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Writing Lyrics: Formula or Freefall?

DonnaMarilyn

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There’s been a flurry of activity on the March Lyrics Contest thread. With occasional digressions, the discussion centred on 

1) whether the types of lyrics that win contests are formulaic, and

2) to what extent poetic devices (e.g. metaphors, etc.) play a role (or not). (For example, whether mainly poetic lyrics win the monthly contests.) 

 

A couple of posts from Neal K made me curious about the notion of a ‘winning’ formula, and whether, and to what extent and in which type of context – a particular 'formula' might appear to work optimally - in any kind of songwriting situation. With Neal’s permission, I’ve included excerpts below. Food for thought and discussion. 

 

I hope Musers will share here their own diverse approaches to writing lyrics.  

Any tips, tricks, or other magic you’d like us to know about?

 

Or any experiences of writing something you thought was brilliant but others disagreed? Or that you thought was utterly bleh, but people loved it?

For either situation, what do you think was the reason?

 

Over to you guys. :)

 

Donna

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Neal wrote:

Having run a few of these contests over the years, I started to wonder just how easy it would be to win. So … I decided to enter each monthly contest with a lyric I wrote specifically for the contest.  That meant, lyrics without writing music at the same time.   None of those lyrics ever became songs... except for the one that came in dead last.  

 

…The year was 2014 and I entered 11 of the 12 contests.  I came in first five times, second four times, fourth one time, and dead last one time.  I'm not saying this to boast.  Goodness knows I'm hardly a great lyric writer.  The point is, it's not that hard to win this contest if you 1) can identify the formula; and 2) can write to the formula without worrying if the words will ever be set to music.

 

… trust me, none of those lyrics were poetic or flowery.  I don't have that in me.  Here's the formula I followed in my 2014 experiment to win/place in the lyric contest: 1) Each lyric was story driven; 2) the story was easy to understand and to relate to; 3) they used imagery (show, don't tell); 4) there were no wasted words or forced rhymes; 5) they contained sympathetic characters that people could relate to and that I cared about; 6) each and every line had to work on its own; 6) each story had a resolution that was designed to elicit an emotion, be that happiness, sadness, joy, depression, etc.

 

That, my friend, is the formula.  I'm so confident that this works that I bet you I could coach you into placing 1st, 2nd, or 3rd in a future lyric contest.

................................................................................................... 

 

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Since Donna used my formula to start, I want to say a few words.  Yes, I am guilty of formula writing… I have a few tricks that work and I use them over and over again.  But to me the most important part isn’t the formula, it’s coming up with the idea in the first place… the confluence of inspiration and events that leads to a song idea.

 

I highly doubt anyone will care to read what I’m about to post, but it will be fun for me to write, so here goes… how I came up with the ideas that I used for my 2014 experiment of entering every lyric contest:

 

January 2014 I came in second place with a lyric called “Who’s Calling.”  The inspiration came from an interview with John Lennon on how he wrote “Please, Please Me.”  Lennon said he got the inspiration from a Bing Crosby song, “Please listen to my pleas.”  So I was kicking around ideas for a title with the same word twice when I came up with the line, “Baby, who’s calling you Baby?”  With a title like that, it had to be a cheatin’ song and the chorus ended up like this:

 

Baby who’s calling you Baby when I’m not home

Honey who’s calling you Honey when you’re supposed to be alone

Baby who’s calling and hanging up whenever I answer the phone

Baby who’s calling you Baby when I’m not home.

 

February 2014 I came in first with a lyric called “Under the Bed.”  This is a real life story: both mine and my wife’s.  The first verse is literally my wife’s bio:

 

I played flute in the high school band

And I loved the feeling of it in my hands

As the music soothed me

And the secret dream of a lonely girl

Was to stand on stage while the world

Heard the music move through me

 

The lyric goes on to say how music wasn’t practical so the flute was pushed “Under the bed.”  Same thing happened to me with my music.  So “Under the Bed” is both a physical place where the instruments went, as well as a metaphorical place where the dreams go when real life creeps in:

 

Under the bed - That’s where dreams go when they’re dying

Under the bed - Where you can’t hear them when they’re crying

 

Of course the real story has a happy ending because my wife and I found each other and we brought each other’s musical dreams back to life.

 

In March I came in second with One to Start.  I was trying to write songs for my wife to sing and I thought of the story of Rosa Parks, and how it really takes one person to start a revolution.  It seemed like a good topic.  So I had the title, “One to” start and I saw the words “one” and “two” in there… cool, one to/one two.  So I filled the chorus with that trick.  Sometimes you have to think about more than what words say, you also have to think about how they sound.

 

One spark to start one fire to light

One dream to change one wrong to right.

One to start… it takes one to start

 

April was another first with “This Tattoo’s for You.”  Joni had a challenge that month that the lyric had to be about a tattoo.  This one was easy.  My wife has a small tattoo down her spine that spells out “Peace, Love,” and “Soar like and Eagle” in Mandarin.  I always wondered if we can really be sure if these tattoos say what we think they do, and that became the joke of the song, where a woman tells her guy that she tattooed his name in Mandarin on her body, but it really says, “Bob Marley Rules.”

