Set Lyrics to Music Perfectly: Valuable Tips You Need to Know

March 6, 2017 by Kevin Ure

In a similar vein to composing music, many people believe that lyric writing is too difficult and that it requires a supernatural skill to do so effectively. While the ability to write song lyrics does vary between people, talent is not the only factor that determines whether your song lyrics are going to work well with the composition.

As with music composition, writing song lyrics is as much a craft as it is a talent. Lyric writing is a personal activity that requires the ability to express your thoughts with words and set them to music.

Write What You Know

Prospective lyric writers are told to write what they know. This mantra is hammered into your head as a writer, but lyric writers fail to get much more direction beyond that. Writing lyrics requires you to express a thought, idea, or theme in a manner that makes them suitable for singing.

It's more than simply putting words on a page, since if the lyrics are awkward or stilted, the music is going to be difficult to sing. Since writing lyrics is such a personal thing, it's not possible to write a single article that tells every songwriter in the world how to express their feelings. However, like music composition, there are certain basics that can be learned to make the process of writing lyrics go more smoothly.

The Purpose of Lyrics

Writing lyrics serves two main purposes -- form and practicality. The form of a piece is largely dictated by the words that are going to be used in the piece. I know very few songwriters that write music first and then go to look for appropriate lyrics to fit the melody. Because of this, the words end up dictating the form of the piece to a large degree.

The other side of that involves the practicality of singing. Singers don't need lyrics to sing, and they can simply vocalize; but, since they are using their voices to produce sound, it makes sense that adding words to a piece of music can provide an extra element to the piece.

Some people that write lyrics are writing them purely for the message. The creativity of the words and rhyming scheme are less important than the actual message of the lyrics. Others put a greater emphasis on the actual music; they want lyrics that accurately represent the tone and mood of the music.

Deciding what you want to achieve with your lyrics before committing words to paper is the first step to creating effective lyrics.

Types of Music

Classical music is going to require a different approach to lyric writing than popular music. In a classical piece, you want lyrics that flow smoothly with the music and often, the lyrics don't need to have a "hook" or "ear candy" to bring the listener to the piece.

Classical music relies more on the content of the music than the lyrics to express a message. Take the example of opera, each plot line can usually be summarized in a single sentence. But, the message, moods, and character development in an opera have far more time to develop than your typical pop album.

The nature of opera is to deal with dramatic human interactions and exchanges in a musical form. On the other hand, popular music tends to deal with one specific idea, and the main purpose is to provide entertainment. Because of this, the "hook" can help to make a song more memorable and bring the audience into the music.

Determine the type of music you are writing before you start writing your lyrics so that you can get a feel for the type of content, structure, and purpose of the lyrics. If you're writing popular music, the lyrics need to be catchy and possibly even a bit bizarre.

With popular music, the words are much more important than the message, although, that doesn't mean that popular music can't also have a deeper message. With classical music, the words are less important than the mood, emotion, message, and music expressed in the musical composition.

Popular Music

If your aim is to write popular music, then coming up with the hook should be one of the first things you aim to create. The hook is going to help you or your composer refine the melody and create the chorus. It can also help you fill out the lyrics for the rest of the song. If you don't yet have an idea for the song, you can create any hook without having to worry about how it ties into the actual composition.

Once you create the hook, you can refine the music so that it fits with a melody and title for the piece. Chances are, if you're writing popular music, you're going to have to create the lyrics entirely by yourself or with the help of a lyricist.

With classical music, it's a little bit different and there are certain shortcuts available for composers that don't want to write their own lyrics. If you're having trouble coming up with a hook, think about phrases that are popular by looking at trending topics on Facebook and Twitter.

If you're in a rut coming up with lyrics, the most important thing is movement. Keep searching and eventually, an effective hook will come to you. Once you create a hook, check the hook to see if it accurately sums up a single point. Unless you want to achieve a particular goal, with popular music you should focus each song on one particular point.

Classical Music

With classical music, you generally have a different objective than you would have when writing lyrics for popular music. In a classical piece, it's more about the music and the message. Because of this, many composers choose lyrics that are already in the public domain.

Generally, anything written more than 70 years ago is free game for composers that want to write music. Emily Dickinson is a commonly used writer for composers that don't have the ability or desire to come up with their own lyrics. With a classical music song, since it's more about the music and the message, it's important to select poetry and writings with words that are singable.

