Why You Should Be Writing More Conversational Lyrics

writing conversational lyrics

One of the questions I get most often when I mentor songwriters is “Why does everyone tell me I need to write more conversational lyrics?” While there is no “one size fits all” answer to how your lyrics “should” be written, there is a reason that people give you that advice.

When I’m having that discussion with people, they invariably start throwing out examples of poetic or clever lyrics that support their position. They will say “I want to write poetic lyrics like Don McLean in “Vincent”. If you don’t know that song, it begins this way:

“Starry, starry night
Paint your palette blue and grey
Look out on a summer’s day
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul”

What they fail to remember is that Don actually blended poetry and conversational lyric beautifully in this song. The chorus goes like this:

Now I understand
What you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free
They would not listen, they did not know how
Perhaps they’ll listen now

That piece has SUPER conversational lyrics. No poetry at all. It sticks out because of the stark contrast between the verse and chorus.

After that chorus, he digs right back into the poetry. Why did he switch from poetry to conversation that way? If you look at the entire lyric of the song, you’ll see that he is painting pictures in the verses, giving the listener visuals that remind them of the amazing paintings of van Gogh.

In the chorus, he does something different. He begins speaking directly TO Vincent van Gogh. And, he is saying something very intimate. For that section to be believable, it had to sound REAL. We don’t speak to people in poetry when we are baring our hearts to them.

Another example people bring up often is the clever lyric writing of Roger Miller. With titles like “You Can’t Roller Skate In A Buffalo Herd”, Roger was the king of clever (and of the road – see what I did there?).

Here is a verse from his song “Dang Me”:

Just sittin’ around drinkin’ with the rest of the guys
Six rounds bought, and I bought five
And I spent the groceries and half the rent
Like fourteen dollars and twenty-seven cents

Very clever and smart lyrics. But you wouldn’t deliver a heartfelt message with these kinds of lyrics. This works because it’s meant to be funny.

The Beatles are also known for their clever and sometimes poetic lyrics. That worked very well for them in their day. They could talk about yellow submarines and write about faces kept in jars like this:

Eleanor Rigby
Picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window
Wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for?

Which brings us to the main point of this article – why write conversational lyrics?

Invariably, the examples people give me to “prove” that you don’t have to write conversational lyrics are songs that were released 30, 40 or even 50 years ago.

The question they are really asking is “Why can’t I write songs like those and get them cut today?”

I’ll give you several reasons. The first reason is that most of the songs on the radio today are songs written from one person (the singer) TO another person. They are communicating how much the singer loves the object of desire, how much they miss them, or how badly they want them back. Those kinds of messages require a conversational lyric to be believable.

Another reason is that those kinds of lyrics from the past are just not in style these days. People have gotten used to and seem to prefer more conversational songs for the most part. That doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t write clever or poetic lyrics. It’s just the current trend in music. If you want to get songs recorded today, then it’s worth noting.

An important point to make is that conversational lyrics is not the opposite of creative.

You can still be creative while being conversational. In my song “Must Be Doin’ Somethin’ Right”, we are very conversational with the exception of one line. When we say “deep blue, need you eyes”, we are being a little bit poetic. Those 5 words are the only non-conversational words in the whole song and it made it sound fresh.

So, here is what I suggest. I think of “clever”, “poetic” and “conversational” as three different sets of paint. When I choose a song idea to write, I decide which paint kit serves that idea best. If the title is one that lends itself to poetry, I paint that way. When it’s a funny or clever idea, I paint with that set of paints. If it’s heartfelt, then I use my “conversational” set. You can learn more about this approach to writing in Song Building.

I always keep in mind that what is working BEST right now in most genres of popular music is the conversational approach. If I’m thinking that my song idea might be a commercial hit type of idea, I almost always default to making it conversational and real sounding.

I hope that helps!

Write on! MD

Marty Dodson - pro songwriter/instructor - SongTown

Marty Dodson is a multi-hit songwriter, co-founder of SongTown, and co-author of  The Songwriter’s Guide To Mastering Cowriting and Song Building: Mastering Lyric Writing

16 thoughts on “Why You Should Be Writing More Conversational Lyrics

  1. Great post, Marty. I absolutely love your analysis of “Vincent”. Spot on – the contrast between verse and chorus, poetic and conversational. I never noticed that, but now that you point it out, I see how effective it is.