 

Yuk! Yuk!  The whole thing came to me while I was sitting in the bathtub and I wrote it in about 8 minutes:

 

She said, Baby I’ve lived a life, you know

And I got the ink to show

Daggers and lace, Jim Morrison’s face

Flowers and stars; and electric guitars

Yeah, I got a few, it’s true

But I’ve given up philanderin’ and this one here in Mandarin,

This tattoo’s for you

 

... to be continued for no other reason than to stroke my own ego!!!

 

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Funny, when you actually take the time to think about your old lyrics, and actually write about them, it gives you insight into yourself.  So, for no other reason than to practice my typing, let's continue...

 

In May I came in 3rd with Together Again.  This is one of those lyrics that I wrote as a lyric, to formula, specifically for the contest.  I’ve never been able to put it to music.  This lyric uses a very common trick in country music, which is to use the same chorus, but have it take on different meanings as the song progresses.

 

For example, the song starts with a guy talking about how his dad was always going to fix up this old car, but he was too much of a drunk to ever get it done.  Despite his drunkenness the dad promises his son that he’ll:

 

Put it together again

Put it together again

Fix all the parts and pieces and then

I’ll put it together again

 

In the next verse the kid is grown and escapes his drunken old man, gets married, but finds that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree.  He’s a drunk as well and now he’s talking to his wife about their broken relationship and promising to (put it together again). 

 

The bridge is the key to the song:

 

Out of the blue, dad calls me to say

How ‘bout we tackle that Mustang today?

Me and dad aren’t what you’d call friends

But he says in AA they call it making amends

I’m not much on religion, but here I stand

Alone at the crossroads praying I can…(put it together again)

 

Cool trick, when it works.  In the first verse it is the car that's going to be put together again, in the second verse it's the marriage that's going to be put together again, and in the third verse it's his whole life that's going to be put together again. 

 

The inspiration came from a friend of mine who told me that when he was a kid his dad would come into his room at night, drunk, and promise him that someday he’d take the family to Disneyland.  As he got older he knew there was never going to be any such trip but even as an adult it still hurt him, and he still wished they could go.  My friend was not a drunk.  I just used his story as a starting off point.

 

In June it was a fourth place finish with First Kiss… another song written to formula that I’ve never been able to set to music.  I like love songs, and the idea was to tell a simple love story, but with a twist, a little kicker at the end that make you go… ah!

 

So it starts like this:

 

He saunters down the hall

The girls giggle like they do

They know that he likes Laura

And that Laura likes him too

They’ve been flirting in the lunch room

With nothing yet to show for it

But now he’s going to go for it…the first kiss

 

So the relationship builds and as the song moves along you’re supposed to think it’s a budding romance between two young teens about to share their first kiss.  But the bridge gives you the kicker: they are seniors living in an old folks home who are flirting and about to share their first kiss.

 

The idea was a good one.  The execution wasn’t.  I don’t think anybody got the twist, and that’s why it only came in fourth.

 

July was a 2nd place finish with The Strangest Things.  This must’ve been a bad month, because this was not a great lyric.  I’ve always enjoyed the deadpan humor of Comedian, Steven Wright, so this lyric was just a string of observations like his comedy routine:

 

Did Shakespeare have a dog that stood against a tree

Cocked his leg and pondered “To pee or not to pee?”

Did Marcel Marceau’s parrot repeat every word he said?

Are baby monsters scared of Stephen Kings under their bed

Sometimes I wonder about the strangest things

Sometimes I wonder about the strangest things

 

Ha! Ha!  I particularly like the image of Stephen King hiding under a monster’s bed. 

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Brilliant lyric ideas! 

 

Although you feel you used a formula to write them, they wouldnt have been anything without the neat inspiration plus your crafting ability to wrangle them into a lyric. The value of practice is that you have the training and readiness to capture an idea and put it into a lyrical form before the inspiration is gone

 

I had my year back in somewhere like 2007 - It is too long ago to remember the details, but I had 4 winning lyrics. For the most part they were built on a common premise - think of a hook and make it like a jewel, around which you craft all of your other lyrics. It worked at the time. I just wrote down anything I could think of which pertained to the hook, then honed it down from there.

 

Lyric 1 - 

 

Really I started with the chorus

 

Annabelle was really a classic, with a little bit of fairy tale

And she let me read her like a book-

A book written in braille

 

From there it was a case of striking the hammer again and again to turn out a story which contained numerous bookish references, for example this verse snippet (doesnt really convey the story, but has lots of book bits)

 

Sometimes like a romance, sometimes like a thriller

Every night a masterpiece, without one line of filler

Intricate, unusual plots, each chapter tightly wound

Hours of pleasure every night, I couldnt put her down!

 

 

Lyric 2 - 

 

Again a "hook becomes a story"

 

"Its the kind of love I love to hate"  - basically I had that little line, and it is easy to think of the kind of love someone would hate - they would hate the sickly love of a girl you like swooning over someone else, hence a developing story with verses like this (again a middle verse) :

 

This saturday he's got it planned

He's going to take her by the hand

Kneel before her at the football game

She'll take the ring, the crowds will cheer

She'll smile through floods of joyful tears

The scoreboard will be flashing out her name

But i can't stand the crowd and the attention that they're paying

As everyone keeps saying

"Dont they both look great?"

Well its the kind of love I love to hate!

 

 

Lyric 3 : 

 

I had a lyric which again used a hook "You've got me feeling like a corvette, stuck in a 30 zone". The lyric was so irredeemably bad I cannot seem to find it in my lyric collection, but thats probably good for yourself. Once you have the hook you can imagine the rest. Safe to say it was a "hurry up and love me" song with lots of references to speeding fines etc.

