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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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Ah, that's fine then, Alistair. It's still stated in the site's contest rules section, though, hence the confusion. ;)

 

(Also, I was reminded of a lyrics contest about 10-11 years ago on another site. A lyric was going to be chosen and given an in-depth critique (in the thread) by a professional songwriter (Harriet Schock). Members of the then active, large, and fairly close-knit community were pretty excited, and many posted lyrics. So did quite a few other people who'd joined simply for a chance at a free critique. The lyric was their first and last post. There was a heated discussion afterwards, as members presumed the contest and critiquer had been arranged for their own benefit as active members of the site. The upshot was that a rule was set down indicating that contestants had to have been on the site - and active [e.g. give-and-take in the lyrics/songs feedback sections] for a specific period of time [I think it was for at least 4 weeks] before they were eligible to submit to a lyrics contest. Anyway, just a bit of background ramble. ;) )

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1 hour ago, DonnaMarilyn said:

SongWolfe, thanks for those thoughts on your experimenting. :)  Tempts me look at one of the much earlier years, just out of curiousity as to whether the kinds of entries then were markedly different. I read through your website and enjoyed it.  Has a nice conversational feel about. Also a good idea providing links both to your lyrics and to the finished songs. Well done on all the work you're clearly putting into the site.

 

Just one thing I want to mention. In the thread on submitting to free lyrics contests, you said that to enter the Muse contests all you have to do is join the site. That's not quite accurate. It's written somewhere in the site rules here that it's necessary to be a member for a while before you can submit to any of the contests. (If memory serves me right, I think it even used to be mentioned in the 'rules' for each new contest). Understandable, as it's to keep people from signing up just for the contests and with no intention of taking part in the Muse community. Anyway, easy enough to make the adjustment to your text.  

 

I note that you co-write often with Kompoz members. Have you ever checked out www.musicianscollaboration.com? An excellent site, where composers are always on the lookout for good lyrics. And where songs are generally completed fairly quickly.

 

Hi Donna. Yes, it's certainly interesting to see if any patterns can be identified but think I'll probably revert to just choosing the lyric I like best

 

Thanks for checking out my site and the encouraging feedback. Your explorations of it have given me record site stats - woohoo! :) 

 

By the way, one thing I'm planning to do is to feature links to the websites or Soundblend pages of fellow lyric writers or musicians. So if anyone from this site would like some free publicity, then I'd be delighted to oblige.  

 

And I hadn't heard of the musicianscollaboration site - looks interesting. I'll definitely check it out!

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On 4/17/2018 at 19:54, Alistair S said:

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. 

 

 

 

This wasn't working as intended, so I have deleted it before it became too much of a mess.

 

People can still create their own blogs to store their lyrics, though.

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On 5/10/2018 at 09:45, DonnaMarilyn said:

Ah, that's fine then, Alistair. It's still stated in the site's contest rules section, though, hence the confusion. ;)

That should be changed then - but I'm struggling to find it! Could you guide me because I must be looking in the wrong place? Thanks :) 

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I came across an interesting article recently. It’s  claimed that every story (which to me includes lyrics) in the world contains one of six basic plots.

 

http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20180525-every-story-in-the-world-has-one-of-these-six-basic-plots

 

Very loosely in keeping with this blog’s original topic, I wondered whether any of us set out to write along the lines of any of the six storylines? Or do we realise after we’ve written our lyric that it happens to adhere to a particular main theme? For instance, we’re passionate about or moved or horrified by a situation and first pour our heart out, or we choose a major theme with the intention of writing something authentic in that context?   

 

Hoping a few folks might read the article and add their thoughts here. :)

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Hi Donna

 

   Being a novice and someone who plays by ear, I never bought into learning to read music or go advanced music theory. For what I write, it's not a necessity. Although I see if I did invest in time to learn how to read music, I could probably write alot of the background strings I use on the keyboard and have real strings do it.  Love the cello!

  I mean others may say studying music theory helps them in chord progressions or note placement, probably more so in jazz, but I have no use for it. If I cant hear it in my head or found it in the music I like, then why would I search any further for something that isnt inherently there?

  As far as lyrics, I never really sat around analyzing what I should write about. The melody will give me clues where I should go. I cant just tell myself Im going to focus on writing a love song. It's like beer, either you're in the mood for it or your not. Again, a professional will have a whole different take on this since it is their lively hood.

   Other writers might be more politically motivated and write what moves them at the moment. I tend to stay away from politics because most of it has a time stamp that doesnt always wear well. Maybe Ohio by CSN&Y would be that exception.

 

oh, I didnt read the article..lol  

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I haven't read the article yet, but looking at your reduction to three basic themes, I'm struck that all of them are AGAINST. And since it sometimes seems like 90 percent of songs are love songs and a huge chunk of those is NOT negative (ie, breakup or caught you cheating), I'm not sure how the AGAINST themes and the love songs fit together.

