By Mark Winkler
I’ve written lyrics for over thirty years; I’ve had 150 of my songs cut by famous singers like Liza Minnelli and Dianne Reeves; written songs for a hit off Broadway Musical and have had songs on the Soul, Pop, County, Dance and Jazz charts. But when I started teaching lyric writing about 2 years ago I was still surprised to find out that there were some simple things my students weren’t doing that could have made their songs a whole lot better. I call them “My Top 5 Tips for Better Lyrics”.
1. Come up with a great title
This is by far my most important tip. Dianne Warren, who has written more hit songs than anybody writing today, could have replaced the title to her #1 song by Toni Braxton, Un-Break My Heart- with the title Please Mend My Heart. It means the same thing but it wouldn?t have had one tenth of the commercial impact. Un-Break My Heart is unique and catchy- you’ve never quite heard that thought expressed that way. The consumer today is besieged with songs and video games and movies and if they’ve got a choice between a song that’s called Happy Times or a rockin’ rouser called “You Give Love a Bad Name” which one do you think they’ll pick. But I can’t tell you how many students come to me with the most boring, pedestrian titles on their songs. A great title is more than half the battle, it tells you what to write. It attracts the listener and gets them hooked. Don’t even write word one with out a great title!
2. Be Specific
New lyricists inevitably tend to be vague and non descriptive with their words.
The best way I know how to illustrate “being specific” is through a song written by one of the greatest lyricists of all time, Johnny Mercer. In the movie Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Audrey Hepburn, who plays a country girl who’s came to the big, bad city is having a moment of doubt on a Manhattan fire escape, when she sings these lyrics from The Academy Award winning song Moon River:
“We’re after the same rainbow’s end
Waiting ’round the bend
My ——- friend, Moon River and me.”
Now she didn’t sing “good old country” friend or “gee you’re such a” friend- although both fit the line and are correct descriptions of her friend. No, Johnny Mercer had her sing “Huckleberry” friend. He couldn’t have been more specific. Huckleberries grow by the river, a country girl would know that, and it also has literary echoes of Huckleberry Finn, who was a country boy who ran away from home. So here we have one word that lifts the whole song up to another level. Johnny Mercer must have thought so to, because he called his autobiography, “My Huckleberry Friend and Me”
3. It’s The Music Stupid
As much as we’d love to think as lyricists we’re the end all, I’ve learned no matter how good the lyric is, if the music is bad- the lyric can’t save it. So you need to find yourself a great melody writer. But here’s the catch, you won’t find one unless you’re a wonderful lyric writer. And most professional melody writers know a good lyricist faster
than you can say “prosody”! Al Kasha, my first lyric writing teacher and winner of two Academy Awards said: “A great melody can take you into the top 10, but a great lyric coupled with a great melody will allow you to stay there.”
4. Writing Is Re-Writing
Ask any professional songwriter what separates him from an amateur and he’ll say it’s his ability to rewrite. But so many of my students come in with their “precious” first drafts thinking every word is gold. They think this because it came to them during a moment of “inspiration”. I’m all for inspiration- but “perspiration” is much better. Here’s how I do it. On the first pass (with or without inspiration) I try to get as much of the song lyric down as possible, filling out lines that stump me with any words, as long as I can see the complete song mapped out in front of me. Then in a few hours, or a few days I come back to the lyric and look at it “critically” and put x’s in front of the lines that can be improved. I keep coming back to the lyric until it?s as close to perfect as I can make it.
This can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. But, remember it’s not the quantity of songs you write, but the quality.
5. What You Say Counts
Any one can learn the techniques it takes to write a song. But not everyone has something
truly unique to say. When I started out in my lyric writing class with Mr. Kasha, for some
reason he really liked my songs. Looking back on those days, I realize that it must have been because of my “content”, because back then truthfully, my songs didn’t have much technique. While other people were bringing in their latest, perfectly rhymed, yet anonymous odes to love and dreams and sunshine, I was bringing in my roughly written songs about The Great Gatsby and Moonlight cruises and my mother who was a singer with a big band. Unconsciously, I was doing something right. I was writing about what I knew and things nobody else had written about. Getting in touch with what you feel is the quickest way to have “content” in your songs. Keep it real.
Wow, I feel like I?ve only just touched the surface- the “tips” of the iceberg– and guess
what? I’ve got 5 more tips I didn’t even get around to. But, like any teacher at the end of his lesson here’s the homework- Come up with a great title- then come up with a idea or story that fits that title and then write and re-write till perfect! You can’t lose.
Mark Winkler is a singer/lyricist who has had over 150 of his songs recorded by such artists as Liza Minnelli, Nancy Wilson, Randy Crawford and Kenny Rankin. Contact him for lessons at (323) 874-4220 or firstname.lastname@example.org.