 

 

Lyric 4 : 

 

This is the only one which genuinely tried to have poetic lyrics, which implies the flowery lyrics *can* be popular, but its the clever, well crafted, stick to a theme songs which work the best. Anyway I just had the simple thought of someone looking at a beautiful day beginning, but knowing its a horrible day because his girlfriend is leaving. Its actually a concept ripped off from Simon and Garfunkels "Somewhere they cant find me" where the singer is looking at his sleeping girlfriend before he has to go out on the run. Anyway here is a sample verse

 

 

Street blown whispers of old crumpled papers
first light of dawn on the distant skyscrapers
drawn out shadows on the bedroom wall
Sleeping beside me, your soft gentle breathing
I'm falling apart at the thought that you’re leaving
Suitcase packed and waiting in the hall

 

Ch/
Cos you're leaving today
its as we agreed
Your new life begins
the last thing you need
Is these chains, 
these ties,
these feelings -this past in your way
There's a new road in front of you now
And you're leaving today

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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...and we're back...

 

August was another first with American Dream.  This started as a fun lyric about a Karaoke Queen who had do idea how awful she was.  I’m sure you know the type.  They are so bad that they don’t know how bad they are.  So it started as a goofy story…

 

Caroline was a Karaoke Queen

In her bedroom where she wasn’t seen

She knew that she could be a star

At the open mic in the 12th Street Bar

So she worked up the nerve and a repertoire

Learned a few chords on her old guitar

Got up and sang with all her heart…

 

And she sucked; she really sucked

She couldn’t carry a tune in a pickup truck

She sucked, she really sucked

Wish her well, folks, wish her luck

Because she sucked

 

I didn’t really know where to take the story from there.  Does she find out how bad she is?  Does she suddenly become a good singer?  Does she take singing lessons and become famous? All those ideas seemed too obvious, so I sat back and thought about this girl.  I had to really examine her character and I realized that she, like so many others, was chasing the fantasy of the American Dream of stardom.

 

So, it wasn’t her story, it was the story of the pursuit of stardom, and how blindly some people chase it even with total, utter and complete lack of talent.

 

So the next verse was about a baseball pitcher who “Couldn’t hit a barn with a hockey puck?”  He sucks too.  So it’s all fun and games up to the bridge:

 

Growing older day by day

Fame and fortune slip away

Dreams replaced by reality

And the bitter truth of mediocrity

I think I’m great, but I am wrong

Just like this song….it sucks

 

I guess this lyric is the antithesis of my earlier lyric, “Under the Bed.”  I was thinking of a specific person when I wrote this lyric, but I will never tell you…

 

September I had to run the lyric contest because nobody else was available.  So that broke my string.  It’s ok.  I play guitar.  I’m used to breaking strings.

 

October I was back on top with a first place finish, Boulevard of Blues.  I confess that this is an older lyric of mine that I did not specifically write for the contest.  It was inspired by a photograph of James Dean walking hunched over in the rain… downtown New York, with a cigarette in his mouth.  The photo is called Boulevard of Broken Dreams.

 

I always liked this picture.  Where is he going?  Where is he coming from?  Why is he waking through puddles?  An idea started to formulate in my mind about singer who almost made it, but not quite.  Now he’s playing dingy bars, and here he is walking home late one night, alone in the rain after another depressing show:

 

Me and the ivories play this sad refrain

I swore I'd never play in this dump again

Is this what they mean about paying your dues?

Here, on the Boulevard of Blues

 

Boulevard of Blues is where we end up when we lose.  The song is about failure, and in hindsight I can see I was writing about my own separation/divorce which was going on at the time.  Failing at marriage, and ending up back where I started.

 

November was another first with No Step.  This one was straight formula.  No thought of music.  Cruelly calculated to maximize the emotional manipulation.  The whole thing is pure fiction (except for one part).

 

I was thinking about relationship songs.  Songs about lovers, husbands and wives, sons and daughters.  And I was thinking about niche songs: wedding songs, graduation songs, inspirational songs.  I was trying to come up with a relationship/niche song that would appeal to a specific market.

 

So there I was, minding my own business in the line at the grocery store when I hear the guy in front of me say on his phone: “She’s my step daughter but I treat her like my own.”  Bingo… lots and lots of step parents out there who might relate to the song.  So the song was about the relationship between the father and step daughter… there is no step.  Here's the second verse:

 

There were skinned knees and braces, Barbies and bikes

Ballet lessons and back country hikes

I helped dress her cat and I fixed broken toys

And listened to troubles about homework and boys

Sometimes I worried; most times I prayed

And when people called me her step-dad

I said, forget that…

 

I said some of it was real… the stuff about the skinned knees, et al… I went through that with my own daughter. If you can put parts of your real self into a made up story, it can come across as more authentic.

 

Finally came December and my dead last entry, No Reason.  Surprisingly, or maybe not, this is one of my all time favorites of my own lyrics, and one of the few that I perform live.  It’s a Christmas song and, despite its extremely depressing outlook we get requests for it every year.  People come up to me after and tell me how much they are moved by the song.

