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

lyrical themes.


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.

And God.”


Elvis Costello’s is more contained: “There are five things to write

songs about:

  • 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
  • friendship
  • escape and rebellion
  • frustration
  • disillusionment
  • making it despite the odds
  • needing to sing, dance
  • party on your own terms
  • Messages that encourage us to:
  • unite
  • 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



Final Thoughts

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

being said.