Putting the listener first – 4 useful tests for your lyrics

Jason Blume (who has some great tips on songwriting) makes the important point: “It’s been said that great songs are rarely written—they are rewritten.” This means that we need to have tools that will help us edit and rewrite.

This post is about the value of blocking our ears to the lyricist in us, and opening our ears as new listeners to our own lyrics. What we have to remember is that the listener does not know what is in our (the lyricist’s) mind or heart. The listener only knows what is in the words. (The music also provides important emotional information, but let’s leave that topic to one side for now.)

In 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 is self-indulgence on the part of the lyricist.” If the listener has to ask the lyricist, ‘What does this mean?”, then the lyricist has failed. A lyricist should not have to explain themselves or their lyric. So, when evaluating our own (or someone else’s) lyrics, we have to consider the listener’s experience, and how the song might come across to them.

1. Double test of ‘first and only’

One of the approaches I have developed for assessing lyrics is to apply what I call a double test of ‘first and only’. What would the listener get (or not get) …

  1. the first time they heard these lyrics (of this line, or this phrase, or word)?
  2. if they heard these lyrics (this line, phrase, word) only once, and never again?

I sometimes mischievously call this my ‘first and only’ rule. Think how that reads, or sounds. It seems as though perhaps this is the first rule I came up with, or maybe it’s the most important one (the first priority to consider). Or maybe its the only rule that needs to be applied. Of course, I don’t mean either of those things. So calling it the ‘first and only’ rule is misleading for the listener and reader – and it would make a bad lyric for that reason.

2. The ‘listen, don’t read’ test

Bear in mind that this is about listening to the lyrics, not reading them. If music has not yet been written for the lyrics, then the lyrics travel at the speed of being heard when read out loud. There is no going back over a line or verse. The listener can’t ask to hear something again. When the music is written, the speed of delivery of the words is even more tightly defined. So a second test of our lyrics can be to record ourselves reading them out, and then to listen back to a recording of the spoken lyrics.

A variation of this test is to read out or play the recorded spoken lyrics to someone else to find out what another person makes of the lyrics. We must  beware asking people who don’t have the skills or objectivity to give us high quality feedback. (I’m thinking about writing a post about who to get feedback from called ‘Don’t ask your mum’.)

Yet another variation, is to get various other people to read the lyrics back to us. Not only will we usually discover new ideas and nuances, we can also get a sense of whether our intended meaning is being picked up by people, or whether people are simply missing the point(s) that we thought we were making clearly.

I called this the ‘listen, don’t read’ test. As a lyric, it probably wouldn’t pass test one. But it might not pass this one either. Reading those words, and the explanation, it’s clear that I’m suggesting that somebody listens rather than reading. However, hearing the words ‘listen, don’t read’, a listener might imagine they mean ‘Listen to this important point I want to make: don’t read.’ And that’s not what I mean.

3. The ‘ten words or fewer’ test

What is the song about? What’s the least number of words that we could use to summarise the message or point of our song? Could we finish the sentence, “This song is about ….” in ten words or less? Better still, could a listener finish that sentence in ten words or fewer?

In that last paragraph, I took a lot more than 10 words to put my point across. Let me try again:

Summarise your song in ten words, or fewer.

4. The ‘intent versus content’ test – ‘Will it make the boat go faster?’

Having applied the ‘ten words or fewer’ test, would a listener be able to meaningfully connect the chorus, middle 8, every verse, and every line to this summary? Does every single piece of lyric content contribute to the our intent for the song? Again, this is a listening task for the lyricist. As lyricists, we must listen to lines, in context, and out of context, to test whether they are — to the listener’s ears – clear enough and relevant enough to serve the message we want to put across.

Very often, a good song title expresses the core intent of the song, so we can check the content against its relevance to the title. There is a great book by the Olympic rower Ben Hunt-Davies and his co-writer Harriet Beveridge about how the British 8 trained themselves to win the Olympic Gold in 2000. It came down to one question they kept asking themselves: Will it Make the Boat Go Faster?. During their years of preparation, everything they did had to be tested against that one question.

So, as a songwriter, keep asking the question: ‘Does this title, word or line serve the message of the song?’

Final thoughts

None of these tests should be done as one-offs. To create outstanding lyrics, we must rewrite, rewrite, rewrite – and that means applying these (and other) tests to the same lyric again, and again, and again. And then we must return to the double test of ‘first and only’, and try to put ourselves – yet again – in the position of a listener who has never heard our lyrics before.

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