 

This is another older one that was written long before the contest:

 

Another Christmas card came in the mail

I threw it out with the rest of them

I'm no longer impressed with them

They mean nothing to me

 

Another Christmas song, weary and stale

I turn away without listening

All this glitter and glistening

It no longer moves me

 

It’s in the AABA format (Verse, Verse, Chorus, Bridge) which is one of my favorites to work in.  It also uses a trick that I use a lot in this format, which is to open each verse with a similar line:

 

Another Christmas Card…Another Christmas Song… Another Christmas Tree...

 

I feel this helps bind the lyric into a tighter unit.  I also liked the tricky rhyme scheme… when you write a first verse like that it becomes a real challenge to match it in subsequent verses. 

 

So this lyric is vague as to why this guy is so depressed.  He has obviously lost someone, so Christmas has no meaning any more, but who did he lose?  I purposely left that vague because I knew who I had lost: it was my first Christmas without my daughter after my divorce.  That cut a little too close so I left it open.

 

Anyway, people didn’t like this lyric so what can I say?  Apparently quite a lot, looking back over these posts.  Sorry to go on like this…

 

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6 minutes ago, fabkebab said:

I had my year back in somewhere like 2007 - It is too long ago to remember the details, but I had 4 winning lyrics. For the most part they were built on a common premise - think of a hook and make it like a jewel, around which you craft all of your other lyrics. It worked at the time. I just wrote down anything I could think of which pertained to the hook, then honed it down from there.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.  Looks like we have a similar process.  It starts with an idea, and there are lots of ideas.  I see a ton of ideas in the lyric forum every day.  But the majority of them are not nurtured or developed.  It seems like the writer was happy with the idea and then thought that getting the idea in words was enough.  But it's not.  You have to care.  You have to re examine every line, every rhyme... or at least I do.  I don't believe that I am particularly skilled.  I know how to use a few tools, and I use them well.  Looking back on all the drivel I wrote tonight, I was surprised to see how much of myself I put into my lyrics.  Even if they are not about me, my observations and experiences flavor the story.

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1 minute ago, Neal K said:

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.  Looks like we have a similar process.  It starts with an idea, and there are lots of ideas.  I see a ton of ideas in the lyric forum every day.  But the majority of them are not nurtured or developed.  It seems like the writer was happy with the idea and then thought that getting the idea in words was enough.  But it's not.  You have to care.  You have to re examine every line, every rhyme... or at least I do.  I don't believe that I am particularly skilled.  I know how to use a few tools, and I use them well.  Looking back on all the drivel I wrote tonight, I was surprised to see how much of myself I put into my lyrics.  Even if they are not about me, my observations and experiences flavor the story.

You make a good point - perhaps with my own lyrics I have become a bit lazy, thinking the hook and a few related thoughts carry the day - but I think you are right, you have to polish and eek out everything from the lyric

 

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@Neal K and @fabkebab, such interesting and insightful posts from both of you.  Excellent examples as well. Thank you!

 

I like the reminders that:

1. our inspiration comes from everywhere, and we need always to be on the alert;

2. it’s essential to work at the craft, fine-tuning a lyric until it conveys exactly what we want it to;

3. choosing a lyrical structure can be an important part of the process.

 

As for my own approach: My work and study background includes English literature and journalism, which I think has to some extent been useful: namely, I learned the importance of literary devices along with the need to pay attention to the who/where/what/when/why/how details. In addition to news stories and the like, I wrote a lot of poetry and short stories back in the day. 

 

However, there was much I had to discard when I began writing lyrics 10 years ago. 

I cringe when I think back to some of my first efforts. They reflected whatever literary or journalistic skills I might have had, but many did not work well as lyrics. And certainly not in the sense of the function of a lyric.

In general, those pieces were overly long and ‘poetic’ (literary influence) while others with their sometimes contrived use of words were too ‘clever’ (journalistic influence).

 

In fact, it was @Alistair S – bless him :) – who, about 9 years ago, while critiquing one of my lyrics, gently suggested I focus more on setting up a stronger emotional element rather than being clever with the words. Solid, solid advice. I took it on board immediately, and have never forgotten it (though I may have forgotten occasionally to apply it :P ).

 

Then I began reading every book I could find on writing lyrics. I took online courses, joined in workshops. Always open to ways that I could fine-tune my writing.  I listened to songs in diverse genres, examining how writers had constructed their lyrics. I experimented with writing in different genres, including country (with its need for concrete details and certain themes), with jazz, blues, prog-rock (a favourite), folk (another favourite), even metal and rap (huge fun). All grist for the mill. Bit by bit, I began to ‘get’ it.

 

Another hurdle I needed to jump was myself.  An introvert, private to probably an unhealthy degree, I realised at some point that most if not all of my lyrics were written in the 3rd person. There was always a certain distance between the narrator and the reader/listener. I envied and admired writers who leapt right out there with their pain, frustration, fury, longing, or whatever. It was only when I began taking part in the annual FAWM and 50-90 songwriting challenges that I started to spring over my own shadow (as they say in Ireland). I ‘owned’ the feelings, emotions I was writing about, and even began to use other people’s stories from a 1st person perspective (i.e. finding wonderful hook/title ideas at sites like dearoldlove.tumblr.com or postsecret.com), usually throwing chunks of my own related experiences into the narrative. 

 

As to formula vs. freefall. I guess – at the moment – I’m in between. I don’t write to a specific formula (though I’m intrigued by the approach Neal described, and intend to try it just for fun – though not specifically for a contest). But – and I’m certain I drive my music collaborators nuts – I agonise over every word and line, with a view to maintaining cohesion and consistency, and trying to make sure every word – with its nuances and even the sound of the word − can contribute to maximum emotional impact. 

