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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.

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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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  • 2 years later...

Sting talks about writing from the title and strictly stick to the topic. It is known, that he is pretty versatile in literature, too.

Technically, finding synonyms for certain words helps. There are websites for this...



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Child of the future,

What will you receive?

A poisoned cold wasteland,

With poor air to breath,

We saw this coming,

And yet we did nothing,

To help what we knew,

Would fall upon you.


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It may be a while 😂.

We have twelve tracks, all half finished musically and lyrically.


Born Into Slavery


Why do you shelter me?

Where is my family?

What do you want with me?

When will it end?


You say that you care for me.

You're always there for me.

You're the nightmare for me.

You just pretend.


Everyone loves you and wishes you well,

Can't get enough of what you have to sell,

Your body is ours but your mind is your own,

Nobody cares how you are grown.


You only came to be,

For the economy,

Can you relate to me?

Your only friend.


Born into slavery,

You're only meat to me,

You should be thanking me,

Why should it end?


Everyone loves you and wishes you well,

Can't get enough of what you have to sell,

Your body is ours but your mind is your own,

Nobody cares how you are grown.


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I am one of those guys who collects millions of snippets not finishing them...

Some say, finish one song after the other. I guess, that is quite a good hint.

I try to get a hang to it more and more


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Recently I did a funny experiment:

Last year we made some basic track recordings (using Logic, of course) with one of my bands, capturing their own song material from the time before I have joined the band. Some of the songs had finished lyrics but for two songs they were "recycling" lyrics from other more or less known songs, among others a mash-up of lyrics snippets by Britney Spears (*duh!*) and Steppenwolf (*gasp*). Of course, I said we can't possibly release anything like that publicly, and so I went on to write new lyrics before we began with vocal overdubs earlier this year.

In one song, I just took the basic original story theme and completely rewrote it with my own words while trying to keep the rhythm of the lines intact. Eventually I had to simplify my lyrics a bit though, because our vocalists – not native English speakers – were already too used to the original "stolen" lines.

For the other song where the actual "stolen" lyrics mash-up didn't made much sense anyway, I took the actual song title as a starting point for a new storyline, and then simply began to rhyme on the original lyric snippets by using the MacOS Dictionary/Thesaurus and rhymezone.com; (sometimes also slovnik.cz because often I have ideas in my native Czech language first while my English vocabulary is somewhat limited). Like that I went line by line, not exactly knowing what kind of story it would even become. Eventually somewhere in the 2nd verse there appeared a story arc that I began to follow, and then refined once I reached the end of the 13th verse. It turned into quite an absurd and funny story about a guy who gets killed because he owes money to mobsters while he later resurrects as a woman (because that part is sung by our female singer) seeking merciless revenge… :D

What I also love are "metalyrics", i.e. lyrics about lyrics. I've been writing stuff like that for decades. My favorite "3rd party example" on this theme is "Happy With What You Have To Be Happy With" by King Crimson.

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Thanks for getting a bigger picture. Seems you´re pretty into techniques of creating lyrics, though.

Pat Metheney did one in that direction:

As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls


1 hour ago, loukash said:

13th verse.






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25 minutes ago, Byhxx said:

Thanks for getting a bigger picture. Seems you're pretty into techniques of creating lyrics, though.

As a kid, my first inspiration to write songs came from the Czech singer/songwriter/comedian Ivan Mládek who became quite a phenomenon in the 1970s. It was all about humor. That inspiration has deepened when I discovered Frank Zappa and his rhetorical question whether "humor belongs in music". Also very inspiring were poems by Christian Morgenstern, especially his "metapoem" about the "aesthetic weasel"! :D

To write lyrics, I'm maintaining a simple FileMaker database where I can also apply various checkboxes or extra fields about the status, and add other infos. Actually I also use it to store cover version lyrics. The benefit of a database like FileMaker is that the data is layout independent, i.e. I have a display layout and I also have various layouts to print lyric sheets or to export to PDF. This database file goes as far back as 1999, previously I used to save the lyrics as ClarisWorks or Word for Mac docs, around 1990 also as Aldus PageMaker 3 layouts… (not having a computer back then, I'd buy a bunch of floppies and go to a public library that had a Mac, including a LaserWriter). And previously of course having physical notebooks.