 

--Doug

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Oops, sorry, Doug. My bad. ☺️  I should have written 'three major literary themes of conflict' (i.e. man against man, man against nature, man against himself) which - if I remember correctly - is an Aristotelian concept. And of  course that's another kettle of fish. ;) Meanwhile, I've reworded my original question, keeping it just to the topic of the six storylines.  (The three major themes of conflict might be interesting to look at later.)

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On ‎30‎/‎05‎/‎2018 at 11:11, DonnaMarilyn said:

I came across an interesting article recently. It’s  claimed that every story (which to me includes lyrics) in the world contains one of six basic plots.

 

http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20180525-every-story-in-the-world-has-one-of-these-six-basic-plots

 

Very loosely in keeping with this blog’s original topic, I wondered whether any of us set out to write along the lines of any of the six storylines? Or do we realise after we’ve written our lyric that it happens to adhere to a particular main theme? For instance, we’re passionate about or moved or horrified by a situation and first pour our heart out, or we choose a major theme with the intention of writing something authentic in that context?   

 

Hoping a few folks might read the article and add their thoughts here. :)

Thanks for sharing the article. It was interesting to read!

 

I think there's probably one big difference between a song lyric and a novel and that is that often a song lyric doesn't have enough space to cover the full story arc. To give an example from my lyrics, I wrote a lyric called 'I know the score'. I had a story mapped out in my head that was as follows:

 

'Rock star rises to stardom and wealth but then squanders it all on drugs and a party lifestyle. Then, through his drug addiction, he gets into debt with a gangster but doesn't/can't pay it off. The gangster sends a tough guy round with a gun to either collect the debt or provide a lesson as to what happens if people don't pay up.' (The lyric is then told from the tough guy's perspective)

 

There's clearly a 'Rags to riches', followed by 'Riches to rags' element to that extended story that was playing in my head. However, the actual lyric starts at the point in the story where the rock star is already down on his luck and he's still in a bad place by the end of the song.

 

So whilst there probably are song lyrics that fit into those categories*, I think there will be plenty that don't have the required breadth of storyline. And, I also think there are plenty of songs that don't contain any story!

 

For my part, I do write a lot of lyrics that feature stories but I don't think I've ever set out to say 'I'm going to write a Cinderella story' or any of the other categories. A lot of the time the story just emerges as I write the lyric. Maybe a character idea comes first and then a few lines, which could be for a verse, chorus, or bridge. 

 

An exception is instances where I have taken a piece of prose or a comedy sketch and 'adapted' them to become a song lyric. In those instances, the story's already there so there is a conscious effort to make the story have defined start, middle and ends.

 

* I spent a bit of time thinking of some lyrics that tell a story. Maybe it was just a coincidence but the ones I plucked out I think are probably all examples of an Icarus story? 'The River' by Bruce Springsteen, Bat out of Hell by Meat Loaf, and Whiskey in the jar which was made famous when Thin Lizzy covered it 

 

 

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          Interesting article. I suppose the 6 basic plots thesis is similar to the 14 notes thesis. "Everything's already been done before" is a why bother mentality, if you can't see past the limitations of the thesis. 

          In a sense our own individual life stories --our very lives--could be loosely graphed out  as Kurt Vonnegut suggested.  And, if you buy my sub-theory, just bcause someone else, perhaps hundreds of millions of someones else, have lived similar story arcs to the one I hope to live now is no reason to not recognize the uniqueness and value of the life I live and to enjoy it all the more. 

            The plots may be categorized into six story arcs - 3 end up happy and 3 end up sad- but it's up to us as writers (and in a broader sense livers of our own lives) to write the ending we want.  And it's the details that make each of our lives different. And our lyrics different. We get to attach whatever meanings to things and people and events in our lyrics and our lives as we want. 

           Do I ever write purposely with a particular story arc in mind?  Sure. I know in the beginning generally how I want the lyric to end. Maybe more accurately- where I want the story to end. 

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13 hours ago, SongWolfe said:

 And, I also think there are plenty of songs that don't contain any story!

 

Indeed there are, and I was thinking that when I posted the link. ;) Yet, even for these types of apparently non-story lyrics (or poems), I think the reader instinctively infers a story of some kind, in accordance with her or his own cultural or personal framework/experiences of life. We humans are hard-wired to try to make sense of our environment, or of whatever sort of input we perceive (visual/aural/mental/emotional, etc.). Maybe this stems from the distant past when - for survival purposes - we had to be constantly on the lookout for predators and human enemies. So when we're confronted with a wholly abstract or story-less text, our minds leap into gear and create any number of possible scenarios. (Maybe this ties in as well with the notion that the poet merely puts on the page the words expressing his/her own feelings or insight, but it's the individual reader who 'writes' the poem.)

 

(This reminds me of how much I like that writing exercise where we need to choose one word each from a column of words that contains a noun, a verb, and an object, or a subject, a place, and an action, or other types of combinations.)

 

Thanks for your observations here, SongWolfe. Interesting to hear about your own approach. :)

 

 

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