 

Which leads me to another question for any of you:

 

To what extent – if any − do you write for a target audience, and how does it shape the way you write your lyrics (e.g. theme, mood, POV, word choice, structure, etc.)?  In other words, do you have a formula?

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Interesting blog ya got going here Donna et al :)

Neal - I remember that streak you were on - and it really proved what a great lyricist you are, formula or no :)

I wish you had more time to comment in the lyrics feedback thread - folks could really benefit from your perspective. (IMHCO!)

 

At the risk of being braggadocious, let me tell my story about "Hello Piano" which was fortunate to have earned Lyric of the Year for 2017.

The inspiration came from a feeling I've always had when I walk into a room with a piano.

It always seemed to say to me things like:

 

"Did you notice me over here?"

"Why don't you sit down and play something?"

"Come on, you've got the time"

etc. etc.

 

At first I thought maybe I just wanted to show off my (limited!) abilities, but it happened when no-one else was around to hear me play. There had to be something else going on. Over time I realized that I had some sort of a relationship with this instrument and someday I should try to write a song about it. So finally, last year, I set out trying to describe the experience, rather than tell a story:

 

Sitting on the bench

Touching the keys

Thinking...

 

And that last item - "thinking" - came as a surprise to me. I was thinking about stuff while I was playing - processing it, dealing with it. Good stuff, bad stuff, fun stuff, hard stuff. So the lyric became a conversation between me and my piano and I hoped others would relate - as I like to think everyone has these secret conversations with inanimate objects whether they realize it or not.

 

To me it demonstrates the cathartic value of song-writing and the importance to write about what you know, what you have experienced.

 

As to formula, yes I'm guilty as the next guy but my formula usually comes from the musical arrangement and structure of the song, hook placement etc., though I don't discount the lyrical devices Donna mentioned.

 

Paul

 

 Hello Piano
 Copyright (c) 2017 Tennyson Road Music

 Hello Piano
 Mind if I sit here a spell?
 My head's been through a lot today
 And my heart has been though hell
 Your keys feel so familiar in my hands
 And it's nice to find you waiting here
 To comfort an old friend

 Oh, Piano
 That church today was tough
 The more I tried to hold my tears
 The more they wouldn't stop
 And people searching for a caring word
 Just echoed "Sorry for your loss"
 Their eyes fixed on the floor

 But you know what I came here for..

 Let's play a song that lifts us far from here
 We'll waltz through fonder memories, and stride through kinder years
 We'll leave this sad and senseless day behind
 For at least a little time
 At least a little time...

 So , Piano
 Guess I'll close you now and go
 Though I'd love to spend forever here
 There are those I must console
 You've helped to drive these darkened skies away
 And soothed me with your harmony
 Just like every time we play

 So I'll be back here soon, to say..

 Hello Piano
 Let's play a song that lifts us far from here
 We'll frolics in fond memories, and stride through kinder years
 We'll leave this sad and senseless world behind
 For at least a little time
 At least a little time

 

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Paul, I love the 'Hello Piano' backstory. I don't play an instrument, but think I understand something of the emotional bonds musicians often have with theirs. After all, so much emotion is channelled through them.

 

(Might be a stretch, but perhaps it's that way with my trusty laptop. ;)  It always feels like a kind of welcoming accomplice when I sit down to begin work on a lyric. In the past, I had favourite pens to write with, and certain kinds of paper to write on.)

 

 

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1 hour ago, DonnaMarilyn said:

In the past, I had favourite pens to write with ...

Hello pen,

It's just you and me again 

And that's just fine

 

We don't have long

Maybe we should write a song

If you have time?

 

:)

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Interesting read here.  'Story songs' can indeed rely on a formula to come together - my last album was all story songs.  Like other songs I have written, they all start from a basic premise or hook - if I don't get that hook figured out early, the lyric quickly bogs down.  I've had lyrics that as they develop change the hook/chorus to a bridge or even a verse, requiring some rewriting of other sections, but most often the hook/chorus gets set in stone and serves as the foundation for the rest of the lyrics.

As an example, my most-recent completed song (early version was entered in the monthly 2+2 contest), started out with the simple 'peace and love' as the hook - I knew I wanted that to tie into the album theme ('Love and War').  The 'story' quickly developed in my head - how about a soldier saying that line - and the lyrics flew out. Of course getting feedback (here and in my songwriter circle) edited the lyrics a little, and feedback on the 1+1 further edited the story, musically.  This will be the opening song on my next album, recorded simply - 1 vocal track, two guitars (6 + 12 strings). Final lyrical result:

 

Jimmy was a good kid

Excelled at everything he did

Never missed a home on his paper route

Every merit badge as an eagle scout

Captain of his school football team

Living the teenage American dream

When his country gave him the call

He said to his friends: ‘peace and love to you all’

 

Did two tours across the sea

Fighting a faceless enemy

Kept his platoon away from harm

Took some shrapnel in his arm

Got married, had a boy

Spitting image, pride and joy

Again his country gave him the call

He told his family ‘peace and love to you all’

 

Jimmy went off to fight another war

Not really sure what it all was for

But he wasn’t so lucky this time

Took a round of bullets near his spine

 

 

Jimmy never made it back home

His whereabouts unknown

In his family’s minds, he still stands tall

His memorial plaque engraved: ‘peace and love to you all’

 

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3 minutes ago, fabkebab said:

So please edit your post so you can share the song lyrics!! 

