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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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32 minutes ago, Alistair S said:

You know what we could do, quite easily?

 

We could set up a group blog (like this one, except called something like "Finished Lyrics") where any lyricist who wants to could create their own entry (like this one) and use it a bit like a thread in which they can post lyrics they feel are "ready" - so they have a clickable link to their completed lyrics. They can moderate their own entry (I think!) and everything.

 

Of course, getting people to come to it would be down to them - but it would provide a store, of sorts.

 

Would that help?

Sure, I think it could work along the lines of what I described. :) Only way to know for sure is to try it, eh? ;) As you say, it'd be down to the lyricists themselves whether they decide to use the opportunity. And of course whether the music guys would be interested. But nothing ventured, nothing gained.

 

Thanks for taking the idea on board, Alistair. :)

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I think it could be helpful. A lot of people need somewhere to store their completed stuff. 

 

I'll set it up.

 

I'd do the same for songs but I think Soundcloud/Soundclick/Bandcamp, etc. already fill that need

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42 minutes ago, Alistair S said:

You know what we could do, quite easily?

 

We could set up a group blog (like this one, except called something like "Finished Lyrics") where any lyricist who wants to could create their own entry (like this one) and use it a bit like a thread in which they can post lyrics they feel are "ready" - so they have a clickable link to their completed lyrics. They can moderate their own entry (I think!) and everything.

 

Of course, getting people to come to it would be down to them - but it would provide a store, of sorts. And people could go through it if they wanted to.

 

Would that help?

 

How many people are actually visiting these blogs on a regular basis - are you able to see 'traffic' numbers in the site stats?  I have a feeling its as low a number as the lyricists checking out the Song feedback pages and vice-versa.

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No idea - but I'll check (I did, I can see some member stats - new topics - new posts - but no real way to distinguish blogs separately as yet). I suspect it is low but will grow. 

 

I'm not sure it's a solution to everything but I think a few lyricists might appreciate it. We'll see.

 

Anyway, it's done. 

 

 

 

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And, of course, people are also free to set up their own blogs of lyrics or songs if they choose to, either instead or in addition.

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24 minutes ago, Mike B said:

 

How many people are actually visiting these blogs on a regular basis - are you able to see 'traffic' numbers in the site stats?  I have a feeling its as low a number as the lyricists checking out the Song feedback pages and vice-versa.

I'm pretty sure all the blog entries have a view counter. 

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27 minutes ago, Moso said:

I'm pretty sure all the blog entries have a view counter. 

I only have 10 fingers :P

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Quote

How many people are actually visiting these blogs on a regular basis - are you able to see 'traffic' numbers in the site stats?  I have a feeling its as low a number as the lyricists checking out the Song feedback pages and vice-versa.

 

As is the case with all public blogs Mike, there are simple things individuals can do to assist those traffic numbers.

When I set mine up, I added 3 external links to various pages of my tune-smith site, 1 in the form of a post on my personal Facebook profile + 6 additional placements on my YouTube channels (2-per channel). 

That's 10 external links right there.

I'm not generating any huge numbers yet, but sometimes those things will surprise you.

 

I never even considered a personal blog till someone suggested it me a few years back.

Once I tried a few articles, I took a liking to it & continued on.

Much to my amazement, some of those old articles ended up drawing 5 - 10 thousand views each. Go figure! :blush:

Not exactly viral numbers, but I was surprised. Sometimes you don't know till ya' give it a shot.

 

Tom 

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1 hour ago, Alistair S said:

I only have 10 fingers :P

As I write this, the stat at the top says this blog entry has 70 comments and 80 views. Really? Wow, what a ratio, hahaha :P 

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I like the fact that I now have a place to collect my finished lyrics/poems where I actually post them up. It will be nice if they're viewed and even better if they result in a collaboration, but I'm less concerned about that, knowing as I do, how most musicians here write their own lyrics and have no need for mine or anyone else's. 

