What is it that makes lyrics good or bad?

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  • @ampersandman  Jan 10

    I've been thinking a lot about lyrics these days. I plan on writing some German ones which I've always found too hard, although it's my native language. So I listened to a lot of different songs and tried to find what annoys me about German lyrics and what speaks to me.

    I found that my # 1 turnoff is being vague. Examples: lines like (translated) "If that is really all, then count me out" or "Does that feel like the end?" If you don't tell your listeners what "that" is, they can't connect. Maybe you had something in mind when writing, but there's a difference between leaving things open to interpretation and flat out saying nothing. And most pop songs fall into that trap. That's why German radio pop, although absurdly successful, is so painfully meaningless (the boring compositions and overblown productions don't
    help either).

  • @ampersandman  Jan 10

    GOOD: Nouns. Stories.
    I love Rainald Grebe. He uses so many familiar phrases and connects them in lyrics. He is like a giant sieve for current topics. And he knows how to tell stories. Like "30jährige Pärchen" ("Couples in their thirties"):

    Klaus wears a colorful shirt and already has been everywhere
    He says things like "Asia is not for me anymore, Asia is totally overrun"
    Beate likes to talk about furniture, she says, I want no IKEA in my house, except for that table, that is from IKEA, but it doesn't look like IKEA. Respect to people that shop at IKEA and manage not to make it look like IKEA. (...)

  • @ampersandman  Jan 10

    GOOD: Stories (2)
    The best lyricist around to me is John K. Samson. He is a masterful storyteller. Let's take "Relative Surplus Value", a story of a businessman facing an economic breakdown. All the lyrics have the form of that businessman talking to a person, without their answers.
    He even brings in lines like

    "Think of the time I came to visit you here
    The year after Jeremy died"

    We don't know who Jeremy is, we don't even know who is addressed in that conversation, but it doesn't matter. It's like a conversation we overhear on a train, we don't understand everything, but enough to spark our interest.
    Besides the amount of poetry Samson finds in everyday life, it's his choice of subjects that make him such a standout lyricist. Two more examples:

  • @ampersandman  Jan 10

    GOOD: Imagery.
    One German song that regularly gives me goosebumps is "Kaputt" (Broken) by Wir Sind Helden. Singer Judith Holofernes is one of this country's greatest lyricists. Here she manages being vague but actually transporting a concise subject, and that is by the use of imagery. She uses nouns. Let me translate a part:

    Your mother is broken
    but you are not
    you wear the same bandages
    layer by layer
    But somewhere underneath you have already healed
    You shared her wounds for much too long

    I know you want to help
    but you don't know how
    I know you want to get away
    But you never could

    That's okay, just help as much as you can
    When you pick up the pieces, wear rubber gloves

    So much is broken
    but so much is not
    Each of the splinters reflects the light (...)

  • @ampersandman  Jan 10

    GOOD: Fitting with the melody
    And there we come to the part that scares me the most about German. It has different syntax, language melody, vowels etc. The song above has perfect rhyme that lets the melody flow organically. It's pleasant to listen to, even if you don't understand a word. https://youtu.be/vmIJUaonHJw
    Not many artists achieve this with such ease.
    Maybe you are familiar with David Bowie's German version of "Heroes" which brings the difference out most poignantly in the word "I" vs. "Ich"
    He does a decent job with his pronunciation. But where the "I" is pure vowel (and an open "ah") that you can blurt out and hold, the "Ich" starts with a much more tight "eee" sound and ends on a pharyngeal that makes the whole thing sound like a bad coughing fit. No wonder we all sound like Hitler to the world.

    Thanks for your attention. What makes lyrics good to you?

  • @johnstaples  Jan 10

    I generally care about lyrics as many/most of my songs are stories. However, from a listener perspective, I find I really love vague lyrics. In fact I love lots of songs with nonsensical lyrics too. T.Rex springs to mind. I am the walrus too!

    So, while I appreciate good lyrics they are not essential for a song to be good.

  • @ampersandman  Jan 10

    Ah, right, Dada lyrics are also a fun way of writing. Something like Serj Tankian likes to do ("Gonorrhea, gorgonzola" in https://genius.com/System-of-a-down-t...)

