By Michael Anderson

Lyric n.
1. Intense, personal poetry – lyrical – passionate, enthusiastic
2. the words of a song, especially a popular song (often used in the plural)
3. a short poem expressing personal feelings or thoughts


Definition

Lyrics are the words to your song. They can seem similar to a short poem but they serve a definite function within the pop song form. Lyrics tell the song's story. But within that simple definition are conventions as well as countless variations on telling your story effectively.

The word "lyric" originally comes from the Greek idea of personal poetry accompanied by the lyre, a stringed instrument. From the Greeks, to David in the Bible composing songs (Psalms) with lyrics on a stringed instrument, the romantic troubadours of the middle ages, the lone cowboy on the range with his guitar, the itinerant Mississippi bluesman jumping trains in the '30s, through Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, to MTV unplugged, the singer/songwriter with an acoustic guitar derives from a long tradition. And technically, even though it is "plucked" with hammers activated by a keyboard, a piano is a stringed instrument.

These archetypes are the ancestors to our contemporary idea of singer/songwriters and their acoustic guitar or piano writing songs. That image is very much alive today, especially in Nashville.

Basic Writing Suggestions

Books and Screenplays

I have learned a lot about song structure in writing screenplays and books. All three expressions work within the conventions of their respective forms. For any songwriter, I recommend reading a book on the structure of screenwriting. You'll find a world of information and good advice for getting to the point in dialogue, which is essentially what a song lyric is.

Writing in long form for stories or books is also good practice for the songwriter. It feels good to be able to stretch out and not be limited by a timed form like a screenplay or song. And it can also help you appreciate the economy of the song form, the focus of expression, the nuance—similar in focus to haiku poetry, the three chord blues, or a Shakespearean sonnet.

Notepads

Some people recommend keeping a notepad with you at all times for writing down ideas. I won't discourage you from doing that. But I should let you know that I've read through some of those notepads and I've found very little of any interest in them.

I have found that if I get a really good idea, one of two things happens. The idea is good enough to remember until I get to where I can write it down, or I decide it is so good it is worth the effort to find something I can use to write it down with right then and there.

When I lived in Nashville you could go anywhere in town any afternoon and find songwriters sitting at tables alone, over coffee, seriously writing in their notebooks.

I remember meeting Harlan Howard (look him up) one afternoon at the Sunset Grill in Nashville. He and I were alone in the bar. We talked about songs. He knew the history of country music; he wrote most of it. He'd had a hit song every year since 1958 (and he also coined the phrase "three chords and the truth" in describing country music). He knew more about the sales and chart positions of my hit "Maybe It Was Memphis" than I did.

I had read an interview once where he discussed all the lyric ideas he got from waitresses and women in bars, and how he had scraps of paper—restaurant and bar napkins, backs of envelopes, and so on—with ideas on them. With all his hits I found myself thinking he could have had an official notepad if he thought it important. He didn't have a notepad in his hand. He had a drink. It wasn't coffee either.

There is nothing wrong with keeping notes and files, and organizing your ideas and songs. But I don't think notepads are necessarily a key to the process.

On the other hand, when I am actually working on lyrics, in the process, I like to use one of those extra long yellow legal pads—give myself a lot of room to write down a lot of stuff and edit it down later.

Theoretically a computer word processor should work the same way. I've been fine tuning that process for a few years now—but it still not quite the same. It has been said that in theory, theory and practice are the same thing, however, in practice, they are not.

Songwriting is like that.



Excerpted from Michael Anderson's Little Black Book of Songwriting available at www.michaelanderson.com

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