Hey, you decided to start a band. Good for you. It’s time to write some songs that will thoroughly express all those weird thoughts in your head. It’s time to lend voice to all your inner-most desires, ambitions, and opinions. You’ve practiced your guitar/bass/drums/keyboards/whatever in your bedroom for years, honing your craft to laser accuracy. Good for you. There’s just one thing, you’ve never written lyrics before. You’ve never even read poetry before. Hell, the only thing you’ve thoroughly read is the occasional email and the first two Harry Potter books.
Don’t worry (worry a little), you’ve heard plenty of songs and plenty of lyrics. How hard could it be? Well, there are—according to me—some lyric writing sins you should be made aware.
How hard could it be? The answer: apparently it’s pretty fucking hard to do it right. Cause there is a ton of awful—just terrible—lyrics out there in the world. And it seems to be getting worse. There’s been a proliferation of awfulness that’s being readily accepted as the norm in our popular culture. Whether it’s trite hip-hop lyrics or overly clichéd pop anthems, lyrics have taken a back seat in the market of quality.
But you don’t want to be like that. You want to stand out. You want to write something thoughtful, interesting, and inspiring. You want to have your lyrics recited in conversations as if they were ancient proverbs. I hear you, so I’ve come up with my list of cardinal sins to avoid when writing lyrics.
This…is how not to write terrible lyrics.
In short, they are:
Cardinal Sins of Lyric Writing
1) No shoe-horning
2) Don’t change the pronunciation to force a rhyme
3) Don’t be maudlin
4) No curse words
5) No clichés
6) Don’t misuse words
7) Be aware of being too esoteric
I wouldn’t say that this is a comprehensive list. I’m sure if we sat around all day we could come up with a grocery set of over a hundred do’s and don’ts for writing good and bad lyrics. However, over the years I’ve come to realize that there are certain recurring themes that certain song-writers employ to make their lyrics stand out as just plain repugnant. I understand that there’s some issue of “poetic license” when it comes to writing poetry and lyrics. That’s fine. I accept that. However, there are other things that shouldn’t be excused. These things should be recognized and called out. They need to be snuffed out, erased, finished, and kicked in the side when they’re down.
Once you hear these examples in play you’ll know what I’m talking about.
At the end of certain sections I’m including a video with examples of a certain point. Go ahead and read through and at the end watch and listen to the examples I’m offering. Then, once you internalize those examples…never do what those sinners have done.
1 – No Shoe-horning
Shoe-horning is when you force a word into a place that it doesn’t belong. This is most often seen in song parodies when the parody artist is trying to force new words into an already existing lyrical frame. There are some truly terrible examples of shoe-horning lyrics out there. Often times, the result is a rushed effect or a mispronunciation of the word. However, the most glaring use of shoe-horning is when someone uses a word and that word’s main accent is moved to another part of the word.
For example, say the word “Awesome” to yourself. You’ll hear that the accent—the stress—is on the “awe” part of the word, as in AWEsome. Now, if you moved that stress to the “some” part it would end up sounding awkward and weird, as in aweSOME.
And then there are the three syllable words.
What if you said the sentence, “You’re being very disrespectful.”
The word “disrespectful” has the accent and stress on the “Spect” part of the word—as in, disreSPECTful. How odd would it sound if that stress was moved to another part of the word, “You’re being very disrespectFUL.”
It just doesn’t sound right. And more importantly, no one talks like that.
Typically, shoe-horning involves moving the stress of the word to the end of the word, but that’s not always the case.
In the video below I use Ryan Cabrerra’s “Forgot How To Fly” song as an example. In fact, that one song contains the vast majority of the sins in lyric writing.
His very first line is “Sky diving, free falling.”
If you say that out loud it should be Sky DYE-ving, Free FALL-ing. I’m over-emphasizing the stress on those words, but you know what I’m getting at. In the song, he puts the stress at the end of the words, as in “Sky dye-VIN’, Free fall-IN’.”
