Lyrics Checklist – good writers re-write
In The Craft of Lyric Writing, Sheila Davis writes: “Good writers are generally good editors, Any serious writer wil tell you that plays, novels, and poems aren’t just written – they’re rewritten.” (p.293) Here are some ways to analyse lyrics – other people’s or our own – to find out why they work, or why they need rewriting.
- Is it clear? Does the song make sense without having to explain to the listener what is going on or what a line means? “Never have a line you have to explain.” (Sammy Cahn)
- Can it be paraphrased in a short sentence, or, better still, in a short phrase?
- Is the message universal? Would the listener be able to say, ‘Yes, I recognise that’, or ‘Me, too’, ‘Yes, I’ve felt that too’?
- Does every bit of the song – vocabulary, tone, line, verse, chorus, bridge – contribute to the message? Are there any irrelevancies or distractions in the lyrics?
- Does it fit well with the message?
- Better still, is a summary of the message? In verse/chorus songs, the chorus summarises the verses, and the title summarises the chorus.
- Is the title memorable? What makes it memorable?
- Is the title repeated enough times in the lyric?
- Is the title in the best positions in the lyric (e.g. first and/or last lines of verses or chorus)?
- Does it focus on the emotional core of the message?
- Does it contain the title?
- Is the title in a good position (first or last line)?
- Does each line in a verse tell us something new?
- Does each verse tell us something new?
- Are the verses as interesting as the chorus (if there is one)?
Structure / Form
- Does the form fit the message, mood and content? Blues stresses realism; AABA focuses on one mood or moment in time; AAA (strophic) works well for stories, histories, tales, portraits/biographies; verse/chorus punches home an intense emotional message by returning powerfully to the chorus; verse/chorus with a bridge section introduces a contrasting idea/emotion/perspective before the return to the final chorus.
- Does the song have a strong start? Does the opening line draw us in?
- Is there a journey with a payoff towards the end or at the end? (A lyric needs a payoff, and it mustn’t come too early.)
- Does the lyric establish who, where and when? Who is singing, to whom, and why? Is this clear throughout the lyric? Establish the relationship between the singer and the person / people being sung about or to (the ‘singee’); if singer and singee are clearly connected, then the listener will connect to the singer (Sheila Davis).
- Universality and identification: Can we (and the performer!) identify with (as?) singer (without being embarrassed to do so)? Is the singee identifiable as a universal character we recognise? Is the the message and / or emotion a universal truth that many could identify with?
- Are there evocative images / metaphors? Have these been kept consistent? (I.e. If the image is about the relationship meeting a ‘dead end’, don’t juxtapose this with ‘jumping out of the frying pan into the fire’.)
- Could the lyric benefit from triggering the senses – hearing, seeing, touching, smelling, tasting)?
- Are there plenty of verbs (‘energy’ words)? Do the verbs have ’emotional density’ (e.g. change ‘you looked bored’ to ‘you stifled a yawn’)?
- Pronouns: Is the lyric clear whether the song is about the first, second or third person? Are the pronouns consistent, or will the listener get confused who is singing, who is being sung to, or who is being sung about?
- External and internal focus: External focus provides us with either a) information about what is in the singer’s / singee’s environment, or b) information about the events or story. Internal focus takes us into the personal details of a character, especially their senses, feelings and thoughts. Is there a balance between external focus in the lyric? (Internal focus is especially effective for choruses.)
- Is there a good balance between internal and external focus?
- Is the language conversational (within the register of the character/s involved)?
- Is the tone (type of vocabulary and mood of language) consistent throughout?
- Has confusing ambiguity been avoided? Ambiguity can come from obscurity of meaning / intention. It can also arise from untintentional punning (homophones): ‘The hours whirr …’ or ‘the hours were …’? ‘Will the stew be cooked in time?’ or ‘Will the stew be cooked in thyme?’ ‘Feel my sighs’, or ‘feel my size’? Even intentional ambiguity is rarely successful in a song lyric; a lyric needs to be immediately understandable for the listener.
- Would fewer words say the same thing? Or would fewer words say more? Less is more.
- Would a word with fewer syllables say it with greater directness and impact? Less is more.
- Are the words in their most natural order? Or from time to time / turned around are they / to make them rhyme? (Click here for the Yoda-Speak Generator …)
- We’re unsettled and muddled by sentences when the passive tense is being used. Use the active tense; it’s clearer and more direct.
- Repetition is effective. Repetition is effective. Variation is also effective.
- Show, don’t tell. ‘I miss you more than I can say; I want you back here every day’ may be true, but it’s not an interesting or touching lyric. Compare that with Carole King’s ‘Far Away’: “So far away / Doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore / It would be so fine to see your face at my door / Doesn’t help to know you’re just time away.” Or “Through autumn’s golden gown we used to kick our way / You always loved this time of year / Those fallen leaves lie undisturbed now ’cause you’re not here” (‘Forever Autumn’, Wayne, Osborne and Vigrass)
- Rhyme: Is the rhyme scheme consistent? Are the rhymes varied enough? Do the rhymes reinforce meaning and mood? Are the rhymes over-worked?
- Does the humour bring out the story and character, or does it draw attention to the lyricist? “Humour is about character, not cleverness.” (Stephen Sondheim)
Combining lyrics and music
- Do the words ‘sing’? Are they easy for the singer to sing, given the pitch and speed? Has the singer been given long, open vowels on long notes, or final notes? Is there space for the singer to breathe? Are there too many s’s? Are there difficult clusters of consonants on high notes?
- Rhythm and stress: Music has predictable stresses (e.g. when there are 4 beats in a bar, the 1st is the strongest, and the 3rd is the next strongest. Does the rhythm of the melody mirror a) the natural rhythm of the language and strong/weak stresses on syllables, b) the stress that you would give to particular words, given the emotional/psychological meaning you want to put across? Is there enough variety in the rhythms? Do the overall rhythmic patterns ‘fit or fight’ the sentiment of the lyrics?
- Does the music help frame the key phrases, ideas or words? This could be through rhythm, stress, pitch, harmony, silence etc.
- Do the lengths of musical phrases (including pauses, silences) match the lengths of verbal phrases?
- Do melodic ‘rhymes’ match verbal rhymes?
- If the lyrics came first, does the melodic pitch shape or rhythmic character match the message, or a word’s meaning? If the music came first, does the lyric match the emotional energy and shape of the melody (pitch, intervals and rhythms)?
This is a very useful checklist.
I find the following Davis quote useful too when checking if a song works well.
“Successful lyrics start their story at the first line, then take us *from* something, *through* something *to* something.”
Thank for this helpful article.
Please could you elaborate the point about ‘too many s’s’ further?
I think this many be a problem in my writing.
Hi Michael – for for more information about the use of ‘s’, take a look at section 8 on Gene Lees on lyric writing.
Thank you so much for all your work.