Fast Lyric Writing: How to write single concept song lyrics. #songwriting

In my last blog post, I discussed ways to write several songs at once and how to keep them from all sounding the same. Today I'll talk about writing a lyric with a singular emotion quickly. [Scroll to the bottom if you'd like to hear a finished product of something we did last week.]

One of the few remaining lucrative frontiers in songwriting and production is for film and TV licensing. Not only do films and TV shows need songs for IN the shows, they also need songs for the advertisements ABOUT the TV shows. Each of these contexts has special requirements lyrically and musically. Today I'm going to specifically talk about the types of lyrics that are appropriate for use in an advertisement for a TV show.

If you can discipline your lyrics to stay within one emotional place, the song can be very useful in multiple contexts.

CENTRAL IDEA/EMOTION

For a song to be useful in various contexts, it's important to keep the lyric to one singular emotion or concept. Either it can illustrate a personality type/character, like the battle weary underdog fighting for survival, or the larger than life femme fatale who uses and discards whomever can get her what she wants. Or, it can simply evoke a basic mood or feeling, like light-hearted optimism or pent up rage. If you can discipline your lyrics to stay within one emotional place, the song can be very useful in multiple contexts.

TIME CONSTRAINTS

When you are an artist, and you're writing songs to feed your inner muse and express your purest artistic vision, you want to spend time crafting a lyric that has no wasted space and perhaps even paints a picture of something deeply profound. You can spend months/years editing a lyric until it feels just right so that when you release that song to your fans, they feel like you're showing them a glimpse into your soul. I have done this, especially with the songs on our Legend album.

But if you want to make money by licensing your songs to film and television, you need to write a lot of songs and you need to write them fast. Yesterday, I had a [rare] 4 hour writing appointment with Kurt. [I teach at a university and I homeschool, and as much as I enjoy doing this type of work, it's just not the season for me to be able to, so I savor it when I can make it happen.] We got started around 10:30am, and I walked in with nothing but my list of song title ideas that I've built up over time. At the end of 4 hours, we had not only written a song over the instrumental track Kurt had started, but we used the last 90 minutes to start another song completely from nothing but a one word song title. By the time I walked out 4 hours later, two new songs had been written.

HOW IT HAPPENED

All I knew beforehand was that Kurt was thinking "female empowerment". He played me the instrumental track he'd gotten started the day before, and to me it felt very cute and light. He also played me a reference track of a song called "Whistle (While You Work It)" that was musically similar to what he'd done, and then he said he'd like the lyrics to be along the lines of "Confident" by Demi Lovato. After looking at the lyrics to "Confident", I voiced the opinion that the track he'd written and the lyric he wanted seemed emotionally at odds with each other. After talking it through, we decided that for this instrumental track, we would go less aggressive female empowerment and more happy optimism with a feminine flavor. Kurt had a little melody he wanted to hear in the chorus, and so after singing that to me, he turned around and left me to my own thoughts as I started pondering my concept.

For the track Kurt had started, and for his one little melodic idea in the chorus, I felt the phrase "put your hands up" were a perfect fit. I ran it by Kurt and he said he had actually had that phrase in his mind earlier, so we agreed that would be a good starting point. From there, I proceeded to flow out some lyrics that weren't too "thinky", but emotionally consistent with the mood we were targeting. After a while, I had a draft of my lyrics, and Kurt and I discussed modifications, and in a couple of hours I was done.

... if you want to make money by licensing your songs to film and television, you need to write a lot of songs and you need to write them fast.

Since there was still time and these days are so rare for me, I proposed the idea of writing another song in the time we had left. Kurt looked at my list of song title ideas, and he liked "unbreakable". Much of the programming on TV right now is dramas, and there is high demand for songs that are dark and cinematic. So, we decided this would have a 6/8 time signature, and with Kurt looking for sounds and me having the word "unbreakable", we each went into our own heads and started creating. This time, I created a WORD BANK to start with. I looked up unbreakable in my thesaurus and wrote on the right margin of my paper a long list of words that had the same psychology. From there, I got an image of a person standing in the ruins after an epic battle, refusing to be defeated. With this mental picture in mind, I flowed out my first draft. I shared it with Kurt and we hammered out melodic nuances and rhythms, and after about 90 minutes, we were done. [I'll post lyrics for both songs below.]

You must give each phase its own due, and you must keep them separate and in the appropriate order.

CONCEPT -> FLOW -> EDIT

After years of doing creative work and also teaching music composition, I've come to my own conclusion that there are three important and distinct phases of songwriting. I've written about this previously, but I'll mention it here again because it bears repeating.  The three phases I've defined are concept, flow, and edit. You must give each phase its own due, and you must keep them separate and in the appropriate order. If you get ahead of yourself or if you skip one or get them out of order, you might still get a song done, but it's more likely to be a lyrical turd or a frustrating experience. I'll explain...

