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How To Write Memorable Song Lyrics

Updated on June 23, 2014

How To Write A Memorable Song Lyric

Writing a song lyric is very easy! All you need is that "killer" idea for the lyric and an understanding of how to structure the words into a lyric. It will then virtually write itself. Everybody knows how to string a few words together but these two facts will differentiate a run-of-the-mill song lyric from the next big hit.

I will try on this page, to help anyone to write a song lyric by firstly giving a few tips on how to generate some ideas. There are a number of techniques which can be used, but of course this is a very personal thing and you need to find out which technique works for you.

Secondly, I will explain the rudiments of the structure of a song which will help to make the lyric memorable and add the contrasts which make the song stand out. The structure of a song will consist of individual lines and how they are arranged, how the lines rhyme and how the lines are arranged in blocks to form verses and chorus. The blocks themselves will also have a structure, which can be manipulated to suit the lyric. This short explanation sounds much more difficult than the reality, as you will readily see below.

I will offer some personal insights and explore them with examples from my portfolio of self-penned numbers. . I hope that this helps you to turn out a future number one song for you.

Note, all lyrics, songs and images/videos are the copyright of the author unless so stated.

in the process of writing a song
in the process of writing a song

How Do You Start To Write A Song Lyric?

Where Does The Idea Come From ?

Where does the kernel of the idea for your world-wide hit come from? Well in all honesty, how long is a piece of string? There are however certain ways and means of developing an idea.

1. I often sit with my guitar on my knee and strum a few chord riffs, before long words appear out of the blue and form the beginnings of a lyric that goes with the chords. This often results in my most lyrical songs. If you are at all musical, this may work for you. Let your consciousness feel for the words and the ideas may come. I know this is not very helpful if nothing comes, but as I said, you need to find something that works for you. And there are a number of techniques which will help with the idea generation.

2. Start with a song that you like the theme of. Brainstorm all the potential titles and lyrical hooks ( the memorable phrases) that have a link with that theme. Is there a small subset that you can use to begin a different lyric, maybe even more than one? The more songs that you write the more likely it is that one of them will really gel with you and other people. Make the new song(s) original, don't copy the words or even the theme exactly. Use it as a starting point and develop your own lyric.

3. Cut out random words and phrases from newspapers and magazines. Start to arrange them into phrases and groups/lines that make some sort of sense. This often leads to weird lyrics, but I have had some success with this method. I first tried this after I heard a radio interview with a very early David Bowie, in which he related this way of creating lyrics. Since then I have heard it or similar methods mentioned by other artists.

4. Pick a situation from a book / film / TV or even real life in which you can identify with one of the characters. Develop a story and use this to write your lyric. Again, don't copy. Use the idea to build an original story and an original lyric.

5. If you like the idea of writing a song but are really stuck, why not "ask a friend". Do you have someone who might like to get involved with you, it can be easier to move forward if you can bounce ideas of someone else so don't dismiss it. It is no accident that so many songs are written by two or more people.

6. if you are still stuck, then visit this page for a long list of ideas

There are many other possible methods and you may know some yourself, but for now we will concentrate on this small set. I will add others, as the page is developed, to build up a toolbox of techniques.

hand written song sheets lyric and top line
hand written song sheets lyric and top line

Which Comes First?

The Lyrics or The Tune?

Just a few words on this perennial topic, in many ways this is a self-defeating question. Some writers will do it one way and some another or even use either depending on the circumstances. This is a purely personal thing and you will find the way which is the one you that feel happiest with. As I said above, find a way that works for you. The one thing that you can be sure of is that whichever you find does come first, you will need to edit it to make the melody and the lyrics fit together well. Never be satisfied with the first attempt.

You will have noticed that three of the above techniques start with finding an idea for the lyric and the first uses a little help from a musical idea. I have to say that most of my song writing begins with that first method. So I guess you could say that I am writing the lyric to a musical idea. On the other hand, I very rarely try to write lyrics to an already established melody. I find this imposes a restriction on the lyrics that I want to write.

Try Writing Your Lyric To A Beat - Amazon To The Rescue

Not musical? Never learned to play an instrument? You could just tap out a beat on any convenient surface to help give your lyric the right sound, However it is so much nicer to use a real instrument; why not see if Amazon has something that you could use instead of the kitchen spoons.

Grover/Trophy FN232 Musical Spoons
Grover/Trophy FN232 Musical Spoons

Nothing wrong with spoons, but these will help to keep you on the beat.

 
percussion instruments for writing songs
percussion instruments for writing songs

How To Structure A Lyric

And Create A Memorable Song

One basic component of a lyric is the verse, which is itself composed of lines. The verse is usually composed of a fixed number of lines (most often 4, but can be anywhere between 2 to 8) and these lines usually rhyme in some way to give a pattern which is repeated in each verse throughout the song.

For example the first and second lines rhyme, and then the third and fourth lines will rhyme with each other. This may be written as AABB. For example:-

From "Mr. Willow" by John Dyhouse (Artyfax)

Mr. Willow weep for me, won't you shed a tear.

Help me keep my own eyes dry, though it's too late I fear.

Mr. Sun please leave the sky now, please allow the rain,

To wash my face and hide away all these tears of pain.

Another pattern is for the first and third, and the second and fourth lines, to rhyme. Which would then be written as ABAB. Or maybe just the second and fourth lines rhyme with each other, which could be given the shorthand of ABCB. There are a number of possible, different sequences and this is compounded where the rhymes may be within the lines. An example of this is the following verse, where the third line is virtually split into two and these shortened lines rhyme with each other, to give a sequence of AABBA :-

From "The Song Of My Life" by John Dyhouse (Artyfax)

The song of my life has been long

But now it is finally sung.

I sang it to you

As I whispered adieu,

Yes the song of my life has been song.

If you listen to, or read, the lyrics of the vast majority of songs you will be able to identify these patterns. When you are writing your own songs, you should be aware of the pattern that you are using and make sure that all your verses use the same pattern. This will make the lyric easier to remember and easier for the listener to identify with.

One last complication is that the verse can actually have any number of lines from 3 to 12, although not all are common. Four lines per verse is definitely the most common form, followed by 3, 6 and 8. Just don't ask about the lyrics written by Bob Dylan. He seems to be a law unto himself for many of his blues inspired songs. He also has a habit of varying the number of lines in a verse, and other random acts which make his songs so difficult for singers to learn and perform.

Just a quick word about the rhyming before we move on. There are many "classes" or degree of rhymes which include:-

exact pronunciations on the last syllable of the words, e.g. girl and twirl

exact pronunciations on two or more syllables, e.g. wonder and asunder

weak rhymes, where the rhyme is not exact, e.g. girl and world

In the last case the use of a weak rhyme will not be heard, as wrong, by the listener. This obviously allows a far greater and more varied choice or rhymes. This can also help to avoid the obvious clichés which are much better left well alone if you are writing a lyric. You will know the ones I mean, Moon and June, You and To (Two, Blue). Overuse has made these unusable so be creative in your choice of rhymes.

my notebook of song lyrics
my notebook of song lyrics

More On The Structure Of A Song Lyric

Introducing Contrast Into The Lyric

Most songs will have from 3 to 5 verses, again excepting some notable songs such as some of those by Bob Dylan. In these few verses the writer has to tell a story from beginning to end. The listener must be "grabbed" in the first couple of lines, by any of a number of techniques. The most common is the use of what is known as "the hook", a phrase which is memorable in some way. A situation is set up, by the first line(s) which the listener can identify with. The hook is likely to be repeated a number of times within the song, but is not always the first thing the listener will hear. E.g. I can't get no satisfaction in the song of the same name by The Rolling Stones or Help ( also in the song of the same name) by The Beatles. Well, now that has given you an idea of my age-group.

So the song opens with a verse which outlines a situation. The second verse will extend or further explain this situation for emphasis. Assuming that the song has 3 verses, the third verse will resolve the situation and bring it to a completion. Or at least most songs will have this sort of resolution at the end of the lyric. But between verse 2 and 3, there will be a contrasting lyric. This is called the chorus or bridge and the key of the music and the melody will also change to emphasise the contrasting section.

The structure of the bridge is likely to be different in a number of ways to the verse and the greater the contrast, the better in most cases. Again, if you listen to almost any song, you will be able to hear the bridge when it arrives. Some songs will have this contrasting section after each verse and it is there it is most properly called a chorus.

I need to be careful here as I am going to make a sweeping statement about songs written before my time, but here goes. Pre-1950, or thereabouts, many songs started with an introductory refrain which is often not heard when those songs are played/sung these days. So in the case of older songs be careful when listening for the structure. It may even be that all we hear from many of these songs, in a modern rendition, is the chorus. But popular songs from the 1950s on will follow the sort of structure that I have outlined above.

A Possible Song Structure

The following structure is purely hypothetical and most (modern) songs will not contain all of the elements given in the list.

  • introduction. Often an instrumental element but could be sung.
  • Refrain - optional. Not very common nowadays when songs need to make a mark very rapidly.
  • Verse1
  • Verse2
  • Chorus. Difficult to generalise, but often after verse two in a song with three verses. May occur after each verse in ballads, for example.
  • Break / middle eight. An instrumental element offereing contrast.
  • Verse3
  • Coda / Outro. Brings the song to a final conclusion

This is a very simple generalisation and of course, there could be any number of verses, but some structure does allow the song to be remembered easily.

