The Songwriter’s Toolbox: A Few Words on Words

March 17, 2021

[Editors Note: This article was written by Neal Gomberg and is part two of his series, “The Songwriter’s Toolbox”. Be sure to read part one here!]

It’s been said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. It’s so subjective and analysis-defying, it’s pointless.

But I’m writing about lyrics, not music, so here goes.

For starters: lyric-writing rules are made to be broken. For instance, for every self-proclaimed authority who decrees that lyrics must rhyme, there are dozens of great songs with lyrics that don’t rhyme.

Or some music maven maintains that only perfect rhymes like “love” and “above” are acceptable, while imperfect rhymes like “love” and “enough” aren’t. But some of the best lyrics ever written use imperfect rhymes.

Which brings us to conclusion number one: when you look at them objectively, it’s clear that lyrics are subjective.

Here’s some proof:

  • One music listener’s trite, cheesy lyrics are another’s soul-stirring poetry.
  • A love song chokes you up, but makes the person you love just plain choke.
  • A song with amazing lyrics falls flat, while another, crammed with cringe-inducing clichés and obvious rhymes becomes a mega hit.
  • One song rivets you to its words, while another has you up and dancing, oblivious to its words.

Which brings us to conclusion number two: lyrics are crucial – except when they’re not. 

  Then there’s this: in many of the best songs, the meaning of the lyrics is crystal clear. But in many of the other best songs, the lyrics are vague and open to interpretation. 

If you’re a songwriter, you probably know that the crystal-clear lyric route takes a more left-brain approach. Typically, that means knowing exactly what your song is about before you write it and thinking very consciously about what you’re trying to say. 

Cryptic lyrics, on the other hand, whose meaning is in the ears of the beholder, require a more stream of consciousness approach. Writers who use this process say that when they start working on a song they have no idea what it will be about, trusting that at some point along the way, its meaning will be revealed to them. 

They typically start by recording themselves strumming some chords and singing whatever random verbiage pours out of their subconscious. Often, this is how their song’s title or chorus comes to them. More often than not, they find that buried in the word salad they’d been singing were some real lyric gems that they gradually craft into an entire song.

Some of the most of successful songwriters use both approaches, sometimes ending up with stellar straightforward lyrics and other times with powerful language and imagery that couldn’t be more vague, but that somehow resonates.

That said, there’s no reason why you can’t go with whatever approach works for you on any given song.

Which brings us to this final conclusion: there’s more than one way to write lyrics and a lot more than one article’s worth of info on lyric writing. 

So, the next article in this continuing series will bring you what I hope will be more indispensable lyric-writing insights and tools to add to your songwriter’s toolbox.

Until then, break the rules, thumb your nose at the pundits, mute the part of your brain that says, “that doesn’t make sense”, and who knows?  The next song you write could have the best lyrics you’ve ever written.

Tags: artist tips featuring songwriting songwriting tips