Done :)

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Maybe I am following Paul's formula! I messed around with the "Hello pen" thing while mrs-bloody-lyric-machine was churning out yet another one and thought I'd share it as it seems roughly on-topic :)

 

Hello pen,
It's just you and me again 
And that's just fine
 
We don't have long
Maybe we should write a song
If you have time?

 

It doesn’t really matter what we sing a song about
It’s somehow therapeutic when we let our feelings out

 

Hello guitar
Pen and I can go so far
But need you now

 

We need to know
If this lyric’s going to flow
And you know how

 

It doesn’t really matter if at first it turns out wrong
We three can work together while I try to sing along

 

And when I’m feeling down
You turn me back around
And if I’m feeling tired
You reignite the fire

 

Hello guys
Let’s not over-analyse
Just let it flow


And once it’s right
Let’s leave it overnight
You never know

 

Because - It doesn’t really matter if at first it turns our wrong
We three can work together while I try to sing along

 

Hello pen,
It's just you and me again 
And that's just fine
Yeah, that’s just fine
 

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Alistair,  well done! ;) Mrs. B-L-M needs to look out. :P 

Yes, seems to follow Neal's formula - within the context of a lyrics contest here - and is a very nice application of Paul’s structure & theme.

 

MikeB, that’s one of my favourites of yours. I liked the progression of events and build-up of emotion, along with the down-to-earth, highly relatable details. These are surely factors in any intended formula.

 

Re starting with a hook: That’s pretty much my modus operandi as well. From the hook, the story emerges (as opposed to story first), and often has little to do with the hook’s original context. Most times it stays with the chorus (which I generally write first) but occasionally ends up in a verse, and I need to restructure the lyric. Now and again it’s the bridge idea that comes first, which makes it a little harder to back-track to a story and then to build up the verses and chorus. ;) Occasionally too the original chorus will become the bridge.

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3 hours ago, HoboSage said:

BTW all, I wonder if there might be a winning musical "formula" for song contests here too.

Yes, it's called @ScenesFromPalacio.  B)

 

On a serious note, it's amazing that Steve is so consistently successful in contests, because his writing is anything but formulaic.  He writes creative - sometimes even odd- numbers that are still broadly appealing.  Color me envious.  :)

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4 hours ago, HoboSage said:

BTW all, I wonder if there might be a winning musical "formula" for song contests here too.  It seems to me, some genres do better than others in song contests here.  A guitar or a piano song will do better than the rare synth song entry.  Finger picked acoustic songs tend to do better than strummed ones . . . etc.

David, this would make a great topic for a separate 'sister' blog. :)

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Hi D

 

  I guess Im late to the party here.;) Sometimes you have to know who the judges are.:P I mean, if you write death metal lyrics and most of the peeps volunteering to judge are folk/country, well...there's your answer.:lol:

As far as a formula? You can research books that touch on this subject I would believe. You can learn as much as you can about structure, but it still comes down to substance and whether you have developed enough of a style for the lyrics to reach anybody. There are some here who can do a bang up job of structure and rhyme schemes, but fall short on anything to say or come off rather generic. So, don't get so wrapped up in the mechanics of songwriting unless you feel it helps you in the process of being creative.

 

   As far as contests, I've stayed away from them because I don't look at contests as a motivation to create. It's a good exercise though if you would want to be a professional writer in Nashville. Besides, I'm not as prolific as say someone like Scenesfrompalacio:lol:  Anyways...if contests make you try harder in your lyric writing, then I guess its a good thing.B)

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10 minutes ago, HoboSage said:

I would call it the Any Song Not By HoboSage formula. ;)

Hey man, didn't you just come in third? The only time I've ever won, there were no lyrics, and also practically no one else in the comp. hahahaha! 

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 Many years back I had entered a few of my normal style lyrics in the lyric contest with varying results. Mostly bottom half finishes I believe. Anyway I decided to write a song I thought might do well in the lyric contest. It was a story based song called Friday Night. I can’t really remember what it was about. I don’t have a copy of it anywhere. I never did anything else with that lyric as it wasn’t really my style. I’m pretty sure I got 2nd place with that lyric. I’ve entered many contest here at the Muse. Mostly finishing as a bottom dweller. That was by far my best contest finish.  I could probably start a blog posting about my formula on how to continuously finish at the bottom of both the lyric and song contest. 😀 

 

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14 hours ago, R-N-R Jim said:

 ...Sometimes you have to know who the judges are.:P I mean, if you write death metal lyrics and most of the peeps volunteering to judge are folk/country, well...there's your answer.:lol:

 

As far as a formula? You can research books that touch on this subject I would believe. You can learn as much as you can about structure, but it still comes down to substance and whether you have developed enough of a style for the lyrics to reach anybody...

 

   As far as contests, I've stayed away from them because I don't look at contests as a motivation to create. ...  Anyways...if contests make you try harder in your lyric writing, then I guess its a good thing.B)

Good points, Jim.  1) Know your audience;  2) have something relatable to write about. :)

 

I’m certain though that none of us – at least not here – use contests as motivation to create, or write specifically for contests. That could be an inspiration-killer for sure. I think Neal’s ‘formula’ is basically what many of us more or less apply in a lot of our lyrics anyway, whether or not we’re aware of it. 

