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Say What?: Lyricism and Composition.

Photograph of the blog post author, Mary Woodcock

Mary Woodcock


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Say What?: Lyricism and Composition.

Lyricism is one of the hardest elements of song construction. Clumsiness is easily found, repetition destructive, swearing cripplingly immature, plagiarism rife. Misinterpretation can destroy a whole song, poor word choice can stem a good flow, badly placed syllables can manhandle your chorus out of the building.

There is no one approach to effective lyricism. As ably demonstrated by the famous Joe Dolce/Ultravox standoff, a novelty insult can trump the most considered eloquence in the publics’ estimations. Choruses are seen by many as the strongest weapon in a lyricists’ arsenal, their oft-repeated, unifying nature defining song after song, but an opening line can be equally effective.

Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird was once voted the #1 opening line of all time on BBC Radio 2:

  If I leave here tomorrow

Will you still remember me?

While some of you will plump for the opening gambits of Bohemian Rhapsody, Like A Rolling Stone or Search And Destroy (‘I’m a streetwalkin’ cheetah with a heart full of napalm‘), these lines stay with you, defining the song. Even the perennial agony of Wonderwall‘s opening honk is a marker, an instantaneous signifier that heralds that songs’ existence.

So how do we get the best out of our lyrics?

For most writers, bashing out stream of consciousness is easy, but you end up with 3 pages of stuff you can’t use, trying to make 8 lines fit where 4 are needed. You could try writing to a title; this allows you to have an overall feeling or vibe to refer to. It also reminds you what it is you’re trying to get across. Writing around a specific line or phrase is helpful too – this style has been used by many, particularly if that phrase is a chorus or refrain. For a number of singers, not least people like Richey Edwards of Manic Street Preachers, the material comes first with the lyrics following on. If you’re singing them, this can be liberating, as a metered framework gives you a rhythm and vibe to work with. In this instance, there is an opportunity to tell an especially interesting story; placing a writer into a half-built context can result in an unexpected story, as the music itself makes them consider a different perspective. A mournful mood can manifest itself as anger, a jovial mood as lascivious – the combination of musical skeleton and lyrical flesh creating a truly organic result.

Once thematically established, the writer must turn their attention to the content. Poaching from your record collection is a simple method, and while hardly an exciting way of doing business, it can lend itself to swift progress. Far more interesting and revealing is to tell a true story, something that genuinely took place in your life or someone else’s. The beauty of this approach is connection. The singer will believe it. You will believe it. But most importantly, the audience will believe it. There is a distinction within this discipline between life experience and conviction. If, for example, you are retelling a personal moment, you will connect in a truly emotional way. In believing in an ideology (ecology, politics, injustice etc), you will connect in a visceral way. There is nothing wrong with either approach – there is only what works for you.

It is important to consider the volume of your content. Do you want to batter the listener with a long story, or be a (wo)man of few words?

An example of the long way:

I hit ground bobbing critically, and floored against the shocks on dirt clay

The last of the humpbacks vanishing in the rear view as I left again

Fast among the wind-sprung trees, the air cool about my chest.

                                                                        -Enablers – Manly

And the short way:

Clean shirt, new shoes
And I don’t know where I am goin’ to.
Silk suit,black tie,
I don’t need a reason why.

                                                                        –ZZ Top – Sharp Dressed Man

Both of these songs carry off their stories easily; one through honeyed poeticism and the other through careful, simple word choice. The lyrics presented here carry similar traits; each set fits that bands’ cadence, their feel, their image, and both deliver the story in the song. Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol utilises simple, vague lyrics in order to allow the listener to connect the dots with their own story. This is a parallel of a technique used in early horror films, where the violence is suggested rather than explicitly depicted. Thom Yorke’s lyrical style, while abstract, is highly considered, and is a prime example of that most important of lyrical weapons, word choice.

The man went into the room. It was a long room.


The door splinters – his boots cast lengthy shadows.

When something burns, does it smoulder or char? When you found love, did it drive you crazy or send you mad? Do you want to blurt out your riveting story thoughtlessly or deliver it like a boss? Take the time to be proud of what you have written. Understand that those words may reach out to someone you have never and may never meet. In choosing the weight of your words, your consonants, the percussive nature of your phraseology will reveal itself. That weight, or lack of it, will determine the impact of your lyrics, and in turn, the impact of the song.

Got in a little hometown jam
So they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land
To go and kill the yellow man

-Bruce Springsteen – Born In The USA

Read the lyrics of your favourite records – try and figure out what it is about the way they’re written that sticks with you, and you will discover your own lyrical voice.

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