This songwriting guide breaks down the song lyrics from popular artists to help you develop a foundation for writing catchy lyrics.
How to Write Song Lyrics
Lyric writing is one of the craftiest parts of creating a song. The art of lyric writing combines a mixture of creativity and storytelling. Whether you write the music first and lyrics later, or vice versa, making a song catchy and meaningful is also about using certain songwriting techniques.
This post introduces techniques and approaches for writing song lyrics that grab a listener’s attention. Use the song examples compiled in this post to develop a foundation for writing catchy song lyrics.
The Song Seed
Writing a catchy song depends on factors such as the length of your phrases, repetition, rhyme schemes, and song sections. But above all else, it’s about starting with a great central idea for your song. So, before we get into these techniques above, let’s talk about how to build the essence of a song.
The central idea of a song is called a “song seed.” When writing song lyrics, you will grow and support the main idea of your song – your seed. A song seed is easily expressed, and should not be longer than one sentence. Below are lyric phrases that support the song seed:
- “You just want attention” is the song seed for “Attention” by Charlie Puth.
- “If you give me a chance, you’re going to see me in a new light” is the song seed for “New Light” by John Mayer.
- “I’m in love with the shape of you” is the song seed for “Shape of You” by Ed Sheeran.
- “Be Humble” is the song seed for “Humble” by Kendrick Lamar.
As you can see in the above examples, a song can begin from a concept, a theme, a character, a situation, a visual, or some other sensory image. It can also be an image in your head, an emotion triggered by an experience, a memory of a specific person, or a place.
You may have also noticed that the song lyrics above reveal their song seed in the title. The idea is to figure out a song seed you can develop further and build a song around.
Point of View
Before you start writing song lyrics, it’s important to decide the song’s point of view. For instance, who’s this song addressed to? Who is telling the story? Once you make these decisions, it’s crucial to stay consistent throughout the song to avoid confusing the listener.
Let’s examine “Shape of You” by Ed Sheeran as an example. He addresses the song to the girl when he says, “I’m in love with the shape of you.” Throughout the song, he addresses this girl by narrating the whole story from a first-person perspective. He also stays consistent throughout the song, making it easy to follow along.
Song form is the road map of your song. It’s the musical structure of a song made up of several sections that may or may not repeat. Basic song structure consists of an intro, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, breakdown, bridge, and outro.
Knowing how to structure a song will help you develop ideas for each section. For instance, where does the song accelerate? Where does the song slow down? Where is the catchiest part of the song? These questions will help you develop a song’s musical form.
Let’s look at the song lyrics for “Attention” by Charlie Puth. We will examine how he developed the verse, pre-chorus, and chorus:
A verse is like the introduction paragraph of an essay. It’s where you start telling your story and reveal the characters involved. The verse is also the first thing a listener hears. It sets the vibe and emotion of the song. That’s why it’s crucial to write a compelling first verse that captures the listener’s attention.
There are usually multiple verses in a song. They often have different lyrics even though the melody may be the same. With each additional verse, we learn more about the story. It’s essential that each verse line furthers the story, and you’re not repeating yourself. Every line of every verse is an opportunity to move your story along with new emotions and details.
For example, here is the first verse from “Attention” by Charlie Puth:
You’ve been runnin’ round, runnin’ round, runnin’ round throwin’ that dirt all on my name
‘Cause you knew that I, knew that I, knew that I’d call you up
You’ve been going round, going round, going round every party in L.A.
‘Cause you knew that I, knew that I, knew that I’d be at one, oh
This verse sets up the storyline that develops further in the pre-chorus and chorus.
A pre-chorus is a transitionary section that ties your verse to your chorus. It’s often shorter than a verse or chorus. Moreover, a pre-chorus works great at creating a sense of tension or anticipation before the chorus.
Also, not every song has a pre-chorus. However, having one can help you develop your ideas further into a compelling chorus section. If you use a pre-chorus, ensure it transitions into the chorus smoothly. It should also contrast with the main chorus, but complement it. The goal is to make them sound good alongside each other without sounding too similar.
For example, here is the first pre-chorus from “Attention” by Charlie Puth:
I know that dress is karma, perfume regret
You got me thinking about when you were mine
And now I’m all up on ya, what you expect?