No….no no no no no. That’s terrible. Plus, he couldn’t be bothered to pronounce the “ing” cause that’s not cool. He goes with the hip, “sky divin’, free fallin’.”
And he doesn’t stop there.
We get to the end of the chorus—the part where he says the name of the song—and he rushes “forgot.” He simply didn’t have enough time to rhythmically put the whole two syllables into the beginning of the phrase so he just slurs it out as “f’got how to fly.”
But there’s nobody who butches song lyrics quite like morning radio show host Todd Pettengill. This guy routinely will parody popular song with his own batch of lyrics. This guy loves shoe-horning. He loves it!
In the example below (courtesy of the great Opie & Anthony show) he takes the last line of Lady Gaga’s “The Edge of Glory” and shoe-horns in “Guru” over “with you.”
Lady Gaga: “… and I’m hanging’ on a moment with you.”
Todd: “… I’m a self proclaimed sex guru”
So the problem with this is that in the original line the word “with” isn’t that stressed. It’s bridging into the stressed word of “you.” But Todd has no concept of that, he just wants to make the lyrics work and be all goofy sounding. So “guru” comes out with the stress on the last syllable in “guRU.” The problem is, the stress on that word when you say it is on the “gu” and not the “ru.”
This is called “shoe-horning” and you should never, under any circumstance, do it.
2 – Don’t change the pronunciation to force a rhyme.
One thing people have gotten used to is the augmentation of the hard E sound. Singers don’t like words with a hard E because that’s the most difficult vowel to sing in the upper register. You’ll hear singers often change the pronunciation of “me” to the easier to sing “may.” And for some reason we’ve come to accept this. I’m guessing because it is so commonplace now.
Me and Free are the two words most abused by singers. If you think about it, the vocalist is always butchering the meaning of songs by their weak singing and laziness to hit the hard E.
“When flying free you call to me” becomes “when flying fray you call to May.” I’m guessing that someone has torn the cuffs of their pants and he has to call on someone named May to sew them back up.
On the subject of softening vowels, if you start singing a hard E…you have to continue singing a hard E. You can’t start singing “free” in a lower register than start building up, going higher and higher, then slip into singing “fray.”
Listen, A and E are two completely different vowels. Get it right.
There are also lyricists and singers that will take a bastardized pronunciation of a word and use it to rhyme with a legitimately pronounced word. The best example of this can be found in Varga’s “Self-Proclaimed Messiah.”
The line is, “I’m the self proclaimed messiah, now I have you here with me. You’re the one that I desire, I’m the one who’ll set you free from all the evil you’ll acquire. I’m the self proclaimed messiah”
Alright, Messiah, Desire, and Acquire are supposed to all rhyme with each other. The only problem is that “messiah” doesn’t rhyme with “desire” unless you bastardize the pronunciation of “desire” to “Diz-eye-uh.” Same goes for “acquire.”
No, it’s “muh-sigh-uh” and it’s “dis-ire” or “duh-zire” depending on your region. But my point is that you can’t intentionally mispronounce a word just to make it rhyme with the other words. I’m sure Joe Varga didn’t do that intentionally. I’m sure that when he was writing the lyrics it never occurred to him that what he was writing down and what he was singing were two totally different things. But this begs the question, how many people did this song go through without having one single person tell him, “You know, Joe. Messiah and Desired aren’t supposed to rhyme.”
You’re probably saying to yourself, well, those are near-rhymes.
I mean, I guess.
It could be argued that the use of near-rhymes is okay in song lyrics. Personally, I’m not too big a fan of near-rhymes. It’s like using foul language in lyrics. It’s too easy. If you want to express yourself in a certain way then you should figure out an artistic way to do it. It’s too easy to just come right out and say what’s exactly on your mind. If you want to do that then become a blogger or a film critic.
Near-rhymes are things like “June” and “Broom.” They sound close enough to be pleasing to the ear in a song but they’re not perfect rhymes like “tree” and “free.”
Use near-rhymes at your discretion. Just don’t mispronounce them to be a near-rhyme.
