Critique your song lyrics using Gricean maxims

Songwriters need to be able to critique, edit and rewrite their own lyrics. It is helpful to have criteria by which to test the effectiveness of a lyric. What is not working? Why? What could we do to fix it?

As part of our criteria, we can borrow from the work of British philosopher of language Paul Grice (1913-88), who coined the idea of the cooperative principle. The cooperative principle describes how effective communication in conversation is achieved in common social situations. Recently, I have been playing with how Gricean maxims (as they are called) might be applied to songwriting, and help us polish our lyrics. We don’t have to follow the maxims. Actually, it can be very interesting when we don’t. But if we choose not to follow the maxims, it is worth considering why not, and what effect we intend by departing from the maxims – or, indeed, what effect we accidentally end up with if we ignore them.

The maxims fall under four headings: quality, quantity, relation and manner.

1. Maxim of Quality

Supermaxim: Try to make your contribution one that is true.

Submaxims:

a) Do not say what you believe to be false.

b) Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

For the songwriter, I would suggest that this means the lyricist must write what is emotionally, psychologically true or, at the very least, plausible. The lyrics must not be glib or superficial, unless the intention is to portray an emotionally shallow character. For example, a song character must ‘stay in character’ and not do or say something (or even a word) that is ‘false’, i.e. does not ring true for what we understand of their personality. In other words, a later verse can portray another aspect of the character, or a dramatic development of their character, but the character must not arbitrarily undergo a personality change that seems inexplicably ‘out of character’ from the person we met earlier in the song. But … if a character lies to someone in the song, and the listener understands that the character is knowingly lying, that is an effective use of language. A character could also say something untrue through being ignorant of something; depending on how the lyric presents this, it could be very effective. In this sense, the songwriter is putting across a ‘truth’ about the character’s perspective.

Clichés, platitudes, or generalisations may come easily to a lyricist, but will they grab or keep the listener’s attention? Stock sentiments or phrases may convey a lack of commitment or personal connection from the character. This may well be a true reflection of the lyricist failing to ‘show up’ and say something sufficiently specific, real or ‘true’. And that, in turn, makes it extremely difficult for the singer to deliver an emotionally compelling interpretation of the song.

2. Maxim of Quantity
  1. Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of the exchange).
  2. Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.

If a reader/listener doesn’t ‘get’ what the lyric is trying to say, then the lyricist has failed. To be fair, sometimes the full meaning of a lyric becomes clear when the music fills in the rest of the information. A good lyric leaves room for the music to say something extra to the information provided by the lyric alone.

But as an editor of his/her own song, the lyricist has to ask, “Could the listener make sense of this without having the background information that I have?”. If a lyricist has to explain to the listener the back story for the lyric, then the lyric is clearly missing necessary content – and more verbal information must be supplied.

This is a subtle art. Putting too much background information into a lyric can kill it. Listening is a creative act, just like reading a novel or poem. Listeners get more out of a song if there is space for them to fill with their own imagination and feeling. The lyricist needs to provide enough story, but a listener is dissatisfied if they’re given everything.

Sometimes a songwriter produces a bridge, or another verse, believing that s/he ‘should’, for some reason, and the song suffers from losing energy or focus. There’s a saying amongst presenters: “Get on, get to the point, and get off.” Lyrics need to do the same. Once they’ve said everything that needs to be said, stop.

3. Maxim of Relation
  • Be relevant

Sometimes a lyricist comes up with a phrase, image or reference that s/he finds appealing. Perhaps the sounds of – or a play on – some words has pleased the writer. But questions must be asked: “Does this drive the narrative forward? Does it deepen the listener’s engagement with the character or situation? Does it keep the listener’s attention in the right place, or is it a momentary distraction? Does it introduce an element or image that sits outside the ‘rules’ established by the content, vocabulary, tone and form of the rest of the lyric?”

It doesn’t matter if the lyric is fanciful, or the world the lyricist creates has norms or ‘laws’ that do not conform to the world we know. The point is that a work of art has to stay true to its own internal rules, the ones that the artist establishes for that particular work.

4. Maxim of Manner

Supermaxim: Be clear

Submaxims:

a) Avoid obscurity of expression.

b) Avoid ambiguity.

c) Be brief.

d) Be orderly.

It is not helpful to leave the listener puzzled about what is going on. Mystery has its place (sometimes), but sloppy writing to convey sloppy ideas is no use to the listener. Obscurity is self-indulgence on the part of the lyricist, and alienates the listener. Shorter words work better than longer ones. Shorter sentences are more effective than longer ones. The subject of each verb needs to be obvious. The fewer the words, the greater the impact.The narrative has to be coherent; for example, the ideas in one verse must not accidentally contradict those in another, unless there is a dramatic reason to do so. There must be a relentless logic to the sequence of ideas and verses. Repetition of a line – or several lines (eg a chorus) – must never feel like repetition; because of its position in the lyric, it should feel like something new is being said. While repeated listenings to a song can – and perhaps should – reveal previously undiscovered layers and nuances, the first hearing of a song should make some sense to a listener.

Invitation

As I said, I have been exploring the possible usefulness of applying Gricean maxims to critiquing song lyrics. The exercise has proved fruitful. I would be interested to hear from readers what they have found from testing their lyrics with Gricean maxims.

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  1. […] one of my posts about critiquing our own lyrics, I wrote “It is not helpful to leave the listener puzzled about what is going on. … Obscurity […]

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