2♥ Two of Hearts in The Rock Songwriter’s Deck: 52 Ways to Write a Song
Someone gives you music, and your job is to write the lyrics. The reverse scenario — being supplied lyrics and writing music for them — might feel more familiar and natural to most of us. Trying to fit lyrics into a completed piece of music seems unnecessarily difficult, even perverse.
But what's a band to do if inspiration hands them a beautiful and powerful piece of music? Someone has to write the lyrics, or the song will remain an instrumental.
So how do you come up with lyrics? First off, you might as well try playing the music and see if perfectly formed words spontaneous fly into your head and emerge from your mouth. No luck? To be honest, it never works for me either, but if it did, wow.
Unfortunately, many lyricists get stuck trying this same process over and over, just wishing for a miracle of inspiration. There's no need to stay stuck! There are two systematic methods — diametrically opposed from each other — for coming up with lyrics. One of these methods is sure to work with you.
The first method requires you to be fairly uninhibited. Sing the melody, starting with "la, la, la" but working your way up to babbling nonsense words and syllables. After several rounds of this, you might find a key phrase of lyrics that feels right, even though it might be complete nonsense. That's your first draft. Write it down (or record it), and then keep working with it, nudging the words here and there until you settle into something that uses real words and makes at least a little bit of sense. (When I do this, I'm always impressed with how little has to be changed to turn complete nonsense into a deeply meaningful song lyric.)
The second method is almost the exact opposite of the first. You start with something sensible, and reshape it as much as necessary until it fits the music. This is a good time to pull out your lyrics notebook (you do have a lyrics notebook, don't you?) and look for any half-written song that even approximately fits the mood of the music. You might have to rewrite every line to make it fit the scansion of your new music, but that's often not as hard as it sounds. If you have a solid idea, it can be re-expressed in any shape and rhythm.
What if the lyrics notebook doesn't pan out? Here's the backup plan: you trance out to the music, and let it suggest something to you, even if it's just a single image, a mood, or a theme that you can start with. Once you get that initial idea, start jotting words, phrases, and images on paper, and build a collection of lyrical fragments that fit the rhythm of the song. If you keep at it, the lyrics will start to coalesce and take shape.
Any way you do it, it's painstaking work to fit lyrics to music. But if the music is good enough to justify the extra effort, you can work systematically and come up with the right lyrics.
To complete the Two of Hearts' assignment, you'll need a collaborator to provide you with some music. Or, if no collaborator is at hand, you can write some music yourself; just be sure to finish the music before you give any thought to the lyrics.