A successful song usually has great lyrics that stick to a central theme or idea. “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos has a theme of an unrequited love, while “Fix You” by Coldplay is full of sympathy and comforting words. Great lyrics tell a story or create a mood, sucking the listener in with every successive word.
But writing great lyrics can be easier said than done. If you don’t try to contain your thoughts to a particular theme, you run the risk of going off on tangents and losing the focus on the song. Losing focus means you might lose the attention of the listener… And you never want to do that!
Tell a story
Storytelling is a common device among songs. Direct storytelling can make it easy to keep yourself within the confines of your song’s theme. Take the song “Hurricane” by Bob Dylan. It’s about the alleged wrongful trial and conviction of a man in the ’60s, and the lyrics follow a straightforward narrative style. As the song progresses, you hear more of the true story as Dylan sees it; other songs make up fictional stories and tell them directly through their lyrics.
But storytelling doesn’t have to be quite as cut and dry. In the song “American Pie” by Don McLean, the lyrics don’t spell out a story per say, but they have a story-like quality to them (and they’re all related to the central theme of the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper). In other songs, the lyrics tell the story of a turning point or defining moment of a person’s life.
Whether or not you actually narrate a story or simply recall the tale of a moment in your life, your lyrics should take the listener on a journey from start to finish, leaving them feeling like they learned or experienced something from the song.
Create a mood
Some songs forgo storytelling and instead establish a particular mood. You might have a song that is meant for dancing and partying to, for example. In this case, you’d probably want the lyrics to be very simple and easy to sing along with. Also, they should stick to the mood of a party–what people are talking about and what they want to hear when they’re hitting the dance floor (think “Let’s Get It Started” by Black Eyed Peas).
Other songs are written in moods very different from dancing. Take the song “Climbing Up The Walls” by Radiohead. The music is very dark and creepy, and the lyrics a haunting and spooky. While they don’t necessarily tell a story, every word keeps within the mood of the song, therefore keeping the theme intact.
There are many moods your song could fit into: celebratory, sad, excited, angry. Keeping the lyrics within these themes helps keep the song consistent.
Work with the music
The lyrical theme of the song should fit well with the music that accompanies it. A gritty metal song doesn’t usually have sappy, romantic lyrics. A delicate acoustic ballad generally won’t be heard with aggressive and violent lyrics. Be sure the lyrical theme fits with the music, otherwise you might confuse the listener!
Sum it up
Whether you’re telling a story or simply singing about an idea or a dream you had, many songwriters suggest being able to sum up what your song is about in one or two sentences. If you can’t do that, then you may not have a focused enough theme to make it work. You don’t have to put limits on your songwriting, but sticking to one or two lyrical themes can help make your song’s point come through the most.
If you’re having trouble figuring out the direction your song should go in, call Studio Pros today for a free music consultation!