Some musicians prefer to write the lyrics first and then work the melody around it, others hear a great melody first and fit words to the tune later. Whichever way round your songwriting happens, don't ruin your melody with inadequate lyrics. Here are some tips.
Draft what you want to say
What do you want your song to be about? Is it serious, angry, or upbeat? Does it have a message (beware of preaching, though). Choose a concept or theme for your song, but avoid themes that you feel you should use. You'll never write a good love song if you're bored with them.
Decide on the words you want to use. List words related to your concept that sound both attractive and repulsive to you. Depending on what you want to achieve with your lyrics, you might include some of both. Heavy metal and rap would probably lean more towards repulsive, while pop would contain more of the attractive words.
Use the metre
Metre refers to the pattern formed by the beats in a piece of music or the stress placed on particular syllables in poetry. You can also call it the rhythm, beat, or cadence.
In general writing, prose has an irregular stress on the syllables, whereas poetry has a determinable metre. However in songwriting, prose lyrics can be fitted into a melody and made to take on a metre – the beat of the music determines the stresses which turn a sentence into a line of poetry. Alanis Morissette is particularly good at writing, and singing, prose lyrics. A less experienced singer probably won't thank you for handing them complex prose lyrics to work out, so do try to work to a metre as much as possible.
Write against the score
Use the music score of your melody from the start (or as soon as you have one) so that you can be sure your lyrics fit the music. If you can't read music, ask someone to play the tune slowly while you mark out the metre, line breaks, and length of notes in your own shorthand. (Then go and learn to read music, since this is basically what a music score indicates anyway.)
Beware of rhyme
Lyrics don't have to rhyme. If there is an obvious word that rhymes with a previous line, why not give listeners something unexpected rather than bending to a cliché? (Nelly Furtado is a major perpetrator of clichéd rhyming.) If you have to use a rhyming word, try to wrap it in the middle of a line so that it rhymes in the wrong place.
Fill the song with words
There are thousands of words in the English language. Don't weaken your song by resorting to fillers like "La, la, la" (Kylie, Madonna, Ashlee Simpson). Instead write more lines and find a strong one that fits the metre.
Similarly, avoid repeating the same line or two over and over – give your fans something more. Explore the concept you're singing about. What more can you say about it? Is there a different perspective you can bring in?
You don't need to change the world with your lyrics, but you can certainly use them to turn a good song into a memorable one.
This article was first published on BellaOnline in January 2006 and is also featured on Squidoo. © Elsa Neal
Check out these great books:
The Art of Writing Great Lyrics, by Pamela Phillips Oland
The Craft of Lyric Writing by Sheila Davis
The Craft and Business of Songwriting, by John Braheny