Today, often I have ideas while lying in bed falling asleep or just after waking up, so nowadays I have an iPad next to me to quickly take a note using the Notes app which syncs via iCloud and my 3rd party email account.

Edited by loukash
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I mean, even when recording/editing/mixing in Logic, I prefer to do many fixes "manually" as far as possible, even if it takes longer than applying the many built-in helpers. For me that's part of the fun. :)

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Another fun project of mine when it comes to lyrics is translating.

A few years ago I picked a selection of my songs from the past 4 decades which I originally wrote either in Czech or in English or in German, and I translated them into the Bernese Swiss German dialect – which is not my mother tongue but I speak it fluently since 40 years. This is quite a challenge because like many idioms, it's not very flexible when it comes to word sequence within a phrase: swap a few words "for the rhyme's sake" and it stops working. And my fondness for wordplays and puns doesn't make it easier either, hehe. But my idea was that I'd actually like the local people to understand what I'm singing about. Nobody cares much about lyrics otherwise. So every now and then I perform this material in a "solo blues singer/songwriter mode" with acoustic slide guitar. (I should finally record the stuff though. So many projects, so little time…)

Sometimes I'd also translate cover versions into one of my languages. My favorite project was translating Zappa's Titties & Beer into German which we then performed as an acoustic duo in the 1990s. We also did stuff like Bobby Brown or Troggs' Wild Thing in Swiss German… :D

Speaking of Sting, in Basel there was a Police cover band ("D'Schmiir" was their name if I recall correctly) who would sing everything in Basel Swiss German dialect. From what I remember reading though, Mister Sting wasn't very pleased… :/

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On 10/11/2023 at 7:29 PM, Byhxx said:

Did you try AI yet?

I tried Moises lyric writer. However, it dictates your line of thinking by making suggestions that are not relevant to what you are feeling and trying to express. The only use of it is if you really are stuck and are happy to accept something random. It is a little like having a writing partner, but one that does not communicate well with you or understand what you are trying to do.

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I did quite a bit of writing with some paper snippets and moving them around. Writing from the topic or title of a track using synonyms. Here is one for maybe a sunny day feel.  Chosing Sun as a title here.




If you had some personal associations around it, like garden party,  drinking coffee, beach, sun burn, diving into pools you get a pretty decent list of key words / paper snippets to be connected in various ways...

I like the idea of permuting single words to gain some snippet groups which could form pieces of individual lines, when adding grammatical sauce.

Another technique is to change perspective to the negative side of the topic, which would be Moon, Night and/or Darkness for that matter. Finding synonyms for these larger contexts, you can anticipate like getting in touch for a story around concept albums, I would assume...(Did not do it yet)

If you already have gained antagonists as sun / moon, there is even more to it in a larger context:

Say, Universe , which could of course contain any association possible association from a personal view. Here are some cues given from the synonyms - site:

Universe - Synonyms:
cosmos, humans, founding, humanity, public, man, instauration, cosmea, introduction, human race, innovation, creative activity, existence, humankind, conception, earth, reality, population, foundation, beingness, institution, human beings, origination, macrocosm, universe of discourse, domain, populace, globe, being, worldly concern, mankind, world, initiation, earthly concern, creation

I personally would see Planets/Stars:

Applications could be:

a) north star (local orientation: east, west, south east),

b) east/west/east/south could lead in directions to i.e. cultural context

c) cultural context: love, war, social interaction, political approach, spirituality

d) Looking for a saviour: Get me out ! Beam me up! department: unknown/distant worlds/planets, take me away to a better world

-> All above mentioned deriven from the song title Sun using synonyms and a bit of personmal free association finding key words.

The connection of it is a matter of taste and experimenting, where that part is not too hard then.

