Writing Lyrics - Keeping It Simple

By John Braheny

When we think in terms of the population of the world there are very few people who have the opportunity and talent to communicate their feelings and opinions to anyone beyond their immediate family, friends, or co-workers. Politicians use the electronic media. Actors do too, but they're usually speaking someone else's thoughts. Novelists and journalists, when they're allowed to speak freely, may reach a large audience but its numbers are still fairly limited.

Radio, TV, films and the Internet have become the vehicles by which most people receive information from the rest of the world. These media share a form of communication that reaches and influences people all over the planet: music, As a skilled songwriter, you wield a tremendous power to communicate to millions of people. That realization (along with your desire to prove to your relatives that you can make a living at this) should make you want to do your best.

In the next few articles I'll discuss various techniques and principles that will help you express your lyrics as effectively as possible so that when you get that opportunity to talk to the world, they'll love listening.


I asked hit producer John Ryan what he felt was one of the most important common denominators of successful songs. It was a question I had asked many others, and the reply is almost always the same:

"Simplicity - in saying something that everyone experiences in his or her life, but doesn't know quite how to say. You're taking a song out of your head and giving it to an artist or performing it yourself. Then you have to try to get someone else to receive your communication. You're not doing it just for yourself. You want someone else to feel what you feet about life, maybe challenge them."

When hit songwriter/producer/publisher Jack Keller was critiquing songs one night, he remarked to songwriters several times, "You've got too many ideas here. Focus on one idea, and build your song around it."

We've all read how-to manuals that say things like "insert the strand in the elliptical aperture," when they could say "put the thread through the hole in the needle" or "thread the needle." Applying that example to lyric writing, two common problems are, saying more than you need and not saying clearly what you mean. Have you ever had a friend with whom you communicated so well that you could convey a whole idea in two words that would mean absolutely nothing to anyone else who heard them? Made you feel clever, didn't it? Sorry, but you can't bring that friend with you into the songwriting game. Instead of setting up a very private communication that excludes everyone else, the big game is to make yourself understood by as many listeners as possible.

A songwriter once played me five songs, four of which didn't make any sense. She wanted to know why the songs didn't work for me. I read her back a few lines and asked what they meant. Some of her explanations were worth whole songs in themselves, but nowhere in what she had written could I make the connection until she told me the background. She had a song called "Geraldine" that made no sense until she told me that Geraldine was the name of a truck. I told her I thought it was a lesbian love song. The writer was intelligent and talented, but she was playing an intellectual game with her lyrics. She seemed to be saying, "How obtuse and clever and abstract can I make this so it's challenging to listen to?" The songs were so challenging, they weren't worth bothering to figure out.

Ironically, the most accessible lyric of the five was her first song, which she said was "too simple" for her and she didn't like much anymore. Those abstract lyrics in her other songs might work as poetry, since we could look at the words for as long as we needed to decipher the message. But when we also have music to focus on and the song is presented on a dance floor, a jukebox, or a car radio, tricky lyrics only make us feel as though we're missing something. She asked, "What about art? Do you think I should write commercial crap?" I said, "No thanks, we seem to have an overstock in that department. Think about the art of songwriting as the ability to communicate an idea or a feeling in a unique, interesting, enjoyable way."

If your lyric doesn't attempt to communicate, you're operating in a vacuum, which is fine if you just want to write for yourself. You can derive some benefits from keeping a personal diary, but if you want to make a living writing, your songs have to communicate their messages easily to others.

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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