Songs for the film and TV market have a job to do: Enhance the emotion, atmosphere, or energy in a scene without drawing the viewer's attention away from the story. Lyrics that are too specific or feature their own story lines can conflict with a scene and confuse viewers. So music supervisors look for songs with "universal lyrics." But what does that mean?
A universal lyric is...
A lyric that a large number of people can identify with or relate to.
A lyric that will not conflict with the specific content of a scene.
A good lyric for the Film and TV market is broad enough to allow the song to be used in a variety of scenes while still maintaining emotional integrity, originality, and focus.
Use a common theme
Of course, no song will work for every scene but some themes and situations occur more often than others. Write about the emotions in love relationships, family ties, friendships, meeting the challenges of life, growing up, celebrating wins. All of these themes turn up regularly in TV and film dramas. If you choose one of these, you're more likely to be successful.
Watch a few of the many prime time TV shows that use songs – like Grey's Anatomy, The Vampire Diaries, 90210, Gossip Girl, Hart of Dixie, or Bones - and look for common themes. Chances are you're already using some of them in your songs.
Don't do the scriptwriter's job
If you include a lot of specific physical details in your song, like place names, proper names, and dates, you'll limit the uses for your song. For instance, if your song is called "I Love You, Sheila" it could be confusing to viewers if there's no character named Sheila in the scene. A music supervisor will be considering your song just as it is. There's no time to ask for changes. So Sheila won't get used. Try a less specific lyric, maybe replacing "Sheila" with "she is…" Let the scriptwriter choose the character's name.
Here's another example: If your song tells the story of two lovers who meet in a bus station in the fall, get married on a Sunday in summer, then one of them dies in winter, your song won't work with a single scene. Telling a story that develops over time is, again, the job of the scriptwriter. Your song is there to enhance a single scene, a moment in the story.
"Universal" doesn't mean generic and stale!
Images, emotional details, and a fresh approach to your theme will all add muscle to a universal lyric, making it more appealing to film and TV.
Avoid clichés by adding a twist or changing a word to make the phrase mean something new.
Express the emotion in your lyric by describing it in physical terms. How does it feel in your body?
Use a visual image to represent the emotion. Is it like a storm? Like a sunny day? Would you compare it to a broken wheel, a flame, a swim in a cool stream? Get creative!
Learn more about adding emotion to your lyrics.
BONUS TIP: Make it clear what your song is about starting with the title.
The title of your song is the first thing music supervisors will see. They need to know "Will this song work for my scene?" By giving your song a title that suggests an emotion or common situation, you give your song better chance of catching their attention and being heard!
Copyright 2013 Robin Frederick
There are 114 useful, real-world tips for Film & TV songwriting in my book Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV available at Amazon.com.
Robin Frederick has written more than 500 songs for television, records, theater, and audio products. She is a former Director of A&R for Rhino Records, Executive Producer of 60 albums, and the author of “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting” and “Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV.” Visit Robin's websites for more songwriting and inspiration tips: www.RobinFrederick.com and www.MySongCoach.com.