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I like the idea of having somewhere I can browse lyrics that I am free to try and turn into a song if I get inspired. I think that is what is happening here with the new blog? Correct me If I am wrong?

 

I think my collaboration experience with Kuya has proven to myself at least that I can be inspired by someone else's words enough to record a decent song.

 

I wonder then of the opposite it workable? As I have said before I struggle with lyrics and keeping up with my backlog of songs is tough, and actually seems to stop me from writing new stuff. I know I need to keep writing new stuff if I am ever to improve and become good at this.

 

Is there scope do you think to post demos, with melody, and see if someone can wrie something for them?

 

A part of me isn't sure, and I think this is what Alistair means. I guess were I to sing and in some way try to "own" a song, I need to believe in it. So maybe a partnership would work better.

 

Hard to find a partner who shares some of the same outlook, politics, perversions and sense of humour etc.. and is prepare to write to already existing melody. I guess that is the point. 

 

Anyway, love the idea and will keep an eye on that thread.

 

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On 4/17/2018 at 15:22, Alistair S said:

Maybe such a market does exist. I don't know. Either way, I absolutely agree with you about needing the ability to write to existing music, David!

 

Which reminds me that we have occasionally run a "match the melody" contest, which is an exercise in which lyricists all write something to fit the same musical bed. The difficulty in running it lies in getting someone to surrender a piece of music that can provide a melody line to write to. Maybe we should try running one again (if we can find some music)

I have read that a good way to home lyrical skills is to write lyrics for existing songs. I have tried this a couple of times. In fact I entered a lyric contest last year with lyrics I wrote to a Jason Isbell song and I really like them (the voters didn't! ;-) and it is funny that now I cannot move them to new music cos his tune is just glued to them!

 

Point being, why couldn't we just use an existing song? There are no copyright issues I believe as it would be classesd as education. 

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10 hours ago, Murphster said:

I have read that a good way to home lyrical skills is to write lyrics for existing songs. I have tried this a couple of times. In fact I entered a lyric contest last year with lyrics I wrote to a Jason Isbell song and I really like them (the voters didn't! ;-) and it is funny that now I cannot move them to new music cos his tune is just glued to them!

 

Point being, why couldn't we just use an existing song? There are no copyright issues I believe as it would be classesd as education. 

This is a great exercise all in all. With music, you can take an existing melody and try to reharmonize it, or do something else like round robin choral lines. Another exercise, albeit musical, is to reverse engineer a song, rebuilding it with your ear and your tools - a great way to get to know sound and harmony. 

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Yes, writing lyrics to an existing song - but with a different theme - is an excellent exercise, and can be especially helpful if writer's block has set in.

I've written two or three lyrics this way. Then I changed the melody completely, and in doing so I ended up reconstructing bits of the various sections. In the end, the resulting lyrics had their own unique identity - bearing no resemblance to the source text & music - and wound up being very nice songs  (at least to my ears. ;) ).

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I also think it's a great idea.

 

Of course, it doesn't fully test the skill of writing to music (because people will follow the exact melody and phrasing, which has to be chosen if it doesn't exist) - but it would be a LOT easier to score. I'd assume that people would have to write using a completely different theme.

 

Maybe we should suggest it to the contest runners! If they don't pick it up I may do just that!

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19 hours ago, Alistair S said:

I also think it's a great idea.

 

Of course, it doesn't fully test the skill of writing to music (because people will follow the exact melody and phrasing, which has to be chosen if it doesn't exist) - but it would be a LOT easier to score. I'd assume that people would have to write using a completely different theme.

 

Maybe we should suggest it to the contest runners! If they don't pick it up I may do just that!

Exciting! Lots of variations possible. :) Maybe one could be a two-way contest where 1) lyricists write something based on the metering of an existing song (but wth a different theme) , and then 2) the winning lyric is put to new (and unrecognisable) music by composers; then the songs are voted on.

