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How to write lyrics for a song

how to write lyrics

The vocal melody is the most important part of a song in popular genres. And of course, there is no vocal melody without lyrics. Yet there are not many places where they teach about how to write lyrics. In fact, I haven’t even found a blog post that describes in detail how to start writing lyrics. So in this article, I wanted to share what I’ve learned about creating effective song lyrics after analyzing hundreds of successful songs.

Start with the melody

There are many ways people start writing a song. Some start with the lyrics, others start with a riff, some people start with a chord progression. There are no strict rules in songwriting. However, after analyzing more than 2000 successful songs, I realized that many times, the melody is a priority and the lyrics are subordinated to it. Sometimes artists use syllables like “oh” and “yeah” that doesn’t add any value or meaning to the lyrics but they are there because of important melody notes. So the only reason they use those syllables is to keep the original melody.

“I don’t wanna waste no time, yeah
You ain’t got a one-track mind, yeah
Have it any way you like, yeah

(God Is A Woman – Ariana Grande)

The only explanation for why they used those syllables in this song is the Rhythm Code. What’s the Rhythm Code? It’s a hidden system behind all successful songs. In this song, the melody notes on the syllable “yeah” are important notes of this system.

Melodies represent two dimensions, tonality and rhythm. Tonality and rhythm are both hidden systems. For tonality, we have the theory of the key (for example, the key of C-major), which is a set of notes. A song doesn’t necessarily use all the notes within a key, that’s why I call it a hidden system. But we have clues that tell us that a particular song is in a particular key. The Rhythm Code is very similar to this. We don’t use all the possible rhythms in a song, but there are clues that tell us that a particular song is using the system of the Rhythm Code.

So long story short, sometimes songwriters use syllables that don’t add any value to the text, which gives us a clue that the melody and the rhythm are more important. If you want to learn more about the Rhythm Code, you can go through our online songwriting course.

Song Structure

The lyrics have to follow the structure of the song. Traditionally, songwriters used a structure that contained a bridge, so it looked like something like this:

verse | chorus | verse | chorus | bridge | chorus | chorus

The lyrics of the verses are all different from each other, but the lyrics of the choruses are always the same. So in this case, you need to write lyrics for 2 verses, 1 chorus, and 1 bridge.

The structure of today’s pop songs however a little bit different. First of all, not many songwriters use bridges anymore, or sometimes the bridge is a rap part with a guest artist. Secondly, they use parts that are called a pre-chorus, and a post-chorus. These song parts come from the influence of EDM. So here is how the structure of these songs look like:

verse | pre-chorus | chorus | post-chorus | verse | pre-chorus | chorus | post-chorus | (bridge) | chorus | post-chorus

We already know that the lyrics of the verses are different and the lyrics of the choruses are the same. The lyrics in the pre-choruses are also the same in each repetition. The post-chorus doesn’t necessarily have lyrics, and even if it does, it usually has fewer lyrics. Many times, the lyrics in the post-chorus is a short phrase from the chorus. So if you use a song structure like this, you need to write unique lyrics for 2 verses, 1 pre-chorus, 1 chorus, 1 post-chorus, and a bridge (if the song has a bridge).

Avoid clichés

One of the ways to ruin a song is by using overused clichés in the lyrics (and the title). Clichés make a song corny and of bad quality. Any expression that has become a cliché was original and innovative at one time. But when people start to use the same cliché over and over again, it becomes overused and that makes the end product cheap and of bad quality.

Most of the time, clichés are metaphors. A good example would be the word “baby”, which is used in many lyrics in the past. Calling an adult person a “baby” is a metaphor. But it’s so overused that no decent person would use it in lyrics anymore. There is a reason why people hate the song “Baby” by Justin Bieber so much. That video has the highest number of dislikes on Youtube (although Youtube doesn’t display dislikes anymore). Another example is the phrase “I’m crazy about you”. This is also a metaphor because you are not literally mentally ill. And this expression is so overused that it’s better to avoid it.