Before you can start a lyric or a song, you need a solid CONCEPT. Sometimes the concept is a story line, sometimes it's a song title, sometimes it's a synth hook or guitar riff, or some other little morsel of a captivating idea that will define the trajectory of your creative flow. This is an essential component to the process. In terms of lyrics, you must have a solid and compelling concept to start with, or else your lyric will be a meandering load of garbage that doesn't have a central thread or essence of truth to it. [It doesn't need to BE true to you, but it should FEEL true to the listener.] Simply knowing you're going to write a lyric that is optimistic isn't a concept, a concept is knowing the precise wording you'll use for your central idea.

The motto for flow is “just go with it.” This is most definitely a learned skill.

After you have a solid concept, the next essential phase is FLOW. If you try to flow without a concept, your lyrics might end up like a patchwork quilt made of meaningless drivel. But with a solid concept in your mind, you can then find that inner muse deep inside and start to visualize the emotion and setting of your lyric and flow from there. When you flow, it's important to not overthink things too much. Years of doing improv comedy shows where I have to make up songs on the spot has really helped me with this process. The motto for flow is "just go with it." This is most definitely a learned skill. If nothing else, your idea goes down as a place holder just to fill out your first draft. If you skip the flow and go straight to the edit phase, your song will likely end up seeming contrived and it won't have the same intuition behind it.

Once you've got a first draft, the next phase is EDIT. If you try to edit before you have adequately flowed, it will creatively feel like you're driving with both the gas pedal and brake on at the same time, which is frustrating. But editing is extremely important. A lot of green songwriters never do this phase, but scrutinizing your lyric and making upgrades and edits can take a song from good to great.  Sometimes part of the edit phase is to go back and firm up or revamp your concept and start over. Sometimes it includes deleting a large chunk of what you've written and flowing out another section. Or sometimes it's simply finding more descriptive adjectives or switching out the order of some of your phrases. Depending on how much you care about what you're writing, or how much you're getting paid, the editing process can be very cursory or it can go on for years. I've done both. In this fast writing session, obviously my editing phase was quick and then I moved on.

Now I'll talk a little more about song sections.

Keep it simple. Keep it catchy. Make it stick.

CHORUS

Quite often, for songs of this type, the "less is more" principle applies to the chorus lyric. If you can narrow in on one compelling word or phrase and highlight that phrase in the chorus, it's better to let that have the spotlight and not clutter it with too much other lyric. There are many songs that have made a lot of money where the chorus literally is the title over and over. Now, I'm sure I don't need to explain why you can't do that every time. The erudite part of me often struggles with allowing my chorus to be simple, but the seasoned songwriter in me understands that if I want to create a song that is useful in the marketplace, this is a totally valid approach.

I was able to take this approach for the most part with Unbreakable. Singing a single word or phrase repeatedly with space in between can edit particularly well into a TV show ad or movie trailer since the song is often not the main focus and they want room for the characters to have dialogue too. All the song is doing is supporting the emotion of the scene and telling the listener how they should feel.

With "Put Your Hands Up", I came up with 4 very simple and easy to remember lyrical phrases and we repeated those with a non-lyrical vocal hook [oohs and ohs and ahs etc.] in between, ending the chorus with an often sought universal phrase of "Ready, let's go!" Keep it simple. Keep it catchy. Make it stick. 

Add in some non-lyrical hooks and you’re golden.

VERSES/PRE-CHORUS/BRIDGE

The main goal of the other sections of the song is to lyrically support the central emotional concept. If your other lyrics can simply stay in the right place and not conflict with your main idea, you can go pretty far. Add in some non-lyrical hooks and you're golden.

If it’s supposed to stay positive, make sure all of the $5 words are positive. If it’s anger, make sure all the interesting words are chocked full of rage.

STAYING ON TOPIC

For me, energetic optimism is a much harder write than oppressed rebellion. For some reason, I have no trouble churning out images of darkness and doom, but make me stay in a happy place and I throw up in my mouth a little.  I cannot explain what lining up of the stars occurred for me to be able to draft out a purely happy lyric without my gag reflex triggering... perhaps I'm finally "there" in my writing chops and I could "just go with it" and not overthink too much... or maybe it was splurging on that freshly squeezed orange juice at the health food store. Regardless, I'm not going to question it, I'll just be glad I managed it.

One guideline when you're trying to stay within a certain feeling in your lyric is to be very selective about the "color" words you use in your lyric. If it's supposed to stay positive, make sure all of the $5 words are positive. If it's anger, make sure all the interesting words are chocked full of rage. Emotional consistency is the key. As I mentioned before, I used my thesaurus quite a lot. Making a WORD BANK on the side of your page is a great way to kick start your flow. I would check off each word I used to keep track.