Or another collaboration like the current one, where teams are set up. Then lyricists would write new words to an existing song, and the composer would create new music for it. Great way maybe for folks to step out of their comfort zone as well.

Plenty of mix 'n match possibilities. ;) Now if only other people would come play in the sandbox. :rolleyes:

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Hi Donna

 

  The idea of writing to a pre-existing commercial song has one huge obstacle. Copyright infringement. It may work for a songwriter chapter that meets in person so that it's kept within the meeting. But to write and record and then upload to a soundclick site etc to show other people, that's where the trouble starts with infringement. Because when you upload a song, you are agreeing to terms of the site that what is being uploaded is an original song.

 

Now...you could have some generic music like a blues progression or a 50s R&B or a generic country progression, disco, polka...well...you get the idea. Music mills have been doing this cookie cutter method for decades. So, what could be done is to find some generic tracks to write to. You may say that it might get old after while. But then again, it would be good practice as far as writing lyrics to music. You still have to write a plot that works. You still have to find words that are singable. You could have a separate lyric contest for this seeing that all things being equal, the music would not play the deciding role in the song. The lyrics would have to stand out more in order to make the generic music come to life.

 

just food for thought

R-N-R Jim

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I don't see why we would need to upload anything - just link to the original song. We are talking about writing an alternative lyric so what is posted would be the written word (and the copyright of the writer, not the writer of the original).

 

Any later songs would be written to that lyric and should bear no resemblance to the original song. Again, no issue.

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52 minutes ago, R-N-R Jim said:

Hi Donna

 

  The idea of writing to a pre-existing commercial song has one huge obstacle. Copyright infringement. It may work for a songwriter chapter that meets in person so that it's kept within the meeting. But to write and record and then upload to a soundclick site etc to show other people, that's where the trouble starts with infringement. Because when you upload a song, you are agreeing to terms of the site that what is being uploaded is an original song.

 

Now...you could have some generic music like a blues progression or a 50s R&B or a generic country progression, disco, polka...well...you get the idea. Music mills have been doing this cookie cutter method for decades. So, what could be done is to find some generic tracks to write to. You may say that it might get old after while. But then again, it would be good practice as far as writing lyrics to music. You still have to write a plot that works. You still have to find words that are singable. You could have a separate lyric contest for this seeing that all things being equal, the music would not play the deciding role in the song. The lyrics would have to stand out more in order to make the generic music come to life.

 

just food for thought

R-N-R Jim

Exactly what Alistair said, Jim. ;) Any resulting lyric and song would be entirely different. Unrecognisable. In fact, it's likely that the resulting lyric would be revised/fine-tuned, and would differentiate even further in terms of structure and metering.  Copyright infringement is not a factor. 

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4 hours ago, DonnaMarilyn said:

Exciting! Lots of variations possible. :) Maybe one could be a two-way contest where 1) lyricists write something based on the metering of an existing song (but wth a different theme) , and then 2) the winning lyric is put to new (and unrecognisable) music by composers; then the songs are voted on.

Or another collaboration like the current one, where teams are set up. Then lyricists would write new words to an existing song, and the composer would create new music for it. Great way maybe for folks to step out of their comfort zone as well.

Plenty of mix 'n match possibilities. ;) Now if only other people would come play in the sandbox. :rolleyes:

A couple of years ago we had a contest where we all had to create music & vocals for the winner of the most recent lyric of the month contest. Now maybe that's not exactly what's being discussed here but the twist is, the lyric that won was mine and what no one knew at the time - the lyric was written to the melody of Dan Fogelberg's "Wisteria". As I worked with it, the meter changed here and there but I could still roughly sing most parts of it to Dan's original melody.  Most surprising was the wide variety of melodies that it brought forth. It was a great exercise for everyone who participated.  I don't believe it has been done again since so we're probably overdue.