  • @dasbinky  Jan 10

    Interesting insights, @ampersandman.

    My take is that any rule anyone can come up with that defines a good lyric probably has dozens of counter-examples showing the opposite.

    I agree with most of your comments above, but as much as I love specific imagery I also love Radiohead and Pink Floyd who tend towards the vague. And I love a great story song, but flowing lyrics about nothing can move me more if I'm in the right mood.

    It's not radically different from novel writing... Ernest Hemingway and Neil Gaiman are both acclaimed authors, and have almost nothing in common... some people love both, and it's more likely that if you love one, you hate the other.

    Anyway, my main takeaway is that if your lyrics resonate with your listener, they're good lyrics. Every listener brings their own baggage, biases and preferences to the table, so you'll never make everyone happy... but if you connect with someone, your lyric is a success.

  • @tootoobee  Jan 10

    GOOD: preserve the natural rhythm of the language (OK, and yes, I'm Pat Pattison follower 😀 )
    Lyrics sound better when the sentences can be sung the same way they are spoken, no stresses on syllables or words that are not stressed in spoken language, no long vowels when in spoken language it is only a short vowel.
    Ever since I was made aware of this, it totally annoys me if I hear it, like Adele singing this "under the briiiiiiiiiiidge". I can't think of any other examples right now, maybe I post some later.
    This is sometimes tricky, especially in German language. I try at least to follow this in the Chorus of a song. And reduce it as much as I can in the rest of the song.

  • @tootoobee  Jan 10

    German language special: When I write in German, it's harder not to end up with very cheesy lyrics. Things that sound OK in English are just a cheesy no go in German... According to my "observations" 😉 I'll try this FAWM to (1) avoid perfect rhymes as much as possible, the more loose the rhyme the better and (b) rather going for male (last syllable stressed, like Weg) instead of female rhyming endings (last syllable unstressed, like Wege, lachen)
    But I'd be interested in learning about other peoples observations 😀

  • @pipewrench67  Jan 10

    I love a good story song, but it feels fake and forced, when I try to write one. I'm a visual thinker so I tend to write in images.
    A long time ago I read a book book of traditional Native American stories, in the preface it described how some of the stories were told not to tell a tale, but to create a specific picture, even if they lacked a logical cohesiveness in narrative. This is something that has stuck in my head ever since.
    When I write lyrics I try to words that stick to the tongue, things that come to mind effortlessly and flow with some semblance of eloquence. Sometimes it;s situational, glossolalia, where a certain word of phrase fits just right, despite it's obtrusiveness.

  • @standup  Jan 10

    @ampersandman i like the example of Broken, sounds like a song I’d like. I’ll try to listen later.

    I wrote story songs for years. But I have tried consciously to move away from that.

    I still think details are good, like “Jason”. But personally I’m trying to be more vague. Much of the time.

    I still fall back on stories, but decided I wanted a more flexible approach to writing.

  • @atitlan  Jan 10

    @pipewrench67 I was trying to formulate my comment when I saw yours - this definitely resonated " in the preface it described how some of the stories were told not to tell a tale, but to create a specific picture, even if they lacked a logical cohesiveness"

    For me good lyrics always remember that the experience of a song is collaborative - the listener brings a lot with them, so the best lyrics aren't explicit in what they are saying, but create a framework that the listener fills in with their own experiences and emotions.

    Not only does that create a deeper emotional connection to the song, but it means that the song's meaning can morph with the listeners mood or experience.

    However as Mansun said - "The lyrics aren't supposed to mean that much. They're just a vehicle for a lovely voice" - but they may have been being ironic 😀

  • @pipewrench67  Jan 10

    @atitlan Some of us don't have lovely voices.

  • @atitlan  Jan 10

    Indeed we don't, but we do have Melodyne 😀

    (Other vocal tuning software is available - please check your DAW manual for details)

  • @yam655 Jan 10

    I write stories as well. Sometimes when I'm improvising one, the other can come through. I like a nice story song, but sometimes I want to explore a feeling, image, or concept instead. Sometimes you want a song that is a whole story, and sometimes you just want a key aspect of it, pulled out and expanded upon.

    I'm talking about my own songs, but this generally applies to all music I listen to. There's a place for both the micro as well as the macro.

