrics is also a special kind of lyric writing that differs from writing factual lyrics, poems or novels. I will give you some tips when it comes to finding topics to write about, and hopefully change your attitude if you find it hopelessly difficult to fill your songs with good text content.
Put on your cap!
If you make your primary focus for a week looking for song suggestions, I can almost guarantee that you will calmly find 100 inspiring ideas. But it requires that you take the task seriously and give it time and attention. I have a metaphor for this: you should “put on the songwriting cap”. Everything we focus on gets bigger, and if you have the songwriting cap on, you will always get suggestions for new songs. I myself set aside special time to write songs and I often participate in songwriting seminars.
What is a good song lyrics idea? Well, it’s an idea that engages you and makes you feel like and inspired to write, and that might engage a listener. Start from your own world and your own experiences. As a young woman, Joni Mitchell was strongly questioned by her teacher when she had submitted a poem about stallions. The teacher wrote “Cliché” all over the paper and asked her to write about things she knew anything about. She thanked the teacher on her first album: “This record is dedicated to Mr. Kratzman, who taught me to love words. ”
There’s really nothing you can not write about. The trick is to angle your subject in an intelligent way that draws the listener into your story. Angling a big topic in a personal way is one of the tricks.
But – and this is important – you need to write down your phrases, titles and words. It is very difficult to remember even the most ingenious in retrospect. Get a special songwriter book, where you can collect, collect, collect.
Of course, wearing a songwriting cap when reading is a must:
Read newspaper headlines and introductions.
Write down book and movie titles that inspire.
Twist favorite phrases from the novel you are reading. Rephrase the phrase a little if possible.
Read interviews and write down phrases with stitches.
The art of listening
The spoken language always contains lots of goodies for the songwriter who knows the art of listening:
What does the love couple on the subway say to each other?
How does your friend describe his tangled love affair?
Movies are a goldmine when looking for fancy phrases. Listen to the dialogues, and write down what inspires.
Go to the theater, and listen for nice lines loaded with meaning and feeling.
Listen to podcasts in English to develop your vocabulary and get ideas, if you write in English. For example, check out Bob Dylan’s own radio program – available as a podcast.
Listen to lyrics by other artists that touch you. What are they about? How is the language? Start from the first phrase of a favorite text and write in your own words.
The story behind the text
Every breath you take
Sting’s lyrics actually described a “stalker”, a sick man, but many misunderstood the song and thought it was a love song. In response to this misinterpretation, Sting then wrote the song Set them free in which he expresses how he defines love.
Born in the USA
Bruce Springsteen wrote the famous song that many interpret as a patriotic anthem. In fact, he wanted to portray how the Vietnam War affected the American people. Highlighting current events is an important challenge as a songwriter. But one must beware of “preaching truths”, that type of songs usually have the opposite effect.
Prince wrote the song in 1999 in the early 80’s, and it became his first really big hit. Some number combinations swing really well, that in itself may have been reason enough for the title. There are more who have used the number 99. German Nena got a hit with 99 Balloons. It’s a much stronger and more ingenious way of saying “tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1999” than just writing “tonight we’re gonna party”. The phrase takes on several meanings, and the text fluctuates considerably.
Angel of Harlem & Candle in the wind
Describing a famous person through a nice metaphor can lead to a good song. Angel of Harlem by U2 is a tribute to Billie Holiday. Another example is Candle in the wind by Elton John which is about the mythical Marilyn Monroe.
Here the Beatles have devoted themselves to describing in detail a street in Liverpool. Before the Beatles, it was just an ordinary street, any one in Liverpool, now people make pilgrimages there and tourism flows. This is how it can go when the songwriting cap is on!
Lucy in the sky with diamonds
This Beatles song has many thought is about the drug LSD. According to John Lennon, his son showed a drawing he had made and said “That’s Lucy in the sky with the diamonds”. Wow, John thought, what a great title!
However, Paul McCartney has subsequently indicated that it was an obvious drug reference.
I would write together with the talented songwriter Christina Persson from Copenhagen. We were sitting in a restaurant in Greece where they have paper towels. When we chatted, Christina suddenly said, “As one of my best friend says, life is such a funny prune.” I quickly wrote down the expression on the canvas. After working on the song for a while, we both realized that the expression definitely needed some kind of clarification, so we added: “Life is such a funny prune, a promising plum, that dries too soon”. We were very happy because we also got a yummy alliteration, which is so nice in lyrics (promising plum).
In the series:
Make your first song in 6 steps
5 steps to improve your song
How to write a really good lyrics, part 1
How to write a really good lyrics, part 2
- How to find topics for your songs (this one)
How to find the rhythm in the text
Take the help of chance when writing songs
Co-writing – how to write songs with others
- The trick that makes you grow as a songwriter
The songwriter behind Avicii and SHM reveals the path to success
About the author of the article
Eva Hillered is a Grammy-nominated artist / songwriter / educator and author of the book Dictionary for songwriters (Prisma / Norstedts). www.evahillered.se
Updated 2020-12-11: The book is also available for purchase digitally here at Studio: