Ten Tips for Songwriting Success

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4. Start your lyrics with a concrete (preferably visual) description of a situation that makes it clear what the song is about.

The words in a song go by very quickly, and if the listener isn’t sure what the song is about, you can be sure he or she will simply stop listening – at least to the words, and maybe to the whole song.

Some beginning writers think it’s okay to be mysterious or enigmatic. And it is – if you don’t care that most listeners will be turned off and won’t have any idea what your song is about. The bottom line is that no one listens to a song to solve a puzzle. People want to be entertained. If you expect people to work to figure your song out, you’re going to eliminate 90% of your potential audience. Unless you’re holding the listener’s attention through the use of a gimmick, all you’re doing is wasting the lyrics of your song. (Lyrics can be a big selling point in a song when they’re interesting and easy to understand.)

Assuming that you want people to listen to the words and understand them, you’ll need to make it clear what the song is about, right at the beginning, before people have a chance to lose interest. The best way to do that is to start with a concrete, visual scene that captures the essence of what’s happening in the song.

For example, check out the opening lines of my song Intuition :

Have you ever had the feeling you should walk down a certain street?

Have you ever thought of someone you knew, and half an hour later you meet?

Most listeners immediately know exactly what I’m talking about. Because of that, they continue to listen to the words, and even when the lyrics get more abstract and complicated later, they have a context to make sense out of them.

Another example of this is my song Doorway, which is about a fairly tricky concept: that we get trapped by things we believe without even realizing that we are trapped. I had the lyrics basically finished, but I knew the opening didn’t capture the idea behind the song clearly enough. After weeks of tossing around ideas, I hit on the image of the bird in the cage:

There’s a bird in a silver cage

His heart is breaking as he sees the open sky

The door is open, but he does not leave

Cause he believes he cannot learn to fly.

This image, right up front, makes it easy to grasp what the song is about. As a result, people listen to the words all the way through, and the lyrics become a big part of what people like about the song.

Remember: if it isn’t clear to listeners what you’re singing about within the first 15 – 30 seconds of the song, they’ll probably stop listening (at least to the lyrics).

5. Use the creative process correctly.

For a detailed explanation of how to do this, see the article Making Creativity Work for You in the articles section.