Unleash your deeds
Collide and conquer
Enrage the beast
Yet I am stronger

RHYMING AND AVOIDING THE CLICHE

It goes without saying that the rhyming dictionary is a songwriter's best friend. Near rhymes or loose rhymes are often the better way to go than strict rhymes, since it opens up many more lyrical options. I mean, there are only so many ways to rhyme "love" strictly, so if you go looser and use a word like "crushed", it won't be so predictable. And really it's all about the vowel sound.

If you're thinking of a lyric that is a common phrase, one way out of having a cliche is to find another word that rhymes with one of the words of the cliche. In "Unbreakable" I didn't feel like "divide and conquer" was necessarily right or compelling, so I looked up rhymes for divide and landed on "collide and conquer". It's less expected and has the right psychology to it, so I went with it.

MILK THOSE RHYTHMS

There are multiple  reasons you might want to say a word or phrase several times in a row to a certain rhythm, one of which is that it's simply all the section needs. Sometimes you don't want to challenge the listener's brain with too much lyric, but you still need to provide a rhythm to keep it catchy. I ended up doing that with the bridge on "Put Your Hands Up." Another reason one might use it is to accurately repeat a previous rhythm, as Justin Bieber does in the second verse of "Sorry". If he didn't he'd lose that rhythmic pattern from the first verse and the song wouldn't be as catchy. Other times I've used this method when I'm simply out of time, the singer is showing up and we just need to record before the deadline. Whatever your reasons, as long as you don't over use this little trick, it can save your lyrical butt from time to time.

END RESULT

I'm going to paste my lyrics in here. These are two very contrasting sets of lyrics that I wrote in 4 hours start to finish, counting stuffing my face with a chicken salad sandwich in the middle. I'm certainly not saying these are the best lyrics I've ever written, but they do qualify as "good enough" and in the right musical setting with the right vocal delivery, they have the potential to make money. [I'll admit that the "Put Your Hands Up" lyrics feel super cheesy to me when I just look at the words on paper, but in context and with the right vocal, they don't seem as cheesy.] Neither of these have a vocal recorded yet, but scroll to the end of these lyrics to see and hear the song we did last week with the same purpose.

PUT YOUR HANDS UP
v1
New day
New way
Gotta move so the blood starts pumping
Dream maker
Trail blazer
Feeling good and your heart beat's thumping

pre
Go so strong
Play so hard
Think so big
Out shoot the stars

CH
Put your hands up
Now you can't stop
oh oh
Get your groove on
Get a move on
Oh oh
Put your hands up
Now you can't stop
oh oh
Get your groove on
Get a move on
Oh oh
Ready let's go!

v2
Bold heart
Bright spark
Light up in the world you're livin'
On top
Won't stop
Ground shakes to your rock star rhythm

pre
Go so strong
Play so hard
Think so big
Out shoot the stars

CH
Put your hands up
Now you can't stop
oh oh
Get your groove on
Get a move on
Oh oh
Put your hands up
Now you can't stop
oh oh
Get your groove on
Get a move on
Oh oh
Ready let's go!

bridge
Light it up, light it light it up
Feel the love, feel the feel the love
Never stop, never never stop
oh oh
Make your mark, make your make your mark
Take it far, take it take it far
Be the spark, be the be the spark
oh oh
Ready let's go!

 

UNBREAKABLE

v1
Throw the torch
Ignite the blaze
See my silhouette
Backed by flames
What I loved
Reduced to rubble
Though bruised and crushed
I'll never crumble

CH
I'm unbreakable
I'm unbreakable
I'm unbreakable
I'm unbreakable
I'll never give up
I'll never break
When all else is dust
I shall remain
I'm unbreakable
I'm unbreakable

v2
Invade my mind
Shove me down
Tear my world
To the ground
Unleash your deeds
Collide and conquer
Enrage the beast
Yet I am stronger

CH
I'm unbreakable
I'm unbreakable
I'm unbreakable
I'm unbreakable
I'll never give up
I'll never break
When all else is dust
I shall remain
I'll never give up
I'll never break
When all else is dust
I shall remain
I'm unbreakable
I'm unbreakable

bridge
Though the fight leaves me blind
And the ash is now my home
I am only refined
By this brilliant inferno

ANOTHER EXAMPLE

This is a song we did last week with the same intent.

 When It All Falls Down

v1
Standing by
the brink of dark
Waiting for
the edge of day
What we know
is vanishing
Swallowed by
imminent grey

pre
And we face what comes
And we stand tall
And we won't give in
Through it all

CH
When it all falls down
When it all falls down
We will stand our ground
When it all falls down

v2
Soldiers of past
have come to haunt
Battle rages
here and now
While echoes of
The rhetoric
Remind us of
our final vow

pre
And we face what comes
And we stand tall

CH
When it all falls down
When it all falls down
We will stand our ground
When it all falls down