    The other point you didn’t mention (although I sure you could have!) is that Don McLean wrote that song for himself as an artist. And when you’re the artist, you have more “artistic license” to get poetic. I think there are many current examples of great, commercially successful songs that have quite poetic lyrics – but the ones I can think of are all from artists who write their own songs. U2, is one great, incredibly successful, example.

    But even then, I think the poetry is more in the ideas and metaphors and those ideas get expressed in very much everyday language. For example, this chorus from “24 Frames” by Jason Isbell, which won a Grammy for best American Roots song:

    “You thought God was an architect, now you know
    He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow
    And everything you built that’s all for show goes up in flames
    In twenty- four frames”

  2. Hello.
    I am not a musician/ composer but I would like to know more about writing lyrics for songs. Will the songwriting class help me or is it more appropriate for someone who is both a musician and lyricist?

    1. Avvy, we have courses included in membership just for lyricist when you join SongTown. Plenty of big writers only write lyrics and co-write with music people.

      CM

  3. Hi Marty so true what you are saying we much keep conversation going in songs I did write a few last yrs with covid 19. open up that conversation line wonderful idea Marty for a time such as the. God bless

  4. Hi Marty, Clay I’m trying to learn to write better lyrics. Most of my lyrics is based on my life experience. I’ve written things most of them years ago. Now listening to video and reading others responders . I’ve learned that there so much more to learn, Before I joined back up with song town. I had sent serval lyrics off for evaluation that rejected most, but one they has high hope on . It’s in my Forum (Rollercoaster Love Ride) They are very interested in making the fist step having the song professionally recorded or demoed. They think the lyrics could become a great song. (For a small fee) of cause, I’m shocked and impressed. Because of the other’s rejections. This is what they said about the lyrics. The title is strong it makes one want to hear the lyrics there is excellent rhyme which creates great rhythm which makes the song flow well. The imagery is strong as it paints the scene and brings the song to life. You can feel the love, loss,pain, longing, regret. This is important as emotion is how people connect with music. The lyrics captures love well using the Rollercoaster as analogy. The storyline is solid and presented well. We are very interested in these lyrics. That’s what they told me. Now after listening to you friend the Attorney video the other day. I don’t know. I’m to new at this to know. The company name is Nashville Song Service’s. Are they a good company. I have not signed their contract. You always said we can ask any questions, so my question is, Before I make a big mistake. Could one of you look at the lyrics. Can you do this, I know if everyone ask you this you can’t do it for everyone.I know you guys are very busy, I don’t know what to do.My life has been a Rollercoaster ride

  5. Poetry is often contemplated because it can have several meanings and sometimes calls on the reader to dig deeper. Songs on the other hand are heard (not read) in real time meaning as the song goes by you understand what the singer is saying. You don’t stop the music in order to contemplate what the singer means but that is exactly what happens when you write a lyric that the listener doesn’t understand they stop listening and move on. You missed your chance to get and keep their attention. Just my opinion.

  6. Hi Marty, great article as always!! One minor correction, the actual line in “Dang Me” is “Like fourteen dollars having twenty-seven cents..” which is an incredibly clever way of saying he’s $13.73 in debt!! I’m a huge Roger Miller fan and try to emulate his writing as best as I can, but his lyrics are so clever and unusual… Great example is the song title “The Last Word in Lonesome is Me” I listened to that song for about 20 years before I got the joke…. Lonesome ends in… me….!! 🙂 All kinds of stuff like that in Roger’s lyrics!! He was a brilliant man.

    1. . I don’t mean to be disrespectful I just wanted to further clarify this brilliant line. but he said …Lack 14 dollars of having 27 cents
      Keep Writing!!

  7. Great points Marty. I wish people would write more conversational lyrics. I was once told by one of my mentors, “If your song needs a decoder ring to figure it out, you haven’t written it well enough. Listeners today have very short attention span and it’s very hard for them to discern the inner meanings of poetic lyrics, that often are more the result of “Songwriter Tunnel vision” (where the writer knows exactly what the meaning is, but no one else can figure it out.

    Great observations as usual. Thanks.

    1. ya, the ‘decoder ring’… lol!
      I have hosted a number of songcircle/critique things and now an online song circle (like the sky circles) and I have asked writers to consider NOT sharing anything about the premise, inspiration or any of the ‘nuts & bolts’ of the song priornto singing it
      Telegraphing the content makes it harder to know when something in the lyric has missed the mark.

      great post Marty 🙂

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