Read More About Writing Song Lyrics - Books From Amazon To Help You

An Example Song Lyric (1)

From Make Believe World by John Dyhouse

(verse 1)

Look in the mirror, tell me what do you see?

Just like Alice you'll get lost, if you want it to be.

Make believe is the name of the game

Ev'rybody can play just the same

Make believe............ And you never can tell.

(Bridge)

It's a make believe world full of make believe people

Doing make believe jobs in a make believe world.

Where time is your own

And there's no time to worry

And no need to hurry,

In a make believe world

Let's see if this fits the structure as described above. First of all the verse, it appears at first sight to be of 5 lines but it is actually 4. On inspection, the fifth line is a single line chorus. The four lines exhibit a rhyming pattern of AABB. The second verse actually makes use of a cliché in the first two lines, adding a little humor. Also the last verse does not resolve anything, there is no situation set up in the first verse, and all three verses build on the idea in the lyric. The bridge does have a very different structure from the verse introducing a musical and lyrical contrast to the song. The repetition of the two-word phrase, "make believe" gives the song a fairly strong hook, which can only be good from the listeners point of view.

A full, printable version is available below.

Some Self-Penned Songs - Performed By Me

Ok, I know I am not the world's best singer / guitarist but here are a couple of my favourite numbers.

musical instruments
musical instruments

The meter of a Lyric

Something To Remember When Writing A Song

Another method of writing a lyric, which for me is very similar to the first above, is to take a notable phrase which becomes the hook and work up a lyric using that hook. the difference to technique number 1 is that I can do it anywhere where I have a few minutes. I use a notebook rather than a guitar. This is actually quite a lot harder because without the guitar keeping time as it were, I have to be very careful to get the meter of the lyric right.

If you need to check up on what is meant by the meter, a good link to help is Music Lyrics.

Each verse should have the same meter and the words should fit naturally into that meter. It is possible to force a lyric into a shape by "oo'ing and aah'ing" or by putting multiple notes on each syllable but is probably best to be avoided for simplicitly. If it sounds right when it is spoken, it will sound right when sung.

Help With Rhyming Lyrics

Not such an easy task

I have posted an article on my blog (Guitar Bashin') which looks at on-line rhyming dictionaries and other resources for the songwriter. You will also find a more thorough explanation of the types of rhymes, how to use them and more importantly perhaps how to make good, effective use of the rhyming dictionaries.

An Example Song Lyric (2)- Excerpt

From "Goin' To The City" by John Dyhouse

This may be heard in one of the videos in the last module and the full lyrics are published as a printable version below

(Verse 1)

Goin' to the city where I'll find those bright lights

Show me where I'm going, let me see the sights

Show me where it's all happening

Show me where it's at

And bring it all on home to me

(verse 2)

(bridge)

Don't give me no warnings

I won't listen to them all

I won't take non of your advice

You think I'm heading for a fall............all...................all....

(verse 3)

Again this is a 4 line verse although I have typed it to show 5 lines. In this case, lines 3 and 4 are really one line split for convenience. The rhyming pattern is therefore AABC, the last line has several longish notes which alleviate a need for any rhyme in this case.

Verse one sets up a situation which is reiterated and exploited in the second verse. The bridge is a complete contrast, musically as well as lyrically. The last verse resolves the issue, "everything will be fine don't worry about me" says the lyric. So in all respects it is a typical example of a modern song as described above. This was one of my early songs, written whilst I was still at school which explains the high number of clichés in the lyric. I was still learning.

How To Write A Poem - The Fly

Is this relevant? Well I believe so. I found this a very good and informative video on how to write a poem. But of course you will apply the advice to writing a song. A poem is read dramatically, a song is a lyric set to music but both use similar ideas. If you write lyrics first then this is something worth viewing, les than 3 minutes but great advice.

AND FINALLY ...

... whatever you write, write it with conviction

and yes passion. The listener will know!

Have You Ever Written A Song Lyric? - Have You Thought About Trying To?

my guitars
my guitars

Many people would love to be able to write songs but don't think that they could. They never try. I have shown, I hope, how it can be very easy; has this affected you at all?

Have you ever written a song lyric?

See results

Here are the lyrics to this song which can be downloaded and studied at your convenience.

The copyright to these lyrics remains with the author, whose permission should be sought if using them for anything but personal use.

Make Believe World

by John Dyhouse

(verse 1)

Look in the mirror, tell me what do you see?

Just like Alice you'll get lost, if you want it to be.

Make believe is the name of the game

Ev'rybody can play just the same

Make believe............ And you never can tell.

(verse 2)

You're a king for a day or even a poet.

