1. A good basic idea
Start from something that you yourself have experienced or a feeling or thought that is important to you. Once you have written off during your first inspiration intoxication, think about how to angle your idea. Maybe you can tell from a new perspective that is not so common – then it is easier to get attention when you want to convey your song. If you yourself are affected by something, there are probably many others who will. Listeners want to hear about your corner of reality.
If you want to be able to perform your own music, you have to be able to stand for every word. It’s not the same as having to be literally truthful – songs are little stories from life that take hold of the most important things and where you do your best to remove all the insignificant and boring details.
For a period of about three minutes, you should first manage to capture the listener’s attention and then also keep the interest. If you are writing about events from your own life, first write about yourself, then review your idea and ask yourself how you can make it as interesting as possible for the listener.
Make your story even more tragic, or even more dramatic. You can see a song as a small mini-play that feels good from a clear dramaturgy. What is the best way to start the song? Change the ending or increase the drama if it makes the song more exciting! Use your imagination completely uninhibited.
You can live in the fates of others and make them yours. You can be a natural element or bring a cat’s action. You can retell stories from books and movies or invent stories and choose how you want the course of events to develop. The freedom you have as a songwriter is limitless, but for it to be engaging for the listener, it is important that it is engaging for you as well and that your basic idea is interesting.
The language of a song is a special language that differs from poems and ordinary prose. Feel free to read lyrics by other artists you like, and be inspired. A good writing exercise is to first read a favorite text a number of times and then start from the first phrase and in your own words write your own version. You have probably been inspired and influenced by your favorite artist’s way of using the language.
In my previous articles in Studio, you may have already read about the three choices you should be aware of as a songwriter when writing a text. It’s about the song’s narrator, stage and time frame. That the listener can follow the story and understand the content is an important rule if you want to write a good lyrics that really communicate the content to the listener.
I often come across songwriters who want to write obscure lyrics – they do not want to “write the listener on the nose”. If you want ambiguity in your texts, it is better to use metaphors that are in themselves ambiguous. The danger is that if you suddenly change, for example, the narrator’s voice without it being fully understood, the listener loses focus and begins to think about other things. There is a risk that what for the songwriter may feel cool and special, for the listener is only perceived as incomprehensible and uninteresting.
Think of metaphors rather than being obscure in the texts because metaphors can be ambiguous in themselves. Photo: iStockphoto.
If you write in English, I recommend that you ball your text with someone who has English as their first language. For us Swedes, some English expressions that we come up with in an inspired moment may sound cool, but it is difficult to know how an English-speaking person interprets the expressions. It can be completely wrong. To be inspired and find good expressions that work for an English-language market, there are many websites you can visit. For example, search for “American idioms”, and you will find a lot of expressions that may in themselves inspire a new song.
When you have written your first text sketch, ask yourself these three questions:
Who tells the story?
Does the story take place somewhere – is there a “scene” – or is it all a description of someone’s thoughts or feelings?
During what time period does the story take place?
The best thing is usually to stick to the same narrator, time frame and scene throughout the song. If you change any of these parameters during the song, it must be logical and understandable to the listener.
The clarity also feels good because you stick to the same language, and language tone right through the song.
First person: I / we
Second person: you (direct address)
Third person: he / she
The perspective you write from the outside affects your story. Each perspective creates a world that is different from the other perspectives. Your starting point governs the relationship with the audience. The starting point is the framework for your idea.
Choosing the first person means that it is the singer’s personal story that is delivered to the audience and it creates intimacy, the audience gets to take part in the singer’s world.
The narrative perspective usually comes naturally, but you can work with it when you have made the first finished working sketch of the song to see if it gets even better with a different narrative perspective.
The second person is also called a direct address because the singer speaks to a second person – a you – or even directly to the audience. An example of direct appeal is John Lennon’s Imagine.
If you choose a third person as a narrator’s perspective – he or she or they – then you become a storyteller. The singer and the audience then turn their attention to a third party.
The third-person perspective can be useful if you are writing about something personal that feels like disclosure. Instead of writing “I”, you can imagine that another person has experienced the same thing. It creates a little more distance and frees you from direct involvement in what is happening in the song. Together with the audience, you watch someone from the outside and tell his or her story.
Movement in time
Writing in the present (present) in combination with the first person often gives a strong emotional charge to a song, the listener becomes present in the singer’s now and this can contribute to the listener’s empathy in the text.
The past tense perspective (imperfect) is good to use when telling a story that has happened. Present and past are the most common time frames.
The future perspective can be used when the singer describes a dream that he / she has, most often the present occurs as a contrast to the long-awaited dream.
Movement in time is the most unusual time frame.
No special place
A special place
An undefined “here”
The scene moves – changes
A means of transportation in motion
Many songs revolve around an emotion, a thought or an experience and it is an “I” that describes these emotions. There is no specific scene and no time frame. Sometimes you get stuck in the text precisely because you think you have already said everything you want to say.
One way to develop your text and get more material is to then instead imagine that it is another person who experiences this. Then you can sketch a description of this person, let the person be part of a specific event, let it all take place somewhere. In this way, you can get more meat on your bones and more concrete material for your lyrics, even if in the end you may still let the perspective be first person.
Avoid big general words
Some words are really overused in songs, and considering how many millions of love songs there are, you have a better chance of being listened to if you express something unique. You experience love in your specific way, and it is that description that makes it exciting to listen to another love song.
Mix in your sensory experience and you will also influence the listener’s senses. In addition to sight and hearing, describe impressions of how it feels in the body, what taste and what scents you experience. Paint pictures with words. Look for the specific names. They add color to your song and emphasize the unique perspective. Instead of writing “He was sitting in a bar drinking a drink”, you can in a sentence both give the person a character and decide on a specific place that adds color to your story: “In Georgio’s noisy bar he quickly emptied his mojito”. The more concrete and specific you are, the more engaging and credible the text becomes.
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 (this one)
How to write a really good lyrics, part 2
How to find topics for your songs
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: