Writing Lessons from Song Lyrics

The following article is for entertainment purposes only. It is not intended as scholarly research or as a final authority on the subject. 

Welcome to Wild-Card Wednesday, where I present a potluck of topics. Songwriters have a lot fewer words than fiction writers to express their thoughts. And they have to make those words rhyme. If we pay attention, there are lessons in those pretty words set to music. Let’s go ahead and jump into it.

Setting:

Expressing setting is difficult for many writers. It’s hard to know when there’s too much or too little…or when it’s even relevant. That last one is the hardest. Here are a couple of songwriters who did it right.

“Side of the Road” by Lucinda Williams

Click here to listen to the song.

“I walked out in a field. The grass was high. It brushed against my legs.
I just stood and looked out at the open space and a farmhouse out away.
And I wondered about the people who lived in it…”

With those few words, Ms. Williams sets the scene. She uses her senses—the way the tall grass feels against her legs. She uses her emotions—the way seeing a farmhouse in the open field makes her feel.

“The Heart of Saturday Night” by Tom Waits

Click here to listen to the song.

“Well you gassed her up
Behind the wheel
With your arm around your sweet one
In your Oldsmobile
Barrelin’ down the boulevard
You’re looking for the heart of Saturday night”

Mr. Waits calls on shared experience to draw his word picture. Most of us have experienced the ritual of dolling up and anticipating a night of revelry.  Nothing feels like Saturday night.

Emotions:

Songwriters must be experts at conveying emotion.  Songs appeal to us at our deepest emotional level. Either they strike a chord within us, or they don’t.

“Me and Bobby McGee” written by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster


When I hear that song in my mind, it’s always Janis Joplin’s voice singing the lyrics, even though Kris Kristofferson wrote the song. The song tells the story of a past relationship. Toward the end, the song says

“I’d trade all of my tomorrow’s for one single yesterday.”

Past events are often romanticized, and this line is the height of hurting over a broken romance and wishing for the unattainable.  The sentiment behind this line is universal, and that’s what makes it feel so personal.

“Black” by Pearl Jam


“And now my bitter hands cradle broken glass
Of what was everything.
All the pictures have all been washed in black, tattooed everything…

All the love gone bad turned my world to black
Tattooed all I see, all that I am, all I’ll be”

“Black” is intense.  Eddie Vedder uses imagery to convey his thoughts and feelings.  His lyrics are powerful to any listener because imagery can be interpreted to fit many experiences.

 

After a bad event, life seems shattered—like broken glass. Because we try to orchestrate our lives–or make them perfect–when things go wrong, it feels like we’re holding broken glass.

If whatever happened was bad enough, it tattoos everything. Tattoos are permanent. They can fade and blur. They can be “removed” by medicine. But in some small way, they’re always there.

Character:

Songwriters have but a few minutes music to convey character.  Yet, many do it so masterfully that the song characters are unforgettable.

“Treetop Flyer” by Stephen Stills

Click to listen to the song.

“I could be a rambler from the seven dials
I don’t pay taxes, ’cause I never file
I don’t do business that don’t make me smile”

From the first three lines on, it’s obvious this guy is into something illegal. Throughout the song, the narrator describes what he does for money—he’s a smuggler.

There’s more than that, though. The narrator loves adventure, and he’s good at what he does. He learned to  pilot in Viet Nam. He knows he needs to quit, that his life is at risk, but this business is in his blood.  All the necessary ingredients are present to write a story about this character.

“Jolene” by Ray Lamontagne

“Cocaine flame in my bloodstream
Sold my coat when I hit Spokane
Bought myself a hard pack of cigarettes in the early morning rain
Lately my hands they don’t feel like mine
My eyes been stung with dust and blind”

This song is about the utter misery the narrator—probably an addict of some sort—feels as he wanders around the country. He’s cold, he’s hurting, and he’s missing a woman named Jolene, with whom he probably burned his bridges long ago.

With a few short words, conflict, flaws, and backstory are drawn.  Easy as being knee deep in mud, right?

Song lyrics contain lessons about pacing, about characterization, and about universalizing emotion. It’s all there for the taking, and the music is a great bonus.

 

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