Writing Lyrics

By John Braheny


Another critical aspect of effective lyric writing is focus. You should be able, in one word, to describe the emotion or mental state that a song expresses. Happiness, sadness, love, hate, jealousy, and resentment are just some of the emotions we've all felt. Any of these could be, in a broad sense, the subject of your song, provided you focus down to specifics.

Beginning songwriters tend to want to settle on the first thing that comes out of their heads whether it's focused or not. While it's a good idea to write all your thoughts down, you need to eventually zero in on a single idea. You may want to express that idea as a story or just explore different aspects of it. Many successful songs don't follow a linear "story line" or plot. But if you do write about a feeling, make it just one.

You should also be able, in a short phrase, to describe what the song is about. "I think I've just found her (him)," "Remembering how it used to be," and "Cheating" all describe what a song is about.


Several basic questions will help you brainstorm an idea or to help you bring the idea into focus after that initial inspiration:

Who is singing the song? Male? Female? You? Someone else? What is the point of view?

Someone who's been left? Someone who's leaving? Someone who's sad? Angry? Lonely? Happy? Who is the song being sung to? A lover? Someone you'd like to meet? The general public? A friend? God? What does the singer want to accomplish? To express love or other emotion? Give people a philosophy? Teach something? Criticize? Arouse?

As a purely commercial consideration, you should also ask: is this a subject or attitude an artist, other than myself, would be interested in expressing? For example, if you write a song with the message, "I'm a thoroughly despicable person," you have to ask yourself how many recording artists would want to record a song like that even if they believe it about themselves. Generally speaking, artists will stay away from songs that are depressing, express negative attitudes, or make them appear unlikable. Having said that, it can work to say "I've done something terrible, won't you please forgive me." It's a staple of country writing, since both men and women, it seems, never get tired of hearing someone sing about how they made the biggest mistake of their lives when they did him/her wrong.

EXERCISE - Listen to a few songs on the radio and write down one line for each that expresses what the song is about. Then do it with your own songs. If you have trouble condensing them, they're not focused.

Attitude, which in a songwriting context means an aggressively stated point of view, is another factor that requires consistency and focus.

Though we most commonly find rock and Hip-Hop songs that express an attitude, it's very important in first-person songs (I, me, my) of any style. Alanis Morrisette's and Mary J. Blige's songs have attitude. Listen to the attitude of Bonnie Raitt's "Something to Talk About" Toby Keith's "How Do You Like Me Now?" Destiny's Child's "Independent Women," Mary Chapin Carpenter's "He Thinks He'll Keep Her," and one of my favorites, Deana Carters "Did I Shave My Legs For This?" If attitude is an important ingredient of your song, it needs to be consistently maintained by the lyrics and supported by the music.

This excerpt from John Braheny's book, The Craft and Business of Songwriting (2nd edition, 2002, Writers Digest Books) has been edited for length. It's available at bookstores everywhere. For info about John's critiquing and consulting services, go to


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