 

Donna, I love your idea of a collab contest where each lyric is written to an existing melody and passed onto the musician for his own treatment. Not sure whether or not the musician should be aware of the original song. Probably difficult to write new music to a song you already know. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2 minutes ago, jonie said:

A couple of years ago we had a contest where we all had to create music & vocals for the winner of the most recent lyric of the month contest. Now maybe that's not exactly what's being discussed here but the twist is, the lyric that won was mine and what no one knew at the time - the lyric was written to the melody of Dan Fogelberg's "Wisteria". As I worked with it, the meter changed here and there but I could still roughly sing most parts of it to Dan's original melody.  Most surprising was the wide variety of melodies that it brought forth. It was a great exercise for everyone who participated.  I don't believe it has been done again since so we're probably overdue.

Absolutely! :)

2 minutes ago, jonie said:

 

Donna, I love your idea of a collab contest where each lyric is written to an existing melody and passed onto the musician for his own treatment. Not sure whether or not the musician should be aware of the original song. Probably difficult to write new music to a song you already know. 

 

Yes, I neglected to mention that in my post, Jonie. ;) It would definitely work best if composers didn't know the name of the source music. 

 

 

 

 

 

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1 hour ago, R-N-R Jim said:

Hi Donna

 

  The idea of writing to a pre-existing commercial song has one huge obstacle. Copyright infringement. It may work for a songwriter chapter that meets in person so that it's kept within the meeting. But to write and record and then upload to a soundclick site etc to show other people, that's where the trouble starts with infringement. Because when you upload a song, you are agreeing to terms of the site that what is being uploaded is an original song.

 

Now...you could have some generic music like a blues progression or a 50s R&B or a generic country progression, disco, polka...well...you get the idea. Music mills have been doing this cookie cutter method for decades. So, what could be done is to find some generic tracks to write to. You may say that it might get old after while. But then again, it would be good practice as far as writing lyrics to music. You still have to write a plot that works. You still have to find words that are singable. You could have a separate lyric contest for this seeing that all things being equal, the music would not play the deciding role in the song. The lyrics would have to stand out more in order to make the generic music come to life.

 

just food for thought

R-N-R Jim

As Alistair and Donna have pointed out, the final product will have a different lyric, melody and musical treatment.  For those such as yourself who are still concerned, there is always the library of melodies available in the public domain, which might be an interesting challenge as well. Take an old standard like "Beautiful Dreamer" and bring it into the 21st century. Though you sound as if you don't have very much faith in us lyricists to be able to pull it off effectively. It's been done before, many times, with much success so I'd say we are definitely up to the challenge.

 

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Hmmm... For me, part of the challenge to write music is to create a new composition.

I think if a lyric were written to an existing song structure, I wouldn't want to touch it musically.

Maybe if I didn't know what the orig song was... but even then I'd like to think that everything was new. :)

Isn't writing lyrics to an existing song like colour-by-numbers? Sure you get a finished piece, but it's really just a copy :(

 

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Paul, only words and melodies are recognized and only work when created from scratch (unless one wants a lawsuit). I swear, I don't know how some musicians manage to come up with a brand new melody for every song. But in this challenge, the music would be a new composition. 

 

There is nothing very new or innovative in lyrical structure, which is all we are really discussing.  The same ones are used over and over again, for the most part. The words and the melody change, which is what we would be striving for here.

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Years ago, when my 8 channel deck was on it's last legs, I was concerned about retaining viable backups of material.

As an extra precaution, I saved additional master-mixes of the drum track & instrumental mix...without vocal or lyric.

A couple months ago, I was diggin' through my archives downstairs & came across those old premixes.

The drum-only track I used as an attachment for a blog article, but the instrument-only mix is just sitting there collecting dust.

God only knows if I'll ever use it for anything, but if it would serve for a project like this, you're welcome to use it.

 

It's a finished arrangement without lyric or melody...drivin' garage-rock kind of track.

I certainly won't take offense if you don't use it, but I figured I'd offer. :)

 

Tom

 

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