Use original metaphors

The thing with metaphors is that you need to create your own original ones. What is a metaphor? A metaphor is a figure of speech that describes an object or action in a way that isn’t literally true but helps explain an idea or make a comparison. For example, “Life is a rollercoaster.” We know that life is not literally a rollercoaster, but the phrase suggests that life is full of ups and downs, just like a rollercoaster. Here are some examples of metaphors in songs.

“Third floor on the West Side, me and you
Handsome, you’re a mansion with a view

(Delicate by Taylor Swift)

“a tornado flew around my room before you came”
(Thinkin Bout You – Frank Ocean)

By stating that a tornado flew around his room, Frank is saying that his life was bad and full of chaos (like a tornado) before his partner came into his life. Here are some more examples of metaphors in song lyrics:

“I’m your magical mystery ride”
(All Of Me – John Legend)

“Cause baby you’re a firework”
(Firework – Katy Perry)

“You shoot me down but I won’t fall
I am titanium”

(Titanium – Sia)

“This girl is on fire”
(Alicia Keys)

“I’m a hot air balloon that could go to space”
(Happy – Pharrell Williams)

“You’re a fallen star
You’re the getaway car
You’re the line in the sand
When I go too far
You’re the swimming pool
On an August day
And you’re the perfect thing to say”

(Everything – Michael Buble)

“We push and pull like a magnet do”
(Shape Of You – Ed Sheeran)

“Now she’s gone, I’m left alone, lone like a loaded gun”
(Radio – Jamiroquai)

Use antonyms

Antonyms are words with opposite meanings. Black/white, cold/hot, up/down. Using antonyms is KIND OF a cliché. But you can make it original by using them in an original context. Others may have used the words “strong” and “weak” or “fire” and “rain” in lyrics, but probably no one has used them in this exact context other than the songwriters of “Fire To The Rain“.

“My hands, they were strong
But my knees were far too weak

“But I set fire to the rain
(Fire To The Rain – Adele)

“Darling, I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream
(Blank Space – Taylor Swift)

“You held me down, but I got up
(Roar – Katy Perry)

“It’s like a bit of light and a touch of dark
(Dark Necessities – Red Hot Chili Peppers)

“Me and my friends at the table doing shots
Drinking fast and then we talk slow

“We talk for hours and hours about the sweet and the sour
(Shape Of You – Ed Sheeran)

Use personification

Personification is another tool in lyric writing. It is the attribution of human characteristics to something non-human. The role of personification is to make the lyrics less corny, less banal. The goal is to make the phrase non-literal and to explain concepts in a relatable way.

“I want to wake up in a city
That doesn’t sleep

(New York New York – Frank Sinatra)

Our hearts are hungry
for a food that won’t come”

(Live Like We’re Dying – Kris Allen)

The world is beating you down
(All Of Me – John Legend)

Use repetition

Repetition is one of the secret weapons in songwriting. And there are many different kinds of repetitions they use in successful songs, I explain all of them in the songwriting course. In lyrics, the chorus is the part where they use the most repetition. (Sometimes in the pre-chorus.) And we don’t notice this until we write it down and see it visually. I highlighted the repeated words by making them bold, so even if we just take a quick look at the text without reading it, we can see how many repetitions they use in these lyrics.

“’Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play
And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate
Baby, I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
I shake it off, I shake it off

(Taylor Swift – Shake It Off)

I wanna be that guy, I wanna kiss your eyes
I wanna drink that smile, I wanna feel like I’m”

(Ed Sheeran – Shivers)

Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
(Because I’m happy)
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
(Because I’m happy)
Clap along if you know what happiness is to you
(Because I’m happy)
Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do”

(Pharrell Williams – Happy)

“Nothin’ I can see but you when you dance, dance, dance
Feel a good, good creepin’ up on you
So just dance, dance, dance, come on
All those things I shouldn’t do
But you dance, dance, dance
And ain’t nobody leavin’ soon, so keep dancin’
I can’t stop the feelin’
So just dance, dance, dance
I can’t stop the feelin’
So just dance, dance, dance, come on”

(Justin Timberlake – Can’t Stop The Feeling)

“Yeah, you don’t know my mind
You don’t know my kind
Dark necessities are part of my design and
Tell the world that I’m falling from the sky
Dark necessities are part of my design

(Red Hot Chili Peppers – Dark Necessities)

“Keep you in the dark
You know they all pretend
Keep you in the dark
And so it all began”

What if I say I’m not like the others?
What if I say I’m not just another one of your plays?
You’re the pretender
What if I say I will never surrender?”

