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How to Improve Lyrics


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When I write songs I start with some seed idea or phrase or just the title. Something that triggers an emotion in me.

 

IMO Bob Dylan is the best lyric writer out there at this point in history-- power, variety, and scope.

I've read Jimmy Webb's book on songwriting and have some ideas about what to do to improve lyrics that I use.

 

Here's some random ideas from various sources:

 

1)Jimmy Webb- Use a rhyming dictionary. rhymezone.com. I also use thesaurus.com to try to find the most powerful and precise variation on a word.

Compare "walk" with leap, crawl, stagger, stumble .

 

2) The songwriting teacher from Berkley has a YouTube video, he espouses the idea that more powerful VERBS are what improve lyrics, not the adjectives. Some prose writers argue that adjectives are weakening elements, but they all use them. I think the point is that the adjectives should be good-- precise, sensory-related, specific and evocative. But plausible.

 

3) Traditional RHYMING Is important, but I believe other types of RHYMING (INTERNAL RHYMING) and ALLITERATION are close behind. Below, the brown and town are obvious.

But also effective is the alliteration of passports and painting, plus the internal rhyme of filled and sailors. It's easy to miss-- the "ill" sound is in the middle of both.

It is non-tonal music. There is a partial rhyme -- the end of circus and is. Spelling can be deceptive.

 

From DESOLATION ROW released when Dylan was only 24

 

They're selling postcards of the hanging,

They're painting the passports brown

The beauty parlor is filled with sailors,

the circus is in town

 

4) PROGRESS/ESCALATION- In this verse, he progressively reveals more about the setting, placing you there. It's not just disjointed images.

The sense of corruption is frightening, ominous, corrupt, unstable.

 

Here comes the blind commissioner, (corruption)

they've got him in a trance (Who's they?)

One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker, ( On one hand unstable, on the other self-corrupting)

the other is in his pants

 

5) INTERESTING PERSONAGES. I'm trying to use alliteration with P. ;-)

Many times Dylan overcomes the brevity required in song lyrics by introducing characters of a well-known "type" or an adjective-character combination. Here and in other places

he introduces several evocative characters in just 8 lines.

Specifically, postcard sellers, passport painters, sailors,blind commisioner, tight-rope walker, and by suggestion also beauty parlor and circus people.

SEVEN types of people , or individuals , in eight lines. We are conditioned to respond to people , to feel emotion and if you can pick them right they trigger something in listeners.

Compare this to a song to one person.

 

6) Strongly EVOCATIVE ACTION: Some is depressing. The hanging was a reflection of a lynching of black circus workers in Duluth, MN Dylan's uncle was aware of it in the 1920s/30s

People are selling, painting, going to beauty parlor, walking tightropes, masturbating, being "tied" to someone in danger. Again, all these people, all these actions00 in EIGHT lines.

 

7) PANORAMIC- You see a lot of the town where the lynching was, there's the recent past crime scene, they sellers, the parlor, the surrealistic commissioner.

 

8) PLAUSIBLE- Although there's surrealistic or symbolic elements, this verse is based on a true historical incident. This provides a grit to it, a masked truth that can't be argued with.

It reminds me of Henley's "Boys of Summer', "One day I was on the road saw a deadhead sticker on a Cadillac." If Henley didn't see that, he could have.

 

9) REPETITION- The verses all end with some restatement of Desolation Row. That gives the listened a reminder of the theme, and makes them feel smart. They can feel it coming, and when it occurs each time they feel the satisfaction of feeling they know the song, the place.

Edited by kingminotaur
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"The songwriting teacher from Berkley has a YouTube video, he espouses the idea that more powerful VERBS are what improve lyrics, not the adjectives."

 

You had a good teacher in Berkeley. This is a bit difficult topic for me since I'm not a native english speaker, but I think that what your teacher said works also in other languages.

 

When you write, try to think that you are painting a picture, not telling to audience what it contains e.g. don't say that girl was beautiful, that would only show your laziness as a writer. Instead, create an impression of beauty by your verses.

 

Other aspect is that if you use a lot of adjectives, then you tell your audience your strong opinion about something, at worst case you appear as a judge and besserwisser above those people you try to reach. Always remember to respect peoples right to think what they want. In short, by words of great Chekhov, writers(songwriters) task is describe the world, not to change it.

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Legendary fiction advice: "Show, don't tell."

 

Especially important when your total bit of writing typically fits on less than one-and-a-half pages on any "lyrics" website. You're writing a poem, and you don't have a single beat to waste.

 

But maybe it's also worth pointing out that "lyrics," when printed on such a site, "sometimes look rather stupid." Because the total effect, as all of us still remember it, actually did consist not only of "the lyric" but also its entire(!) musical "setting."

 

Could "the lyric to," say, Stairway to Heaven, ever have been anything memorable without the pure-genius and fully-intentional musical craftsmanship of Jimmy Page? ("I'll just go ahead and answer that for you ...")

 

Lyric: "What about love? I only want to share it with you."

... minus Ann Wilson? Ain't gonna happen.

 

Lyric: "Here comes the rain again."

... minus Annie Lennox? Pardon me, but no.

 

Lyric: "Someone left the cake out in the rain."

... only one guy could have made multiple millions of dollars out of this, and I'm still reading and re-reading my signed(!) copy of his textbook.

Mike Robinson - "I wanna quit being a computer consultant and become a composer and arranger at age fifty-nevermind."
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  • 1 month later...
Wow! That’s some deep analysis of lyrics. I too admire the poetic musicians, but I can also appreciate James Brown, who was effectively illiterate. Some of us have a knack for lyrics, others are like WAP by Cardi B. I find simple lyrics are easiest for me, and more popular… think of early Beatles.

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