    I get the whole "what does this even mean" with regards to pop music at times, but I tend to think of most of that stuff as ephemerial, so it doesn't really bothered me.

  • @ustaknow Jan 10

    It's great to see a discussion like this to read through. Songs can be so many things, -- stories, abstractions, pledges, declarations, complaints, praises. Also, I am surrounded (mentioned above) by so many different languages and their related cultural scales as well, I am very aware of the effect of both.

    Actually, when I have not had a word on occasion that fit, I'd make one up, -- often when looked up, for fun, I often find that it is or "was" a word 😀

    If songs had a formula for good, regardless of context, I haven't seen it yet.

    I remember having a song I didn't like, put it up anyway since had "something"; then another person took it since saw "something" in it, and was so good, I didn't recognise it as mine 😉 hahhh!, and didn't change a thing in the lyrics (I never did put music it, left it like that).

  • @roddy  Jan 11

    If anyone knows what makes lyrics good or bad then they would probably be writing hit songs by now. I agree with @ustaknow who says there isn't a formula for good. Even deciding what is bad is so subjective. [@dasbinky ] makes a very good point in that it's to do with how they lyrics resonate with the listener.

  • @standup  Jan 12

    That's all there is -- how your lyrics resonate with the listener. And we are not in control of that. There's a song I wrote when I was 22-23 that might be the most memorable song I ever wrote, it made royalties for me (literally hundreds of dollars over 20 years). I wrote it quickly.

    In the band I'm in now, the song that gets the biggest audience response is one that I though was kind of a throwaway.

    The Stones thought Satisfaction was a throwaway, right? We are not in control.

  • @declan  Jan 12

    For me the best lyrics take something specific and create something universal.

    Take Bowie’s Heroes. It may have been about Tony Visconti kissing a girl in Berlin. Bowie May have presented it against the backdrop of the Cold War and the wall but it took on different meanings when he sang it at Live Aid, or when it was played at the opening ceremony of London 2012 or when Oasis covered just as they went from small indie band to the biggest band in Britain in a few months.

    The idea that ordinary people can become heroic by living their lives heroically resonates beyond the specifics of the songs subject matter.

  • @mikeskliar  Jan 13

    There's alot of individual variation in people's lyrical taste. For me, I tend toward the concrete rather then the abstract- evocative and suggestive is fine, if the language is rich enough and the imagery unique and non-cliched. Not everyone can pull this off (Dylan, Lennon, of course were great at this).... I love the 'conversational' lyrics about 'everyday life' that are embodied by Loudon Wainwright, John Prine, Hank Williams, etc...

  • @philkmills  Jan 13

    Whenever this question gets asked, I think there should be an explicit add-on clause of "for songs in a context where most of the listeners *care* about lyrics".

    I was listening to an old rock song recently and thinking how good it was, then realized that the lyrics were simple, meaningless, and repetitive once I focussed on them. But, they fit the music so well and matched the song's rhythm so well that they functioned almost as vocal percussion.

    So, I guess I have to ask, "Good for what purpose?"

  • @declan  Jan 14

    I agree @philkmills apart from restricting the question to "for songs in a context where most of the listeners *care* about lyrics".

    We're talking about lyrics not poems. They function alongside the music. "I Wanna be Your Dog" or your old rock song have great lyrics, not deep but primal and emotional.

  • @philkmills  Jan 14

    Well, for cases where listeners *don't* care about lyrics, there's not much point in the discussion. It becomes a tree falling in a forest where nobody hears situation.

  • @standup  Jan 14

    One of my favorite bands writes great songs that are memorable and have been around for ages. But when you read the lyrics critically, some of them are kinda awful. But still great songs. To me there’s a continuum of what makes a great song, and it’s a different continuum from the one of what makes a great lyric.

    Sometimes you get both. Not all the time.

  • @ustaknow Jan 14

    I think two really great points of "greatness" are made in this wonderful thread: -- "how your lyrics resonate with the listener. And we are not in control of that", and 'good for what purpose'?

    So, what I think is:
    Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, and as he gives it to her she begins to sing, life goes on, bra. And, besides, there is no dark side of the moon, as a matter of fact, it's all dark. Uno? 😉

    So, if that one bottle should happen to fall, what a waste of alcohol!, 99 bottles of beer on the wall.

    -- Music is a binding mystery that excludes and includes within the same space, and if not for silence, ironic, would not exist 😀 (Like weeding a garden, but only some do well with many flowers, -- why?)

    Good stuff here!

  • @ayehahmur  Jan 15

    I love lyrics which dovetail rhythmically with the music, marrying the natural rhythm of the words with that of the music.
    I love lyrics that love words and play with them.
    I love lyrics that tell me something I don't already know, or stretch for a metaphor I've never seen.

    Having said that... I'm always surprised by how effective I find songs that do none of these things. That break awkwardly across the beat or are crammed into too small a space. That sound tin and leaden (sometimes that suits the purpose of the song). Or proclaim the same old declaration of love that we've heard a million times using exactly the same words that we've seen a zillion times, but works because it's heartfelt.

  • @declan  Jan 15

    @philkmills A listener who doesn't care about lyrics still hears them. They still make a noise and they contribute to the feel and emotion of the song. And the singer is certainly aware of them and tailors his or her delivery to match.

  • @andygetch  Jan 15

    For me a good start on a lyric is when the words stand on their own when read or in a rough demo with a sparse musical arrangement. Of course a solid rhythm, motif hooks, and a melody that conveys the feeling always helps.

  • @pipewrench67  Jan 15

    A good medicine writing service will aid in the invocation of proper verbiage when conjuring resonant lyrics in a rhythmic structure.

  • @declan  Jan 15

    @pipewrench67 we should have turned that into an Easy Shed moment.

  • @eberts0604 Jan 18

    Too many words. That is all.

  • @jamkar  Jan 18

    Some vagueness helps me fill in the blanks. A good hook pushes an average song into the great category. If I can hear an interesting story, that’s added bonus points.

  • @paulhenry  Jan 19

    Pretty much anything goes. As always, it depends on intent and context. I hate laziness, e.g. don’t ever again rhyme “love” with “above.” Don’t be so anal that you dilute your impact with a perfect but bad rhyme. But if the music rhymes, your lyric should too, unless you’re after a specific effect. During FAWM, all bets are off ‘cause you gotta get that skirmish done, so yeah, rhyme “love” with “above.” So sue me.

  • @aflinner  Jan 19

    Music is organized sound. All sound can be organized, ergo any sound can be used to craft music. Also, all sounds share the same DNA: the overtone series.

    Consider what is actually transcribed in musical notation: rhythm, pitch, timber, dynamics, articulation, tempo...these are all things we naturally do in the course of talking all the time. So, you can notate speech.

    I could go way further down this rabbit hole, but suffice to say for now that all speech is by its very nature musical. I myself usually start with either a bit of lyric or melody (whatever strikes first, sometimes together), and just scat around it. I’ll see what word for ants feel right for the emotion behind what is there, feeling the rhythmic and poetic structure as it emerges. When I uncover something I like, I right it down, just fragments of different sections, a line here and there.

    Then I step back and see what is trying to emerge, what is behind it. Once I can see that, I can start shaping it into what I w

  • @aflinner  Jan 19

    ...Then I step back and see what is trying to emerge, what is behind it. Once I can see that, I can start shaping it into what I want it to say. First I mine the clay, then I shape the art. To that end, lyrics are “good” when they are effective. Do they accomplish what you want them to? Do they have impact? Do they, along with the rest of the music, drive home the point and say what you want them to say?

    There is a time for cliche, I’m sure. But the reason to get through those and on to something fresh and different isn’t just to keep the listener interested. It’s because no one is you, so you by default have the potential to offer something fresh, even if you paint in shades of what inspires you.

    So if you want to write music, write. Write a lot, find your voice.

    And please, share it with all us FAWMers. 😀

  • @lvgd09  Jan 19

    @ampersandman Can't play the YouTube videos here in Nevada, USA. That's ok and your comments were great.

  • @lvgd09  Jan 19

    What is it...let's see. I don't like cussing in songs. I like sweet nothing. I don't like murder ballads anymore. I don't like long stories. I think the catchy "hook" is what makes the lyrics good. Yeah, that's what it is for me....the catchy hook (includes potential instrumental hooks). However, somebody is guaranteed to hate everything I like...lol

  • @tjfafterdark Jan 19

    Lyrics are important. What tends to draw me in as how the lyrics are arranged with the music. They need not make sense necessarily. I mean, when I listen to some of the lyrics by Ghostface Killah, clearly the logic is not linear or readily understood. It's still has impact nonetheless.

  • @aflinner  Jan 19

    @tootoobee To what you said above: “Lyrics sound better when the sentences can be sung the same way they are spoken, no stresses on syllables or words that are not stressed in spoken language, no long vowels when in spoken language it is only a short vowel.
    Ever since I was made aware of this, it totally annoys me if I hear it...”

    In general, this is how I write as well, shaping the melody and rhythm to what’s most natural for the words...but not always. I also like how Ages and Ages sometimes breaks up a line unnaturally to fit the music. You can break the ‘rules’ if you do it effectively, because it’s interesting. Also, I have zero problem with long vowels. That can be used to great effect...if you’re too strict with the rhythm, you’ll limit your creative options. Not saying that’s bad to define a sandbox, that’s a very inspiring place. Just saying there’s other places to play on the beach. 🙂

  • @ustaknow Jan 19

    @aflinner @tootoobee - I only skimmed the above in brief, but read the last by aflinner, -- yes, I find that very interesting too.

    For me, I find it very interesting how, with some "hit" songs I hear/see them not sustaining on any words, esp end of line/phrase, but on others they do and in some songs it's great and others, not so much.

    I've had "folks" who think, for e.g., "I don't sing" 😀 since, like "them", I am not singing from the Chest and sustaining on every word, it seems when I hear them turning every lyric into an "Opera" caricature, -- so to speak.

    It's still like, as said above, one can't control how it's heard, by you, me, us them 😀 However, it is really really great to be aware of when "wondering" about ones own work, or have questions for others to respond to about your work (here, even).

    Great to read this observation.

    I think I've heard feedback, both ways when I asked "why liked/good" and folks willing to say, or consider it and say so! (Me, always want to know, hear it.)

  • @aesthetic72  Jan 19

    I pretty much live my life with my opacity set at 60% and a Gaussian blur applied to a wide border. My lyrics are even fuzzier, with some exceptions.

  • @barbara  Jan 20

    Love that description! Totally relate, too.

  • @standup  Jan 20

    @aesthetic72 As a graphic designer who spends a major part of each day in Photoshop... I know exactly what you mean.

    Gaussian Blur might be a good topic or title. Not to mention opacity.

    There might be some mileage in opacity.

  • @aesthetic72  Jan 20

    @barbara I think that is also connected to how my eyesight is starting to fail me - is there such a thing as quadruplefocals? I spose they're called progressives, aren't they?

    @standup I spend sometime in Photoshop and Illustrator for my job as well. Re: song tops . -- I agree! Have to think on that a bit!

  • @bradbrubaker  Jan 21

    I find specificity makes for universal lyrics so much better than cliches and idioms. I also find platitudes to be tiresome. Also, rhyming "self" with "up on the shelf" makes my skin crawl.

  • @lowhum Jan 23

    I guess it comes with the experience of writing and putting them to some music - once it's done - then come the labels 😀)

  • @phoenixash Jan 23

    For me good lyrics are made when you are writing your truth, it doesn't matter what it is about as long as it is how you really feel and what you really think about given subject. Of course experience, culture, reading can help you craft metaphors, allegory and all, but if it's not your truth it will not work, people will not connect with it, you will not connect with it and it's all wasted

  • @izaakalexander  Jan 24

    Great thread!

    I think the music has the power to make the lyrics good or bad. If they stand alone without music (like many of the lyrics-only postings here at FAWM) and are still good, then they're like a form of poetry. But with music you can set a trite pack of hard rhyming cliché to the right style and right melody and somehow it becomes a brilliant song. Or you can take a great set of words and wreck them by welding them to music without regard for the underlying prosody and meaning. It feels like a huge responsibility to take on a lyric, but it is inspiring and rewarding when it comes together well. Thanks to all you lyricists who are willing to let us make attempts at putting your words to music.

  • @sheamiejay  Jan 24

    I think vocal delivery and melody play a strong role in making the lyrics meaningful. I also agree the effectiveness of conversational style. I like when words have many meanings. Specificity of place and time and words that evoke images are huge.