Doesn't matter if you didn't really know it.

Make believe, you can be what you want

Just like me you can be what you want.

Make believe............ And you never can tell.

(Bridge)

It's a make believe world full of make believe people

Doing make believe jobs in a make believe world.

Where time is your own

And there's no time to worry

And no need to hurry,

In a make believe world

(verse 3)

You can find high adventure, why not be a pirate?

Here's Jolly Old Roger, all you need is to fly it.

Make believe is the name of the game,

Ev'rybody can play just the same.

Make believe............ And you never can tell.

Make believe............ And you never can tell.

Make believe............ And you never can tell.

(Repeat to fade)

Cast your vote for Make Believe World

Going To The City - A printable Version

Here are the lyrics to this song which can be downloaded and studied at your convenience.

The copyright to these lyrics remains with the author, whose permission should be sought if using them for anything but personal use.

Going To The City

by John Dyhouse

(Verse 1)

Going to the city,

Where I'll find those bright lights.

Show me where I'm going

Let me see the sights.

Show me where it's all happening.

Show me where it's at.

And bring it all, on home to me.

(verse 2)

I've had enough of country life,

I'm taking the easy road.

Working hard from morn' 'til night,

Bringing home a poor reward.

I'm heading for the city lights,

Heading for the girls.

And I'm leaving the old folks at home

(bridge)

Don't give me no warnings

I won't listen to them all

I won't take non of your advice

You think I'm heading for a fall............all...................all....

(verse 3)

But you'll see when I get there

I'll make lots of friends

Have lots of parties,

Burn the candles at both ends.

You're gonna see I'll make it there

Living life to the full.

And I'll never be going back home.

Seriously, I think that I know how to write a song. The question is can I pass that on in an intelligible manner. Has this lens given you an insight into the process? Or if you are a writer, has it helped you write a better lyric?

This is a work in progress and I would love to have some feedback on how to improve the lens.

Any Thoughts On My Songwriting? - Let It All Hang Out!

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    • Gloriousconfusion profile image

      Diana Grant 3 years ago from United Kingdom

      I think you have explained a lot of information very clearly, and I'm going to Pin this to use later. I've been writing poetry since I was 10, and only started going to poetry classes when I was over 60. It's really enjoyable getting critiques and discussing other people's work. A couple of years ago I went to one song-writing class, and was the only person to write a whole song in about 30 minutes, even though the others were more experienced. It just came very easily to me. Circumstances prevented me going to classes regularly - that and the fact that I don't play an instrument, although close relations do, so we could combine our talents, I suppose.

    • John Dyhouse profile image
      Author

      John Dyhouse 3 years ago from UK

      @Merrci: very simmilar to writing poetry but my lyrics tend to be very much "lighter" than my poetry. In the latter, I also tend to explore a wider range of topics. Thanks for the comment

    • Merrci profile image

      Merry Citarella 3 years ago from Oregon's Southern Coast

      What an informative lens. Great idea for a topic. I've never written lyrics, but it does sound fun to try.

    • jasonkropp profile image

      jasonkropp 3 years ago

      Thanks for the advice. The lyrics are always the most difficult part of the songwriting process for me.

    • John Dyhouse profile image
      Author

      John Dyhouse 3 years ago from UK

      @KiDuLt: Glad you found the lens useful

    • KiDuLt profile image

      KiDuLt 3 years ago

      Thanks for the tips. I started writing two years ago and i've been writing ever since. Your tips are very helpful.

    • Kim Milai profile image

      Kim Milai 3 years ago

      I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. You have a relaxed style and pleasant way to clearly describe your ideas on lyric writing.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Had to run back to shout out on FB.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Absolute fun, well done and enjoying a little bit of this and a little bit of that, you are just so darned cool...creativity seems to ooze out of your pores and you have a very welcoming teaching manner....way blessed!

    • John Dyhouse profile image
      Author

      John Dyhouse 5 years ago from UK

      @ScrollSawChuck: You know, when I was about 13 I started to write songs by singing along to my playing an old "toy" drum kit. I still sing some of the songs I wrote then ( over 50 years ago). Whatever method works for you is OK.

    • profile image

      ScrollSawChuck 5 years ago

      Thanks for the good info. I sometimes make up stories, and find a song title or hook within them. That is convenient for me since I also write novels and short stories. I usually write my lyrics and the melody simultaneously. This may sound kind of strange, but when I write my lyrics I don't sit with my guitar, but write the words and beat out the time on a bamboo back scratcher. It doesn't make much music, but it does help with putting the words together so they will flow naturally. I'll check out some of the resources you mention.

    • Paul Ward profile image

      Paul 6 years ago from Liverpool, England

      Very good, clear exposition of how to write memorable song lyrics