 

In my case, it’s usually a last-minute decision to post, and I simply grab a lyric that happen to like, and that might have been particularly heartfelt.  For example, no one was more surprised than I when 'The Rain' won the March contest (though was closely tied) and ‘If I Never Find That Heaven’ (below) won the October contest and came second in the 2017 Lyric of the Year.

 

And – as always when I’ve won or placed in a contest – I was amused to see that the scores for both lyrics ranged  from 1 (excellent) to 4 (below standard). I note that this seems to be the pattern for other winners/placers as well.

 

This leads me to wonder whether some voters score a lyric extra low not on the objective basis of how it fits generally established criteria (e.g. flow/emotion/singability) but on the basis of it not being similar to or the same  kind of lyrics one writes oneself. Or who disapprove of the lyric's topic.

 

Thoughts, anyone?

 

A further thought: Would it be fun - or at least interesting - to write an expressly 'formula' lyric for a contest? Or even have a specifically designated 'formula lyrics' contest just as an experiment? I don't mean every month, of course. Just a one-off.

Or write a 'formula' lyric, post it to a monthly contest, and then after the votes are in, let us know that it was formula-driven.

-------------------------------------------------------- 

If I Never Find That Heaven

 

V1

I’ll move the moon to look behind it

I’ve heard fine tales of Paradise

Silver trees and golden meadows

I want to see with my own eyes

 

V2

I’ll brave the sun before I’m blinded

I’ll ask directions to the Gate

Where perhaps old friends and lovers

Have kept their promises to wait

 

Chorus

But if I never find that heaven

I’ll lay me down among the stones

And let the singing silence lull me

Till I’m dust and bones

 

V3

I’ll search the stars, and I won’t mind it

If I’ve a long, long way to go

Just the hope there is an Eden

Will be enough for me to know

 

Chorus

 

Bridge

Often in dreams I unfurl my wings

Feeling my place in the wildness of things

Unfettered by any constraints

Far beyond human complaints

…And I fly

…Like an angel, how I fly

 

Chorus

 

Repeat chorus

But if I never find that heaven

I’ll lay me down among the stones

And let the singing silence lull me

Till I’m dust and bones

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7 hours ago, DonnaMarilyn said:

Good points, Jim.  1) Know your audience;  2) have something relatable to write about. :)

 

I’m certain though that none of us – at least not here – use contests as motivation to create, or write specifically for contests. Hmmmm...that kinda contradicts the whole concept of a contest. I mean, you dont enter your worst lyric you wrote of the month:unsure: I had entered a song in a national contest awhile back as an after thought. It was a collab with singnpeach called "Baby" and it got honorable mention. Since it was kind of a commercial song, I decided to enter it with the idea that industry types would be reviewing it. Mind you, alot of those judges only accept solicited material through publishers and managers. Hence I dont have those types of connections, so entering a contest was really a sneaky way of submitting a demo past the manager/publisher fire wall.lol

That could be an inspiration-killer for sure.  That depends on the lyric writer. Some people like competition regardless what it is. I know it sounds odd that one would write for that purpose, but if it makes them actually focus on writing an inspired lyric, then maybe that person should write with the idea of every lyric being judged in a contest:P

I think Neal’s ‘formula’ is basically what many of us more or less apply in a lot of our lyrics anyway, whether or not we’re aware of it. 

 

In my case, it’s usually a last-minute decision to post, and I simply grab a lyric that happen to like, and that might have been particularly heartfelt.  For example, no one was more surprised than I when 'The Rain' won the March contest (though was closely tied) and ‘If I Never Find That Heaven’ (below) won the October contest and came second in the 2017 Lyric of the Year.

 

And – as always when I’ve won or placed in a contest – I was amused to see that the scores for both lyrics ranged  from 1 (excellent) to 4 (below standard). I note that this seems to be the pattern for other winners/placers as well.The judges are merely among your peers here at the Muse. And with it you get a varying degree of quality as far as what one looks for in a lyric. Like if you had a judge that loves rhymes and you have a scant number, you might not score so high. Or if you have a judge who thinks structure makes a lyric and without it, it could never become relevant in a song...well, I guess the judges would poo poo on a song lyric like the Beatles "Yesterday" which doesnt seem to possess a chorus.:blink: Just like judging songs too, if the song doesnt have more cowbell in it, it could never win in that judges book.:lol:

 

This leads me to wonder whether some voters score a lyric extra low not on the objective basis of how it fits generally established criteria (e.g. flow/emotion/singability) but on the basis of it not being similar to or the same  kind of lyrics one writes oneself. Or who disapprove of the lyric's topic. This is how I judge or critique a lyric.

1) Could you see someone singing these lyrics in public without feeling embarrassed? :unsure:

2) Do you think a melody writer would be inspired to write a song with these lyrics? :wub:

3) Are the words phonetically singable?:wacko:

4) Is the phrasing through out the lyric smooth enough to sing? :P

If lyric writers here would just take these few simple steps before posting lyrics, it would clear up alot of lyrics that are stillborn right from the get go. ;)

 

Thoughts, anyone?

 

A further thought: Would it be fun - or at least interesting - to write an expressly 'formula' lyric for a contest? Or even have a specifically designated 'formula lyrics' contest just as an experiment? I don't mean every month, of course. Just a one-off. It would be funny to have a different genre of music lyric to write for each month. Like heavy metal one month, country western and what the heck, lets throw a polka umpah pah one to boot.:lol:

Or write a 'formula' lyric, post it to a monthly contest, and then after the votes are in, let us know that it was formula-driven.