3 – Don’t be maudlin
Maudlin is overly mushy, self-pitying, excessively emotional lines of expression. You usually see people getting maudlin when they’re drunk, “hey man…I love you…no, I’m serious…you’re the best. You know that…why are you laughing at me?”
Maudlin behavior is not only annoying at the bar but it’s annoying in songs.
Let’s use Ryan Cabrerra’s “Forgot How To Fly” again…because it’s a truly awful song. In the chorus he sings “It’s been one day without you. I’m like a bird without a sky.”
Really? You’re seriously counting down the days it’s been since your girl hit the bricks? And one day? You’re really counting down from one? It can’t be one week or one month? It’s been one day and you’re inconsolable? I mean, I can understand if it’s been a week or a month and you’re still thinking about her. But one day, I mean, that’s expected. Of course you’re still going to be thinking about this chick after only one day. But “a bird without a sky.” This is some horseshit that you’d write to your High School sweetheart after she starts dating the younger, cooler bass player. This is the shitty poetry a High School girl writes and hides under her bed after a two month relationship ends.
“I’m telling you, Sarah. There are other guys out there. You’ll find someone else.”
“NO I WON’T!!!! I CAN’T BREATHE WITHOUT HIM. HE’S THE AIR I BREATHE. I’M LIKE A BIRD WITHOUT A SKY.”
“Alright, relax. You’re 14, you haven’t even contracted an STD yet. You’ve got a lot o’ living to do. Eat a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, fuck his friends, and move on with your life.”
4 – No curse words
What do you mean I can’t curse in a song?
Why, because it’s too easy. No one said writing lyrics was going to be easy. Cursing in songs is the easy way out and it’s plain lazy. Sure, it can be argued that there’s a time and a place for it. Sure, there’s plenty of songs with cursing in it that I enjoy.
Cursing song lyrics is spelling out exactly what’s on the table.
It reminds me of this movie I once saw where this girl started dating this up-and-coming artist. One night she’s hanging out at his studio while he paints. Right at the end of his work he settles down on to the couch with her to look back at what he just created. It was a three panel painting with the words “Life + Love = Death” written above it.
He looks at the painting, panting in exhaustion, and he says, “It means life plus love equals death.” He then waits for her reaction of awe and inspiration.
Instead she takes a second and say, “Yeah, I know…you’ve pretty much written it out.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, you’ve written it out on the painting. It’s self-explanatory.”
And therein lies your role in the artistic world. You must find a way to express yourself without blatantly spelling out for everyone what you mean. This, of course, doesn’t apply to rap and hip-hop which, of course, is completely built around cursing, bigotry, and lyrical content supporting collectivism. But who are we kidding, that’s not music anyway. An artform—yes; music—no.
5 – No Cliches
On the positive side of using clichés, everyone knows what you’re talking about. However, the negative side of using clichés is everyone will roll their eyes at you. Cliches sound tired and, by definition, overused. A cliché is an overdone phrase that is devoid of original thought. And I’m not just talking about phrases like, “the early bird gets the worm.” I’m talking about hackneyed phrases in all their forms.
Let’s take the awful Ryan Cabrera song “Forgot How To Fly” again. In the chorus he sings, “It’s been one day without you. I’m like a bird without a sky.”
Bird clichés are just plain awful. Birds are synonymous with freedom and grace. Clichés with birds are things like “a caged bird,” or “a bird without a song.” What’s awful about the Cabrera song is that it makes little sense and still manages to sound cliché. A bird without a sky? Because birds don’t just fly in the sky. They can fly from tree to tree. They can fly along the beachline. They can fly into cars. Is he saying he doesn’t have a place to go?
When I first heard this song the people around me all squinched up their eyes and asked “what does that even mean?” Look, if you’re going to use a bird cliché then you can at least have it make sense.
Clichés are a good way to enforce a maxim; however, if you want to craft a meaningful and enduring song you might want to steer clear of clichés and aim at having an original thought.