It's unlikely that a classical composer is going to create a hook for their composition. The "hooks" in a classical music composition are all about the motives and melody. It's a good idea to select a poem early on and then spend time reflecting on that poem and trying to figure out how you want the music to reflect the message in the poem.

Generating Ideas

If you're having trouble coming up with ideas, it's time to take a trip back to your high school English class. Remember brainstorming? It's something that is taught to all writers because it's an effective way to get your mind going.
Start with a sheet of paper and write one or two words that come to mind. Then, removing any self-talk, freely start writing down any words that come to mind. Don't hesitate, if a word pops into your mind, write it down.
Complete this process for at least five minutes and then review the words to see if any ideas for a hook or song pop out at you. Start to devise a storyline based on the ideas created during your brainstorming session.

Lyric Considerations

Tense

Once you've started creating your lyrics, you need to pay attention to some basic grammar issues that often crop up. You can certainly be creative in your lyrics, and not everything has to be grammatically correct; however, in general, you should use the same tense throughout the entire piece.

Jumping from past to present tense generally only works if you are trying to accomplish a very specific goal with a narrative that starts in the past tense and then comes into the present or future tense. This sort of technique works well when you're dealing with a composition that goes through a storyline or development of the main character in the song.

Voice

The voice of the song should also remain consistent. If the song starts in the first person voice, with the narrative describing a person's depiction of something that happened to them as if they were telling the story, then the piece should generally stay in the first person voice. Avoid switching between narrative voices. Changing the voice not only sounds strange, it can cause problems when trying to set the lyrics to music.

Choosing a Mode

The mode in lyric writing refers to the manner in which the narrator expresses the emotions of the piece. Mode refers to the different types of verses in a poem and as such, it has a significant bearing on the creation of lyrics in a music composition. Basically, the mode helps the writer determine the focus of each verse and determine what each verse is designed to do -- it's purpose. The three most commonly used modes are the lyric, narrative, and dramatic modes.

Lyric Mode

This is probably the most common mode used by lyric writers. The lyric mode always uses a first person narrative and is told from the viewpoint of the narrative. In a first person narrative the word "I" is crucial to expressing the viewpoint. First person narrative doesn't mean that the lyrics have to be told from your viewpoint. It can be the viewpoint of an imaginary person discussing their mood, feelings, or thought processes. Most songs in the lyric mode are written in the present tense as well.

Narrative Mode

In a narrative mode, the point of the lyrics is to tell a story. Unlike the lyric mode, it's not dealing with a person's emotions, feelings, or thought processes. This can be a bit confusing because songs written in both lyric and dramatic mode can contain elements of the narrative mode. But, the main point of the song is what determines the type of mode used.

The sole purpose of the narrative mode is to tell an account or story of something that happened, or possibly will happen. Because of this, narrative songs are often based in the past tense. However, there are many examples of songs using the narrative mode that exist in both the present and future tense as well.
First person and third person points of view are both commonly used. It depends on whether you want the narrator to depict something that occurred, or if you want someone outside the events to describe something as it happened.

Dramatic Mode

The dramatic mode is in the form of a speech given to someone or something. The dramatic mode attempts to express a feeling or emotion to another person. Unlike the lyric mode, the dramatic mode is talking about feelings or emotions, while directing those feelings as a message toward a specific person.

If the song aims mainly to give voice to a narrator's feelings, then the song is still in lyric mode. In contrast, if the song aims to send a message to a particular person or thing, then it is in dramatic mode. Gloria Gaynor's song "I Will Survive" is an example of dramatic mode.

Setting the Lyrics to Music

Once you have the basic mode selected and a framework for your lyrics, it's time to refine everything and set the lyrics to music. When writing the music, it's important to sing the lyrics. Otherwise, the emphasis might get placed on the wrong syllable.

For instance, if you have the word "Assigned," then you have to be very careful to write that word in such a way that the vocalist doesn't sound like she is cursing. Extending the first part of that word on a high point in the song could create the wrong impression and obscure the clarity of the word.

Most vocalists will adjust the words as necessary to avoid this type of confusion, but in classical music especially, it is expected that the composer has already worked through these issues. Pay careful attention to the rhythm and the meter of the song when you're setting your lyrics to music.

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