Rooksby on lyric writing (1)

Rikki-RooksbyThis article is a set of notes I made from the chapter ‘How to Write a Lyric’ in Rooksby, Rikky (2000/2009) How to Write Songs on Guitar: A Guitar-playing and Songwriting Course, Backbeat Books, pp. 117-136. It’s a great little chapter, packed full of interesting ideas, and useful lists of songs to illustrate each of his points. I hope that this blog article encourages you to go and read the whole chapter. The book itself is a must for any guitar-based songwriter.

  • 118 “True poetry has much less tolerance of cliché than lyrics.”
  • 118 Music can add important information to a lyric [Note: Sondheim’s idea that a lyric must leave room for music to fill in the gaps.]
  • 118-9 There is an infinite variety of ‘I love you’ songs. Rooksby gives a long list of great starting points on this.
  • 119 “Lyrics thrive on trouble of some kind.”
  • 120 Love triangles
  • 120 Non-romantic love songs
  • 121 A love song might be a disguised ‘sex’ song
  • 121 Geography song: “It encompasses such profound questions as: Where are you? Where have you been? Where do you want to be?”
  • 122 Place names can be evocative [poetically or comically]
  • 123 Telephone or letter songs {or Twitter, 140 characters?]
  • 123 Car journey song
  • 123 Train journey song [or plane]
  • 123 Crime and punishment song
  • 124 People’s names songs
  • 124 City landscapes
  • 124 answer or parody another song, or its title
  • 125 Time: memory, time of day, month, season, historical event
  • 126 Famous people, including fictional characters
  • 127 based on a book or film
  • 127 put-down song
  • 127 songs aboiut media we use e.g. radio, TV, papers, internet [texting? Video calls?]
  • 127 Clothing (Blue Suede Shoes, Lady in Red]
  • 128 Dance instructions
  • 128 Fantasy or gothic
  • 128-9 “… the self-referential song-about-writing-a-song has a greater percentage of turkeys than probably any other category. Love-obsessed singer-songwriters who grapple with being tongue-tied in the presence of their beloved are notorious for perpetrating these. Nothing is guaranteed to make you sound more like a self-obsessed egomaniac who ought to get a life than starting a lyric with, “I’m sitting here writing a song. / I’m waiting for chords to come along …”
  • 129 Big issues: politics, religion, spirituality, protest
  • 130 “I recommend that lyric writers equip themselves with three books: a thesaurus, a book of proverbs and famous quotes, and a rhyming dictionary (and no, a rhyming dictionary is not cheating).”
  • 130 Write from the perspective of 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person, or several points of view (which can include e.g. duets)
  • 131 Narrative
  • 132 avoid predictable rhymes
  • 132 don’t trap yourself into a rhyme that forces an inappropriate word, e.g. an archaism (‘thee’) [or something that tugs the meaning somewhere you don’t really want to go]
  • 132 Exercise: Find interesting rhymes and try to write a lyric for them
  • 132 declarations, questions, replies, descriptions, actions
  • 133 avoid predictable metaphors or similes
  • 133 disregard cliché and find something fresh
  • 133 weather dominates amateur lyrics
  • 133 if you use weather, find a new angle
  • 133 nature symbols are over-used and too vague
  • 134 Find the poetic or special in the ordinary
  • 134 Specific lyrics tend to succeed better than general ones
  • 134 “Mini-dictionary of pop clichés” – a great list of what to avoid using
  • 134 “Try to avoid filler words – well, baby, just, really. These add nothing to the sense and only occupy space in a line.”
  • 134 Subvert clichés e.g. “born with a plastic spoon in his mouth”, what Rooksby calls “redeeming clichés”
  • 134-5 “A good opening line is valuable. Not only does it set you, the writer, up for the rest of the lyric, but it grabs the listener’s attention. A first line might:
    • supply one evocative fact about one of the characters
    • give a memorable image
    • say something provocatively unexpected
    • say something enigmatic and mysterious
    • describe a dramatic event
    • pose a question
    • signal the start of a story
    • make a declaration
    • present a problem
    • plunge us immediately into something happening
    • say something defiant
    • say something paradoxical”
  • 135 “Titles themselves can be inspiring. Part of my own songwriting technique is to keep a list of possible titles for songs. A group of related titles can give an album of songs a particular identity. Sometimes they fix a mood long enough for you to get to grips with it.”
  • 135 “Some titles are memorable because they feature wordplay.” Great examples, such as ‘If I said you had a beautiful body would you hold it against me?’, ‘Eight Days a Week’, and ‘Illegal Tender’.
  • 135 “You can also take common phrases and twist them.” Examples such as: ‘Don’t get mad, get even’, and ‘Another one bites the dust’.
  • 135 “Some titles are intriguing because of what they don’t say.” Examples like: ‘I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone’, ‘There! I’ve Said It Again’, and ‘Wedding Bell Blues’.
  • 136 Repeat words or phrases [to make a point, not as padding!]

Rikky Rooksby‘s website describes him as “a composer, author, freelance lecturer on literature and music (both popular and classical), guitar teacher and songwriter …. Since 2000 Rikky has written a multi-volume series on songwriting for Backbeat books, and has published over 200 interviews, reviews, articles and transcriptions in music magazines.” He has published books on learning and playing guitar, chord books for song compilations of well-known singer-songwriters, and books on songwriting, lyric writing and song arranging.

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