Posts Tagged ‘ Lyrics ’

Poetic devices

Who here writes lyrics? Who here works with lyricists?

If so, you might have experienced the difference between functional lyrics and poetic lyrics.

Functional lyrics tick all the boxes – they make sense, they rhyme in all the right places, they tell the story, etc. But somehow they’re boring. They don’t move you. They’re not special. Poetic lyrics, on the other hand, are special. They speak with a unique voice. They’re fun or witty or profound. They’re not just words – they’re magic.

Sometimes you might be working with some lyrics that need a touch more poetry. But what is poetry? What makes lyrics poetic? You need to employ poetic devices. Broadly speaking, poetic devices are writing techniques that make the text more musical by crafting the sound and rhythm and the way the words form meaning in our minds. If you’re working with lyrics that need a bit more magic, try these techniques:

  • Imagery – Evoke the senses! Don’t just write about what happened – write about how it felt, how it smelled, how it looked. How did it taste? What did it sound like? Engage the listener’s imagination and prompt them to imagine with their senses. The more you do this, the more evokative and immersive your lyrics will be.
  • Metaphor – Write about a subject as if it’s something else. This is a way to add a lot of nuance and meaning to a passage without getting overly wordy or bogged down in description. Also, by linking two otherwise-unrelated ideas, your listener’s mind will be more engaged and stimulated.
  • Simile – This is very similar to a metaphor, except that with a simile you are making the comparison or likening explicit. As a simple example, ‘your love is the ocean’ is a metaphor, and ‘your love is like the ocean’ is a simile. Similes often work well on a smaller scale – just a line or two, whereas metaphors can be effective for whole sections or even whole songs (or more!).
  • Personification – Give a non-person entity human characteristics. Non-person entities can be objects, emotions, locations or even ideas. These can be given human characteristics such as desire, speech, or even emotions. This gives a greater sense of life and fantasy to the lyrics.
  • Point of view – Tell the story from another angle. Often a story can be completely transformed by simply telling it from another point of view. To give a boring story an interesting twist, try telling it from an unconventional point of view. Including multiple points of view within a single song can easily make it too fragmented, but can be very exciting if done well.
  • Juxtaposition – Putting two unlike or unlikely things together. This can be in the content of the story – for example by combining themes. It can also be done musically – for example by combining different composition techniques or singing techniques. Juxtaposition works in a similar way to metaphors – the unlikely combination of ideas engages and stimulates the listener’s mind.
  • Alliteration – Repeating the first consonant. Alliteration allows words to affect a listener by always drawing attention and asserting the added instances of a sound (sorry!). This is particularly effective for significant lines – such as those in a chorus. Alliteration emphasises strings of words and helps make them more memorable.
  • Rhymes – Rhymes are the most common poetic device used in songs. Most songs have s clear rhyming pattern – commonly the last syllable of a line will rhyme with the last syllable of the next line. Also common is the last syllables of lines 1+3 rhyming, and the last syllables of lines 2+4 rhyming. Try to go beyond this – try different rhyming patterns, or even multi-syllable rhymes. Rap music is known for pushing the boundaries of how rhymes can be used.

You’re probably already be familiar with some of those techniques, but hopefully this list will give you some ideas for taking your lyrics to the next level.

Also, keep in mind that good lyrics aren’t always necessary! It’s possible to get away with poor or unimaginative lyrics if other aspects of the song are strong.



Preproduction: Polishing lyrics

Last week’s post mentioned polishing lyrics as one aspect of preproduction. Typically, an artist will present a song to the producer, and the producer will work with the artist to improve the lyrics.

Often artists get precious about their lyrics – and for good reason – because they’ve worked long and hard to come up with sixteen structured lines that rhyme and tell a story. It’s not easy! The last thing they want is for some outsider to rip up their hard work and make them feel inadequate.

It’s important to remember that a good producer’s role is (usually) not to reinvent the artist in their own image (or fantasy). A good producer’s role is to help make the artist sound more like how s/he wants to sound. It’s not about personal preference or taste – it’s about looking at ways to make the existing song more effective in expressing the artist’s intent. This is why experience is so important.

I often start conversations with my artists along the lines of “I see what you’re trying to achieve here, and I’ve got some ideas for how we can do that even better”.

When working on lyrics, often improvements fall into these categories:

  • Themes. Sometimes an artist will present lyrics that are unclear or confusing. This is often the result of the lyric being pieced together from multiple scraps, having been written in several sessions (often with big gaps in between!), or coming up with a great line and not having the courage to throw it away if it doesn’t fit the song. Often the artist doesn’t (want to) realise the song is confusing because s/he understands the intent perfectly – the clarity is lost in translation from the mind to the paper. Improving lyrics along thematic lines require identifying the primary (and secondary) themes of the song, establishing the thematic arc of the song, and shaping the lyrics to focus on those themes and fit within the arc. Most of the time, this doesn’t require much change – a few strategic cuts and shifts is often enough to break through.
  • Structure. Sometimes an artist will have great lyrics for a song, but the song suffers due to too much repetition – or not enough repetition. In some cases it’s just one section that meanders aimlessly and loses momentum. In other cases the lyrics tell a story that doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Once structural issues are identified, it’s usually quite easy to remedy. It’s not about making a song conform to the standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus structure – it’s about assessing and understanding the song on its merits and developing a structure that tells the story in an effective and memorable way.
  • Flow and melody. In a lot of cases an artist will have slaved over the lyrics for a song, but the flow and melody appear to be an afterthought. The giveaway is when there are unimportant words emphasised and important words de-emphasised, or there are awkward moments where a lot of syllables have been squeezed into a short space of time. Sometimes the solution is to simply change the melody. Other times the lyrics need to be rearranged slightly. Not all words in a song’s lyrics are equally important – some words are pivotal, some are emotional, some words are merely passing words necessary for clear grammar. The pivotal and emotional words should be sung with more emphasis – by given them more time and giving them higher pitches in the melody.

A lot of the time, a song’s lyrics don’t need to be changed much. On the occasions that the lyrics need a *lot* of work I usually spend a session with the artist identifying and discussing the issues and tell her/him to rework the lyrics and present them again another day. As a producer, I avoid writing lyrics for the artist. I sometimes suggest changes, but it is always up to the artist to make the changes. Ultimately, the lyrics are the artist’s ‘voice’ and s/he must be absolutely comfortable delivering them.