At my songwriting workshops I stress the importance of including lyric and melodic elements in our songs that will compel listeners and decision-makers to choose our material over the tough competition. Let’s look at some ways to write lyrics that command attention.
1. Find a Fresh Angle
It’s unlikely that we’re going to find a topic to write about that will appeal to millions of listeners and has not already been addressed in countless other songs. Love is the most popular subject matter for songs. There are songs about hoping to find love; extolling the qualities of the one we love; the heartache of a breakup; infidelity; and dissatisfaction in a relationship. Other themes often heard in popular songs include following your dreams; patriotism; wanting to dance, party, and have a good time; songs about friendship; getting through hard times; inspirational and religious themes; social injustice; Christmas; and hometowns.
With so many songs covering the same topics we need to find ways to stand out from the pack. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to incorporate new approaches, original angles, and novel ways to frame our concepts. For example, in her breakthrough hit, instead of stating “I hope you will remember me,” Taylor Swift expressed the unique idea that she hoped her ex would think of her when he hears “Tim McGraw” (written by Taylor Swift and Liz Rose, recorded by Taylor Swift). By building on a distinctive approach, it becomes much easier to write a compelling song. When we start with a mundane concept, it can be an uphill climb.
2. Start with Attention-Grabbing Opening Lines
We only get one chance to make a first impression. By starting with an exceptional line of lyric, we convey to listeners that they are about to hear something that goes beyond the ordinary. Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” (written by Lizzo, Eric Frederic, Jesse Geller, and Steven Cheung) opens with a line that practically demands that listeners pay attention: “I just took a DNA test, turns out I’m 100% that bitch.”
I recommend revisiting our songs’ opening lines and assessing whether they are strong enough to compel a listener to crank up the volume, or an artist to choose our song over ones he or she has written. If the answer is “no,” see if you can come up with something “wow.”
3. Use Unexpected Words and Phrases
Instead of settling for clichés give yourself an edge by incorporating lines of lyrics that are distinctive and original—lines no one else could have written; lines that might make an artist or another writer say, “Wow! I wish I had written that.” That is exactly how I felt when I heard “I numbed the pain at the expense of my liver” in “Mama’s Broken Heart” (written by Kacey Musgraves, Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally; recorded by Miranda Lambert). What an original way to say, “I got drunk to get over you.”
Another one of my favorite unexpected lines is, “(I’m) smoother than a fresh jar of Skippy,” which can be heard in “Uptown Funk” (written by Mark Ronson, Jeffrey Bhasker, Devon Gallaspy, Lonnie Simmons, Rudolph Taylor, Nicholaus Joseph Williams, Charlie Wilson, Robert Wilson, Ronnie Wilson, Philip Lawrence II, and Bruno Mars, and recorded by Mark Ronson, featuring Bruno Mars).
4. Incorporate Unexpected Rhymes
Predictable rhymes won’t set our songs apart. In most cases, a “near” rhyme, such as rhyming “blue” with “truth” will be more effective than a predictable “exact” or “true” rhyme, such as rhyming “love” with “the stars above.”
The best writers of rap music are masters at crafting fresh rhymes. Check out Eminem’s Academy Award- and GRAMMY-winning “Lose Yourself,” (written by Eminem, Jeff Bass, and Luis Resto) in which the writers rhymed “heavy,” “spaghetti” and “ready.” The song received “Diamond” certification for exceeding 10 million sales. In Dan + Shay’s “Speechless” (written by Jim Mooney, Dan Smyers, Laura Veltz, and Jordan Reynolds) which won the duo a GRAMMY for Best Country Duo/Group Performance, “speechless” is rhymed with “secret,” creating an unexpected moment. In every genre, eschewing trite rhymes and incorporating fresh ones will help your songs to rise above the competition.
5. Include Details
By including details in our lyrics, we bring our listeners inside the world of our songs, helping them to “see” what our characters are experiencing. One of the most exceptional uses of detail can be found in the Country Music Association’s Song of the Year and GRAMMY nominee, “I Drive Your Truck” (written by Jimmy Yeary, Connie Harrington, and Jessi Alexander; recorded by Lee Brice). While incorporating details, pictures, and imagery is especially prevalent in country song lyrics, these tools can be used to elevate your lyrics in virtually any style of music.
“Old Town Road” (written by Lil Nas X, Atticus Ross, Kiowa Roukema, and Trent Reznor; recorded by Lil Nas X, with a version featuring Billy Ray Cyrus) stayed at #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart for an astounding 19 weeks. The lyric incorporates detail by mentioning specific brands such Wranglers, Porsche, and Gucci.
In Gary Clark, Jr.’s GRAMMY-winning Best Rock Song, “This Land,” (written by Clark with Woody Guthrie) describes land and a car as “Fifty acres and a model A.”
Think about which of these lyrics is more interesting to you:
- “It was late” or “It was ten minutes past a full-moon midnight”
- “She was dressed to kill” or “She wore black patent leather from her head to her stilettos”
- “I drove an old dirt road” or “There was grit and gravel on that Malibu backroad”
- “He had an awesome car” or “He drove a cherry-red, jacked up, ’68 Camaro”
By using fresh angles, unexpected words, phrases, and rhymes, attention-grabbing opening lines, and details, we can give our songs their best shot at standing out from the competition.
Jason Blume is the author of 6 Steps to Songwriting Success, This Business of Songwriting, and Inside Songwriting (Billboard Books). His songs are on Grammy-nominated albums and have sold more than 50,000,000 copies. He has been a guest lecturer at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (co-founded by Sir Paul McCartney) and at the Berklee School of Music, and has been interviewed as a songwriting expert for CNN, NPR, and the New York Times. For information about his workshops, webinars, additional articles, and more, visit www.jasonblume.com.