Writing Song Lyrics Vs. Poems

One of the frequently asked questions we get in SongTown is “How do I write lyrics?” Many people confuse song lyrics with poetry, but there are some subtle and important differences.

So how do the lyrics of a song differ from poems?

Poems are usually visual pieces and lyrics are auditory works. Anyone who reads poetry can see the transitions from line to line and from thought to thought. The reader controls how quickly the poem is processed and can even back up if confused. The exception to this is poetry that is intended to be performed aloud. These poems tend to be more like words because the writer knows that she has to hold out when hearing them and not reading them. Therefore, when writing the lyrics, you should keep the listener’s attention and make sense in real time. The singer controls the pace and line that may work beautifully in a poem that may cause a lot of confusion in a lyric.

Another big difference in poetry and song lyrics is that rhyme is a major anchor point in song lyrics when it is present or not present in poetry. Rhyming in a lyrical song helps the listener know where they are in the song and helps them sing along with the singer. Most of the poems are not written to be echoed at the same time by large crowds. And for that to happen, the audience would have to memorize the poem. Rhyming helps the listener sing more quickly because rhymes are mnemonics that help the listener remember what’s coming next. When Paul McCartney sings “Yesterday, all my troubles sound like ______,” we easily remember the line because it’s harmonious.

Where do I start when writing lyrics?

I suggest starting with a title. For example, if your friend just dumped you for someone else, you now have a global idea. Many of us have experienced it. But what you need to start writing a lyric is a title that expresses your feelings about it in a powerful way. So, you might sit down and discuss what you’d say to this mutt if you made him sit right in front of you. Write down some of the things you would like to say to him.

You might come up with things like:

Why is she?

Wasn’t I good enough?

I hope to get rid of you!

Next, take these phrases and brainstorm a song that can sum up what you are going to say in your song lyrics. I like to think of a lot of different angles for every idea I want to express. So, for the first time, “Why is she?”. I might come up with addresses like:

Why not me?

What do you see in it?

She doesn’t deserve a (jerk like you)

Now that you’ve got a title, what happens next?

Let’s choose the title “What do you see in it?” And we’ll start crafting how we’re going to write our lyric before we even begin.

I’m a huge fan of designing my song before writing it. I’ve used it throughout my professional career and am so impressed that I wrote an entire book on it called Building Song: Mastering Lyrical Writing. When I plan my song, I come up with a one-sentence description for each house and chorus.

A Practical Blueprint for “What do you see in it?” It might look like this:

Verse 1 – Why did you break my heart?

Chorus – What do you see in it that you did not see in me?

Verse 2 – I hope you find what you’re looking for

Now that I have a working outline, I can start writing.

The fun part of lyrical songwriting begins!

Once you have your outline, you can start writing and be confident that you have everything you need to complete the lyrics. You’ve planned everything, you know what you’re going to say in each section, and all you have to do is fill in the blanks.

One technique I often use is to literally start each section with some variation on my schema statement. In this case, I might use this for an opening line:

“You shouldn’t have broken my heart, you know”

This line immediately gives the listener my important message for this section. Then, I can spend the rest of this verse clarifying what I mean by that phrase. So, I may continue my story:

“You didn’t have to break my heart. We could talk about this more. You tore my world apart. And I still don’t have the closure.”

See how I just said my important idea off the chart (in a slightly more interesting way) and then expanded or fleshed out as the lyrics evolved.

Follow your blueprint to the finish line!

If you do the same with each section, you will soon have a completed song! Learning how to write lyrics is as easy as knowing what you want to say and learning how to organize your thoughts. Once you master these two skills, you will be on your way to writing fun and engaging song lyrics.

All the best! ~ MD

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