But you’re not coming home with me tonight
The verse introduced what the girl was doing and her intentions. The pre-chorus is the narrator’s response to the situation and what he thinks will happen. Another thing to note about the pre-chorus is that it tends to be the most unstable part of the song.
The term chorus comes from its Greek origin that means “to sing along.” It’s the most exciting part of the song. The chorus is also dubbed as “the hook” because the lyrics are the most catchy and memorable. It’s crucial to grab a listener’s attention with a strong chorus!
This section is also where the song seed gets reduced into a memorable part of the song. For instance, the chorus condenses the verse and pre-chorus into short repeated phrases supported by the repetition of a melody.
For example, here is the first chorus from “Attention” by Charlie Puth:
You just want attention, you don’t want my heart
Maybe you just hate the thought of me with someone new
Yeah, you just want attention, I knew from the start
You’re just making sure I’m never gettin’ over you
The chorus is not only the most memorable part of the song, but it’s also where the dynamics peak. For example, most modern pop songs feature a chorus that is louder or has more energy than the rest of the song.
You can think of song structure as a highway analogy. For example, you leave your house and get into your car. The verse is like driving slowly down a neighborhood street. The pre-chorus is like driving on a boulevard where you accelerate more. And then the chorus is like fully accelerating on the highway.
A bridge is a section that creates contrast between the verse, pre-chorus, and chorus. It usually offers a new perspective on the song. The bridge may also portray a revelation or an emotion significantly different than the rest of the song.
A great example would be the song “Señorita” by Justin Timberlake. Throughout the song, Justin Timberlake talks about this girl and how her boyfriend mistreats her. And in the Bridge, he offers a solution to her problem when he brings up the possibility of them being together instead.
For example, here is the first bridge from “Señorita” by Justin Timberlake:
When I look into your eyes
I see something that money can’t buy
And I know if you give us a try
I’ll work hard for you girl
And no longer will you ever have to cry
The bridge is also a section that provides relief from the repetitive nature of many songs. It not only has different song lyrics from the verse and chorus, but the music is often different.
Creating Contrast Between Sections
To make your song lyrics more effective, it’s essential to create contrast between different sections. Lyric lines with the same length and rhyme scheme will sound monotonous.
If you are writing lyrics from an already existing melody, it’s also important to note that the verse melody is typically lower in pitch. Whereas the chorus melody is often higher in pitch as it’s considered the “peak” of the song.
In contrast to the verse, the chorus is also more repetitive and less wordy. It directly goes into the song seed or the central idea of the song. Whereas the verse typically backs up the song seed with a specific action, imagery, or detail. As a result, the verse becomes longer and less repetitive, which starkly contrasts with the chorus.
Rhyme schemes are patterns that help keep a listener’s attention. Lyricists use rhymes to add flow, pace, balance, and closure to the song.
A rhyme scheme is also a way of determining which lines of lyrics rhyme with one another. There are three conditions for rhyme:
- The syllables’ vowel sounds have to be the same (light and night).
- Their ending consonants (if any) have to be the same.
- The beginnings should be different.
Rhyme schemes also use letters to recognize different rhyming patterns in lyrics. For instance, ABAB and AABB are the most common rhymes schemes used in modern music.
Here is an AABB rhyme from “Superstitious” by Stevie Wonder:
- A: Very superstitious, writings on the wall,
- A: Very superstitious, ladders bout’ to fall,
- B: Thirteen-month-old baby broke the lookin’ glass
- B: Seven years of bad luck, the good things in your past
As you can see above, phrases with end words that rhyme have the same letter. Also, the first two lines rhyme and the third and fourth lines rhyme. Since “wall” and “fall” rhyme, they both get assigned the letter “A.” “Glass” and “Past” also rhyme, but they have a different rhyme than the previous example. That’s why it gets assigned the letter “B.” Together, they create a pattern called AABB.
The song lyrics tips in this guide apply to all music styles. You can also learn and develop your lyric writing techniques by analyzing more songs. I highly encourage everyone to dig deeper into the lyrical structures of your favorite music. Try to understand what makes that song special for you. Moreover, every song you hear is a chance to learn how musicians use these different approaches to tell their stories.
Mastering the art of songwriting also takes lots of trial and error, and ultimately writing lots of songs. As you put out more songs, you will unlock your potential to create songs that your listeners deem special!