Here are some starting points:

Radio ready approach:

say, Raggae-style (positive)

(Though) The sun is burning my skin, (but) I like the way you shine...(You could be the loved one of course, not the sun itself, leaving it to the listeners imagination)


Leaving the sunny side a bit:

Introverted / independent:
Metal ballad / Industrial (negative)


Long/Everlasting/Lonely/These day´s twilights are fading my thoughts away...

Darkness/ You (more subtle)  is/are my silent companions (*), drifting through this universe/cosmos of mine/loneliness/ fear / sorrow / mystery...

Your/Four/Secret winds (east, west, south, north)are taking me to places never seen (without control(??))...


-> (Please)Take me there, (and you just can) take (my) everything, (my old friends)...


Come closer, you´re too far away

Come closer, touching my dreams

Come closer, distant and eternal

Come closer, for to/ please, please soothe my pain !


(*) plural, aiming at:  Each night is different/another entity, meaning one night is only a questionable "friend" for a limited time to only soothe the pain, but not really capable of erasing it or solving a problem.

Now let´s dig a bit deeper into the metal lyric example:

Some interesting clue could be that the word sun itself does not occur in the lyrics. The story line maybe evolving peu à peu into light and resolving dark feelings through a loved / trustful / lucky to be found real(!) entity/person, kissing darkness good bye and finally leaving the old "friend" (Darkness), hoping for better outcome...

->The protagonist eventually found his/her personal Sun, bringing light to his world. The listener will find that the title Sun refers to the hopefully enlightning person leading a way out of the darkness, even if the word Sun does not occur in the lyrics. I tried to layout a chorus that could be adressed to the darkness and after a solving bridge part being adressed to the light later on as a final chorus. I would see further fine tuning here, of course, but I would like that starting point and concept.

A Masterpiece in that hidden and negatively reversed concept you might find inspiring is Deadhead (Devin Townsend) leaving a calculated amount of decent space to the listener for association for investigating of who might be the sun goddess...or (even better): what her association could be with a Deadhead . Where the sun goddess opens at the very beginning line, the mighty Deadhead does not show up...So she shines for her boring friend! (Hooray!...)



Generally, I like to dive into reading and analyzing(!) poems, how they are setup in terms of dramatic evolution, technically for trying to extract general techniques. I do not care too much for the appropriate topic (Sun) that I am writing for finding literature about. The topic can be handled as kind of interchangeable. Thus not interfering too much with personal inspiration on a specific topic resulting in getting stuck in the trap of desiring the copying of good, but already written, lines, when reading too specific on a certain topic...

How does a poem start?

Whats the clue and how is it approached?

Is it pointing out directly to a meaning or is it build on associations, leaving imaginative space for the listener?

Where are the artistic surprises/twists?

I would fintune my growing experience on the topic Sun then in my lyric over time

Just some thoughts here...

Edited by Byhxx
roter Faden
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On 10/11/2023 at 8:35 PM, loukash said:


On 10/11/2023 at 8:29 PM, Byhxx said:

Did you try AI yet?


Of course not. No interest in that crap whatsoever. :P

Alright… that said though, I'll likely try some AI the next time I'll be stuck at programming some weird AppleScript syntax – which I'm not very good at. :D
But other than that, all this, er, "intelligence" takes out all the fun of being creative.

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On 10/11/2023 at 9:11 PM, loukash said:

Speaking of Sting, in Basel there was a Police cover band ("D'Schmiir" was their name if I recall correctly) who would sing everything in Basel Swiss German dialect. From what I remember reading though, Mister Sting wasn't very pleased… 😕

It is okay to give respect to the idols, but you know... Keep it kind of respecting the work has been already done and is good, decisions were made.

Do your own thing. Sometimes people making music are drawn too much to the personalities and conscious or unconsciously representing a mere copy of the greats as their own (hopefully only musical) identity. You can observe this behaviour pretty much. I guess, a true fan IS not the artist...

I like a good cover band, though, for a party...You learn a lot being a member and achieving live skills as a musician...

Edited by Byhxx
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