6 – Don’t misuse words
Whenever Alanis Morrisette came out with her song “Ironic,” lots of people made a hubbub over how the song had little to do with literal irony. Most of the lines in her song weren’t actually ironic but just unfortunate. Then as the song aged there came some people that defended it saying that the song was filled with situational irony as opposed to literal irony.
“Irony” is a perversion of the literal truth. So a line like “a fly in your Chardonay” doesn’t have anything to do with irony. “Rain on your wedding day” isn’t ironic. You can argue the case that it is situational irony and you can try and subvert the definition of irony all you want, it’s just not ironic. Morrisette clearly misused the word and now her fanbase is trying to defend her. What’s ironic is that Alanis Morrisette wrote a song about irony and fills it with examples that have nothing to do with irony. That’s a perversion of the literal truth.
Furthermore, don’t use “I could care less” in your song. If you say this you’re actually saying that you could actually care less than you care right now. The phrase is “I couldn’t care less.” This means that you are at the very bottom of your caring and it’s not possible for you to care less than you already do.
There are plenty of grind-core and death metal bands that try to use big words to sound smart. That’s fine and dandy but just make sure that you’re using the correct word and in the correct context. If you’re writing lyrics and your trying to find another word for “dark” make sure that the word you find is supposed to be used as a noun or an adjective. Some words are strictly nouns or strictly adjectives. By that, you don’t want to use a noun as an adjective.
I once made a mistake in a song by using the word and verb “inure” instead of the noun version of “inurement.” You know why, cause I was trying to shoe-horn in a rhyme and I didn’t pay close enough attention to the word usage. See, I learned something from my mistake.
No one’s perfect.
7 – Be aware of being too esoteric
Esoteric is when something is intentionally made to only be understood by a small group of people or to only the person writing it. I’m sure you’ve heard some song at some point and thought to yourself, “what the hell is this guy talking about?” Well, there’s vague and then there’s esoteric.
When you’re intentionally vague you might try to be skirting some political issue because you don’t want to come down hard on one side or the other. Vague can be songs like “Hotel California” and it can make people talk for years. However, esoteric is something like “You’re so Vain” where only the singer knows who she’s talking about.
“Hey, who were you talking about in that song?”
“Oh, I’ll never say.”
“Well, fuck you then.”
“Okay, if you pay me $50,000 dollars I’ll tell you.”
“Ok, go fuck yourself.”
If you still give a shit what “You’re So Vain” is about then you’re an asshole playing into her bullshit.
You know what the other problem with being too esoteric is? Not knowing what the song is yourself.
I used to watch interviews with some of my favorite bands and often times they’d be asked what a certain song was about. Their response was typically, “You know, we really want our fans to interpret the songs for themselves.” Translation: we don’t know what the song is about…draw your own conclusions based on the nonsense that we thought sounded cool.
You have an opportunity to immortalize your thoughts and opinions about the world as you see it. Make it relatable; make it about something; make it remarkable and make it so that people can decipher just what the hell you’re talking about.
This is one of the reasons why I had to stop listening to Tori Amos. It seemed like she was literally throwing random words down on a page. I once got into an argument with one of her fans. I said that her lyrics had become too esoteric, to which the fan responded, “you need to be a girl to understand them.”
Look, I’m not a doctor but since when did women store their brains in their vaginas?
So I asked her what a certain song was about. “I don’t know,” she said. Exactly.
Like I said, this isn’t a comprehensive list by any means. I’m sure if we sat at a table we could come up with a list of fifty do’s and don’ts in the world of lyric writing. That being said, I think there are some cardinal sins involved in the lyric writing process. These are the sins I’ve chosen to now avoid. My style of writing lyrics has changed a lot over the years and these are just a few of the things I’ve learned and now live by. Some of these may not apply to you. Some of these might be up your alley. You may choose to break all these rules and blaze your own trail. Whatever. This is what works for me and this is the philosophy of lyric writing that I live by. I won’t be using “bad” language in my songs, I won’t be shoe-horning words in, and I won’t be mispronouncing words to make rhymes work. Those are my big three.
But come up with your own list. Have your own trial and error. I’m just saying, take it from me, these are the things you’ll want to avoid.