Lyrical themes – the many ways to develop them…
MUSIC THINK TANK – Charlotte Yates (edited)
What do you want your lyrics to actually do?
Show us how desperately you want someone, or how angry you are
about something. Or do you want to your lyrics to make us behave a
certain way, notice the homeless, start a revolution, or dance the night
At some stage, you have to figure out exactly what you want to
express. At first, this might not be100% clear. But you may have a
general idea of what you want to get across — that’s your theme
there: a basic notion or vision for the song.
Some songs have great big themes like “Anarchy in the UK” or “Strange
Fruit.” Others are more humble but equally compelling and
straightforward — “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or “Raindrops Keep Falling
on My Head.”
Take a look at what some iconic creators you know and love say about
Here’s Johnny Cash’s list:
“I love songs about horses, railroads, land, judgment day, family,
hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation,
murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation,
death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny,
determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak, and love. And Mother.
Elvis Costello’s is more contained: “There are five things to write
- I’m leaving you.
- You’re leaving me.
- I want you.
- You don’t want me.
- I believe in something. Five subjects and twelve notes.”
Michael Stipe leans into the dark.
- “It’s so much easier to write about angst and anger and fear and
- darkness and fucked–up feelings than to write about incredible
- intense happiness.”
Make the Familiar Personal
Songs revolve around well-worn universal themes, just like books and
movies. In the song, love is the dominant theme with all its highs and
lows: the good, bad, and oh so very ugly.
But there are other significant themes :
- family relationships
- escape and rebellion
- making it despite the odds
- needing to sing, dance
- party on your own terms
- Messages that encourage us to:
- to be hopeful
- to fight back
- wake up
- drop out
A songwriter’s artistry comes from how you handle these familiar
themes and how you put your own personal stamp on them.
“Songs make the familiar unfamiliar, transforming common themes
into language that, when set to song, excite the senses.”
How do you go from a lil’ bit of something to being able to specify
exactly what you want to say, or what you want the audience to feel?
Learn songwriting, theory, production, composition, arranging,
mixing, and more — whenever you want and wherever you are.
On the Spectrum From Abstract to Direct
Lyrics run from obscurity — where the actual sound of the word or
syllables matter more than direct meaning — to pure clarity, where
you’re right up to your eyeballs in every detail of the song’s story.
A songwriter can decide how clear or how cloudy to make the
lyrics of any song.
Your theme is the strategy for directing the way the lyrics will
weave through the song — what Professor Pat Pattison calls “the
journey of the song.”
Your tactics should revolve around how distinct you want those lyrics
journey to be.
One approach is trying to evoke a particular emotional vibe when all
you’ve got is a cool metaphor or powerful image or words you want to
use; words like “hurt,” “faith,” or respect.”
A second tactic is working on your theme unfolding through a
moment or an incident. Something has happened, someone said or
did something or the song is “set” in a particular scenario. Songs like
“Raspberry Beret” or “Drivers License” or “Me and Mrs Jones” use this.
More specific details are delivered within this type of lyric. journey so
we understand more clearly what’s happening, where and when. You
can see this at work even in the titles; we get a certain amount of
information straight away.
Pound the Plot Home With Strong Lyrics
The third tactic is delivering your theme in lyrics that have a full-blown
powerful story with a beginning, middle, and end. Certain genres
welcome this tactic and almost demand it, like folk ballads, country
music, and rap.
Songs like “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” “Stan,” “7 Years,” and
“The Gambler” are rife with clear details and a plot progression. Their
lyrics travel as a sequence of events played out in real-time audio.
All three tactics have their place — be deliberate in which you choose
to use. All but the most abstract song has some level of storytelling,
some trace element that makes a good song a transformative
experience for the listener. When you hear the song, your mood is
Because lyrics are united with melody, create some sort of emotional
response in an audience. This means the lyrics can be deliberately
modified — enhanced, interrupted or delayed — by the music. The
idea of a plot progression can be useful:
- where you chunk out what the lyrical hook will be,
- where the “build to a revelation” happens and
- where the payoff might hit.
A storyline with Post-It notes for what type of song structure you
want and what happens where can clarify things quickly.
But you can also unite the lyric thematic development with the melodic
development so the song’s beginning, middle, end or that drawing in,
the revelation and the resolution are intertwined. The way the music is
shaped tells as much story or creates as much mood without a word