Writing Song Lyrics Vs. Poems

writing song lyrics-songtown

One of the frequent questions we get in SongTown is “How do I write song lyrics?” Many people confuse song lyrics with poetry, but there are some subtle yet important differences.

So, how are lyrics to a song different from poems?

Poems are typically visual pieces and song lyrics are auditory works. Someone reading poetry can SEE transitions from line to line and thought to thought. The reader is controlling how fast they process the poem and can even back up if they get confused. An exception to this would be poetry that is intended to be performed aloud.  Those poems tend to be more similar to lyrics because the writer knows they have to hold up when heard and not read.  Therefore, when writing song lyrics you must keep the listener’s attention and make sense on the fly in real-time. The singer is controlling the pace and a line that might work beautifully in a poem may cause too much confusion in a song lyric.

Another big difference in poetry and song lyrics is that rhyme is a key anchor point in song lyrics when it may or may not even be present in poetry. Rhyme in a song lyric helps the listener know where they are in the song and it helps them sing along with the singer. Most poems are not written to be chanted simultaneously by large crowds. For that to happen, the audience would have to memorize the poem. Rhyme helps the listener sing along more quickly because rhymes are memory hooks that help the listener remember what’s coming next.  When Paul McCartney sings “Yesterday, all my troubles seem_____________”, we easily remember the line because it rhymes.

Where do I start when writing song lyrics?

I suggest starting with a title. For instance, if your boyfriend just dumped you for someone else, you now have a universal idea. Lots of us have experienced that. But, what you need to start writing a song lyric is a title that expresses your feelings about that in a powerful way. So, you might sit down and brainstorm what you would like to say to that jerk if you had him sitting right in front of you. Write down some of those things you’d like to say to him.

You might come up with things like:

Why her?

Was I not good enough?

I hope she dumps you!

Next, take those statements and brainstorm song TITLES that could sum up what you are going to say in your song lyric. I like to think of lots of different angles for each thought I want to express. So, for the first one, “Why her?”. I might come up with titles like:

Why Not Me?

What Do You See In Her?

She Don’t Deserve (A Jerk Like You)

Now that I have a title, what comes next?

Let’s choose the title “What do you see in her?” And, we’ll begin formulating HOW we are going to write our song lyric before we start.

I’m a huge fan of blueprinting my song before I write it. I’ve used it throughout my pro career and I’m such a fan that I wrote a whole book about it called “Song Building: Mastering Lyric Writing”. When I blueprint my song, I come up with a one-sentence description for each verse and the chorus.

My blueprint for “What do you see in her?” might look something like this:

Verse 1 – Why did you break my heart?

Chorus – What do you see in her that you didn’t see in me?

Verse 2 – I hope you find what you’re looking for

Now that I have my blueprint, I can start writing.

The fun part of song lyric writing begins!

Once you have your blueprint, you can start writing and be confident that you have everything you need to complete the song lyrics. You’ve got the whole thing planned out, you know what you’re going to say in each section, and all you have to do is fill in the blanks.

One technique that I use often is to literally start each section with some variation of my blueprint statement. In this case, I might use this for an opening line:

“You didn’t have to break my heart, you know”

That line instantly gives the listener my important message for that section.  Then, I can spend the rest of that verse fleshing out what I mean by that statement.  So, I might continue with the lyric:

“You didn’t have to break my heart.  We could have talked this over. You tore my world apart.  And I still don’t have closure.”

Do you see how I just said my important idea from the blueprint (in a little more interesting way) and then I expanded on it or fleshed it out as the lyrics developed.

Follow your blueprint to the finish line!

If you do the same thing with each section, you’ll soon have a completed lyric! Learning how to write song lyrics is as easy as figuring out what you want to say and learning to organize your thoughts. Once you master those two skills, you’ll be well on your way to writing interesting and engaging song lyrics.

All the best!  ~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

20 thoughts on “Writing Song Lyrics Vs. Poems

  1. Like the insight and recommendation.
    Starting with a title is natural for me.
    Very helpful for the song chorus.
    With other song structure the title will be repeated in each verse.

    ATorro Songs

  2. Thanks for the blueprint idea Marty. I have been getting some great ideas/titles and coming up with some creative lines, but it’s the story and developing that that’s got me kind of stalled. It’s the design by blueprint that will be my next approach.

  3. Not sure I agree with either point. Spoken word poetry and slam poetry are definitely meant to be heard aloud, and poems like Edgar Allen Poe’s The Bells have an auditory quality to them even if it’s not “spoken word.”

    Also, not every song rhymes! Chasing Cars by Snow Patrol is a good example.

    I would say the biggest difference between a poem and lyrics is this: is it meant to be experienced with a backdrop of silence? Is that the fullest expression of the piece, or does there need to be more?

    With that, I’ll also say that Tupac saw zero difference between his poems and his raps. The only reason he put a beat to them was so they’d sell. So there’s that…

    1. You make a good point and I amended my article a bit. Poems that are written to be performed aloud are much more similar to song lyrics and would often work as lyrics. Most writers I encounter who want to turn their poems into lyrics perceive them to be the same thing – essentially that someone should be able to put music to their poem and it becomes a lyric. That does not usually work well in my experience. That’s what I was addressing. But, there are exceptions to every rule. Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

    2. Hey Suzanne, there are rhymes in Chasing Cars by Snow Patrol. I love that song and it definitely has some rhyme. Not every line rhymes but there are enough sprinkled throughout, with some nice internal rhymes, to hold the listener’s attention. 🙂

  4. Thanks for a very helpful article.

    I have “Song Building: How to Write Better Songs Faster”.

    Is “Song Building: Mastering Lyric Writing” basically the same book with another title? How much of the content is the same? The covers seem identical, except for the title.

    Thanks again!

  5. Well said Marty! I love that you mentioned being mindful of the target computer’s processing speed. I’m rebooting my own computer now. -Lol! Thanks for the added memory nuggets!

  6. Hi Marty – it strikes me that perhaps another, more important difference between a song and a poem might that, in a poem, the words don’t have to compete against the music for the listener’s attention. I’m not sure I agree that poem are necessarily visual – there’s plenty of poetry out there that is designed to be spoken aloud. Cheers – David

  7. Thanks Marty–Enjoyed the article. Blueprinting simplifies the whole process…going to work on that with every verse and chorus now. Cheers, Sue and Pete

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