-------------------------------------------------------- 

If I Never Find That Heaven

 

V1

I’ll move the moon to look behind it

I’ve heard fine tales of Paradise

Silver trees and golden meadows

I want to see with my own eyes

 

V2

I’ll brave the sun before I’m blinded

I’ll ask directions to the Gate

Where perhaps old friends and lovers

Have kept their promises to wait

 

Chorus

But if I never find that heaven

I’ll lay me down among the stones

And let the singing silence lull me

Till I’m dust and bones

 

V3

I’ll search the stars, and I won’t mind it

If I’ve a long, long way to go

Just the hope there is an Eden

Will be enough for me to know

 

Chorus

 

Bridge

Often in dreams I unfurl my wings

Feeling my place in the wildness of things

Unfettered by any constraints

Far beyond human complaints

…And I fly

…Like an angel, how I fly

 

Chorus

 

Repeat chorus

But if I never find that heaven

I’ll lay me down among the stones

And let the singing silence lull me

Till I’m dust and bones

 

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I think all of these comments are valid. I've also entered lyrics into the contest purely for the contest - rather than for a song. In fact, I have changed lyrics from the ones I would sing to something I think would make the flow more obvious (people can't always "hear" the phrasing), for example - and had some "success" as a result. Quite often, when I have won, the lyric is (imho) too wordy and leaves little room for the music.

 

I think the Lyrics Contest is a thing in itself. Some winners - in my opinion* - could make good songs and some I don't think would - but *my opinion is worth about as much as you pay for it! :DHowever, for that reason, I don't think people should worry too much about where they place and, while it's great to win something, it shouldn't be used to guide the way in which we write. There is also some very "off" voting in there (I have seen it for myself when running contests and - when it happens - I think it often has to do with content and very little to do the quality of the lyric).

 

That said, it's a lot of fun and some entries make for a good read - and the better-crafted stuff usually come out at the top! 

 

I'd love it if there was more of a tie-in between the lyrics side and the songs side on the site, with more collabs going on. As there isn't, I think the advice given in Lyrics Feedback is mixed. Some is great and some is plain bad advice (in my view). I have come to see the lyrics forum as serving a function for self-expression, which is an OK end in itself, and less one that has to do with actual songs in the making. Those lyricists that ARE really interested in creating songs (like you, Donna) spread their wings way beyond that forum and it works for them too. 

 

As far as "Yesterday" is concerned, I think most people would realise that it is a classic AABA (like many Beatles songs of that time - following one of the most familiar structures to the letter!). The flow and rhyme would, I think, cause it do do just fine!

 

As far as the Song Contests are concerned, it's harder to discern a "formula" (though good vocals and production go a long way!). I think the quality if pretty high these days in those. Some of the songs on here blow me away!

 

 

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Hi Alistair

   Hmmm..."Yesterdays" chorus...Chuckle chuckle:P, I always thought the chorus was a bridge or a pre-chorus with "I believe in Yesterday" as a refrain.:wacko: Oh well. I stand corrected.:P

But they did alot more than just AABA in those days. Having the chorus first in "She Loves You" to all the different things going on in the song "Help" alone is kind of mind boggling. They weren't afraid of breaking the rules or trying different arranging styles. Their body of work is just a treasure trove of creativity. They inspired a generation and generations to come. Above all, they inspired me.:DIf anything that rubbed off on me about the Beatles was some of their songs only having 2 verses and then repeating the first verse in the third verse. I found that very useful in my writing since I usually said all I had to say in the 2 verses and chorus.

 

As far as lyric feedback, my style or genre in music may be quite different from the genre of lyric I am reading or critiquing, but I try to at least judge it by it's plot merits or story telling angle. On occasion I may suggest things that may be out of their comfort level but might actually enhance what they are trying to achieve. Obviously the keep or sweep rule applies:P

 

 

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For the song competitions (and I have won and run many lyric and music competitions) - 

 

Good singing and good production nowadays are the minimum bar before your song can win. There are typically perhaps 6 songs which have sufficient production to win a competition, then it comes down to the specifics of the song and its relative merits vs. the other 5. 

 

The conversation has come up repeatedly in the last 10 years or so, and the best idea was the 1+1 competition (even with 1+1 the great vocals and production still stand out!). Some people have suggested posting the sheet music instead of the recording, but IMHO that is not going to work.

 

I think the modern world of making music is about making a good "track" - people vote based on "would this sound good on my playlist?". If the recording is sloppy, the answer will almost always be "no!"

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Fab

 

  I dont know fab. Some music genres need the bells and whistles to pull off the feeling they are trying to accomplish. Imagine "Stayin Alive" done acoustically? :PIt would sound like someone was having a hernia operation. :oBesides, who reads sheet music here? And I don't know why you would be so concerned about how you place in a contest that really doesnt have any true judges other than a couple of your peers. I never did quite understand the allure of these contests anyways. I guess if they're fun or just a fun way of socializing within the Muse cliche', then that's fine. But to take them seriously is well...rather silly. If you want to find out the true merit of your songs, send out some demos or join NSAI or even enter some legit national songwriting contests. I would go that route if you truly want an honest black and white opinion of your songs.

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