Monday, November 10, 2008


I can write melodies.
I can write harmonies.
I can write chord progressions.
I can write rhythm.
I can arrange all this together and turn it into a song.
But damnit, I'm having a tough time writing lyrics.

I also can't sing very well, but I've been ok with that. The only part of college I couldn't get a good grade in, no matter how hard I tried, was the singing part of my aural skills and music theory classes. I can hear my voice on the wrong pitch, and just can't get it to the right one, unless it's within about four notes just below middle C, depending on how long I've been awake that day.

Never singing sort of eliminated the need to write words, so I've gotten along quite well without that skill for the last 20 years I've been playing guitar.

Now I'm going to start writing lyrics. I'm writing music with a friend, and we need to both bring ideas to the music. In order to veto his lyrics, I need my own ideas. Plus, I just want to be able to do it. Do I really need a reason?

I doubt I'll ever be a poet like Dylan or Mitchell, or a storyteller like Springsteen, but I've heard enough Kiss to know lyrical content doesn't have to necessarily be very deep.

My biggest problem, I think, has been the first line. When I listen to any song I like, the first few words are always perfect. How does one do that?

I'm curious, how do different songwriters get their inspiration for lyrics? If you're a lyricist, what do YOU do?

And if you're in the same boat as me, this might help with that first line.


Alex Athans said...

Great post Cameron.

I'm with you: lyric writing can be a struggle. But I would get to disheartened, because I'm sure the Dylans and Springsteens and my personal favorite Roger Waters don't just keep the first things they write down. A lot of hard work and revising goes into the lyric-writing process. Since you seem like a hard worker, I'm sure you'll do fine.

Me, what I do is constantly revise certain parts here and there until I come up with something that I don't question as being "right" for the song. Also, changes in the music tend to change they lyrics.

And I'm with you on sight-singing. My worst class in college, hands-down.

Paul said...

Lyrics can be tough, no doubt about it. I'm also in the "better songwriter than singer" category, but instrumental music has such a bad rep, you can't really compete without lyrics.

One approach I came across years ago is to figure out at least a portion of the melody of the lyrics first. Once you have that down, scratch together random words that fit with this rough vocal melody. This will give you a blueprint of the vibe you're going for. Then it comes down to a matter of changing out the "placeholder" words for something more "real".

Using this approach, I like to focus in on the chorus, and let that drive the lyrics and theme of the rest of the song. If you consider that the chorus is the part that will be repeated the most often, it's best to focus on that part being strong, tight, and catchy.

Good luck!

Andrew said...

"...Now I'm going to start writing lyrics. I'm writing music with a friend, and we need to both bring ideas to the music. In order to veto his lyrics, I need my own ideas. Plus, I just want to be able to do it. Do I really need a reason?

Couldn't resist commenting on this - ;-) - it's an interesting position - that you need ideas in order to veto his - which immediately makes me wonder about what kind of songwriting relationship you two are going to have.

Things that worked for me over the years:

1/ Set aside specific time and treat it as sacred - I worked with my partner every wednesday for 2 1/2 years - it became habit and was some of the best times in my life!

2/ Don't sweat the preparation - bringing in ideas is great but creating ideas together is way better

3/ Have Fun - allow yourself to forget about everything else - leave the stress, bullshit, world etc at the door and giggle your ass off that you actually have set aside time to do this!

4/ Set aside time for idea generation - this is the best bit - say for 25% of your time together - ban any evaluation and work on building up your partners ideas - remember NO evaluation - anyone who starts to say "But", "No" "Bollocks" etc has to drink, smoke, whatever

5/Record your sessions and listen to them afterwards - this is a little bit scary but brilliant.

Oh and you might need a whiteboard or a flip chart and pens to capture ideas and develop - don't work off individual notebooks - have a big thing that you can share!

Cameron Mizell said...

Thanks for the tips and encouragement, I've kind of figured out two things:

1) I can write lyrics in a process similar to how I write music.

2) But I have to approach it in a very different way that I've been writing music.

I typically write a section of music and can immediately tell if it's a verse or chorus, "A" or "B" section, bridge, whatever. Lyrics though, it's hard to tell. Starting on the chorus seems like the obvious approach, but I never thought of that!

And in terms of our writing relationship? This is a guy I grew up with, started my first band with in junior high. We have no problem having fun together, or being honest with each other. I just want to be able to bring a melodic idea or a few lines of lyrics to the session and get his creative juices working differently. we've already had some problems where he'll get some really ridiculous ideas in his head, knows they're bad, but can't shake 'em. So I need to be able to do something here.