(Foo Fighters – The Pretender)

“Say what you need to say
Say what you need to say
Say what you need to say
Say what you need to say
Say what you need to say
Say what you need to say
Say what you need to say
Say what you need to say”

(John Mayer – Say)

“They, they gonna see us from outer space, outer space
Light it up, like we’re the stars of the human race, human race

“’Cause we got the fire, fire, fire
Yeah, we got the fire, fire, fire

“And we gonna let it burn, burn, burn, burn
We gonna let it burn, burn, burn, burn
Gonna let it burn, burn, burn, burn
We gonna let it burn, burn, burn, burn

(Ellie Goulding – Burn)

“But there’s a side to you
That I never knew, never knew
All the things you’d say
They were never true, never true
And the games you’d play
You would always win, always win

(Adele – Fire To The Rain)

The title

The title is one of the most important parts of the lyrics, and of course, most of the time, the lyricist has to come up with the title. There are many different methods for coming up with the title. Most of the time, the lyrics themselves contain the title, and most of the time, it’s in the chorus. If you check any of the lyrics above, you can notice that the lyrics of the choruses always contain the title. And it’s usually at the end of the choruses.

You always need to strive for a distinctive title. Titles like “Baby, Baby” or “I Miss You” or “You and I” are very generic, overused titles. There are probably thousands of songs with similar titles like these.

You can use antonyms in the title too. For example:

Fire to the Rain” (Adele)

Black or White” (Michael Jackson)

Ebony and Ivory” (Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder)

Love to Hate You” (Erasure)

Success Has Made a Failure of Our Home” (Sinead O’Connor)

Hot & Cold” (Katy Perry)

“To Live is To Die” (Metallica)

Night and Day” (Cole Porter)

“Should I Stay Or Should I Go” (The Clash)

Alliteration is another technique they use in song titles. Alliteration is the occurrence of the same letter or sound at the beginning of adjacent or closely connected words. For example:

Day by Day”

Bell Bottom Blues”

Magic Moments”

Saturday Sunshine” (Burt Bacharach)

Bad Blood” (Taylor Swift)

Sexy Sadie” (The Beatles)

Can you use a title that has been already used by someone else? In theory, yes. Song titles are not copyrighted. However, there are some extremely famous songs which titles are probably not a good idea to reuse. For example, “All I Want For Christmas Is You”, “Billie Jean”, “Rock Around The Clock”, “Macarena”, “Despacito” are some of these songs.

Rhyming Schemes

We all know that lyrics contain rhymes. We use rhymes in the lyrics because it’s very pleasing to hear them. But keep in mind that a lyric is not a poem! When you start to write lyrics, you don’t have to stress too much about making it rhyme. You can always change things in order to make things rhyme.

First of all, today it’s extremely easy to find rhymes, we just need to use a rhyming dictionary. But the question is, how and when do we use rhymes? There are two kinds of rhyming: internal rhymes and end rhymes. Internal rhymes are when two words are rhyming within the same line or sentence. On the other hand, end rhymes are when words are rhyming at the end of the lines.

There are different kinds of rhyming schemes when it comes to end rhymes. For example, AAAA is a rhyming scheme in which all the ends of the lines are rhyme. For example, this is what you can see in the song “Positions” by Ariana Grande.

“Switchin’ the positions for you
Cookin’ in the kitchen and I’m in the bedroom
I’m in the Olympics, way I’m jumpin’ through hoops
Know my love infinite, nothin’ I wouldn’t do
That I won’t do, switchin’ for you
(Positions – Ariana Grande)

There are of course other rhyming schemes for end rhymes, here are some examples: AABB, ABAB, XAXA, AXAA, AAAX. Keep in mind that your song doesn’t necessarily need to rhyme at any point, so it can be XXXX. Creating rhymes is just one tool that you can decide to use.

The secret pattern behind successful songs

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About the Author

Producer, songwriter of the band Barrio Latino Hungría. Author of the Songwriting Essentials.