  • @coolparadiso  Jan 24

    there are some smart dudes here! Great thread. I agree its hard to find a magic theory, or we would all be counting our piles of money. Fit for purpose is important as well. My personal observation - notwithstanding much mentioned already - all my really good songs (measured by feedback) have at least one really really good key line!

  • @klaus  Jan 24

    I agree with what @ustaknow said about Ob-la-di Ob-la-da.

    I think that title is great, chorus is uplifting and catchy. The lyrics tell a simple story that celebrates life and it's core values: work, family, children and optimistic carpe diem attitude.

    Lyrics fit the music and melody perfectly. That's important.

    It's just a fun song and many people might hate it but I'd say that the lyrics are Good. They fill their purpose. 😀

  • @jorh  Jan 24

    Agree that it’s hard to pinpoint what makes a good lyric. For me it’s anything that makes me ‘feel’ - i.e brings out an emotion, builds visuals in my mind, starts a chain of thoughts. I often write in first person but tell other peoples stories - I don’t feel it is any less authentic though and some of these end up being my best lyrics. You might not have lived that situation but you can relate to that feeling or emotion, have empathy, and link it to something that’s happened in your life. So I’d say that’s what makes a great lyric - whether it’s specific or whether it’s general, does it make you feel something that you then apply to your own experiences?
    ...And then there’s some lyrics that are nonsense and just make me wanna dance so ignore everything I’ve just said 😂

  • @elainedimasi  Feb 1

    A good lyric has focus. A great lyric has focus and more!

    Plain or fancy, if you try to capture too big of a moment, things will go out of focus unless you can really tie the thoughts and scenes back together, condensed down, to a fine and glowing point.

    Even those lyrics that look dumb on a page - you think you've lost your love, you know that can't be right, it's you she's thinking of, every day and night, because she loves you! and you know that can't be bad... - can all kinds of redeem themselves musically, but look to that ones that succeed, and you'll find that also they are focused, they do not spread into unrelated scenes and imagery.

  • @elainedimasi  Feb 1

    A great lyric can build energy by moving from tell to show to make-me-feel-it.

    You know Brandy, laying drinks down in a harbor town, and is in love with a sailor? The verses tell it, and the chorus shows you:

    "Brandy, you're a fine girl, and a good wife you would be, but my life, my love, and my Lady is the sea."

    In the bridge though, they make me FEEL it!

    "Brandy used to watch his eyes as he'd tell his sailor's story
    She could feel the ocean come alive, she could hear its raging glory"

  • @lvgd09  Feb 1

    But he had always told the truth Marty was an honest man.

  • @nateger  Feb 1

    I would like to be more comfortable writing lyrics that don't seem to make sense or have a narrative upon first listen. What comes to mind are many Beck or Red Hot Chili Peppers songs where the emphasis is on the rhythm and sounds of words. Sometimes I get so caught up in the narrative that I feel like my songs are too straight forward

  • @tomslatter Feb 1

    Hard to make general comments.

    I think the best lyrics are the ones where the songwriter has not focused on them at the expense of melody, harmony, arrangement, performance, recording. Seeing them on the page isn't much of a guide to whether they're any good I think. What do they sound like?

  • @hammersmith Feb 10

    Write vividly to a great hook. Show don't tell. Simple to describe, not so simple to execute.

  • @glasscrow Feb 11

    To me, great lyrics are poetic and flow with the rhythm of the music. It doesn't matter if they don't make sense when you actually sit down to read them. I dislike songs that are too literal (I agree with @hammersmith, show don't tell) and I'm not really into story songs, unless they're meant to be comedic.

    Two songs that I always think back to when it comes to lyrics I want to emulate are Madonna's "Candy Perfume Girl" and Placebo's "Pure Morning." The first stanzas are, respectively...

    Young velvet porcelain boy / Devour me when you're with me / Blue wish window seas / Speak delicious fires (It's nonsensical if taken literally, but sounds wonderful in the song itself.)

    A friend in need's a friend indeed / A friend with weed is better / Our thoughts compressed which makes us blessed / And makes for stormy weather (Brilliant rhyme and meter)

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