The essence of lyric writing is that songwriters string words together that they hope will resonate with listeners. Of course, the prime objective when creating the song is to create something that sounds good. There’s nothing wrong with songs that prompt us to tap our feet or dance but which don’t contain sensational lyrics. However, it’s definitely a real bonus when we find a song that has beautiful distinctive music allied with memorable lyrics. And one way of defining ‘memorable lyrics’ is lyrics that linger long in the mind after the music has stopped. You may find yourself singing them. Or thinking about them and the story they tell. Or both.
So, as lyric writers, I think we should certainly strive to create lyrics that linger, that are memorable. But how do we achieve that? I guess if it was easy, then every song would have memorable lyrics. They don’t. I’m not sure what percentage generate a deep emotional response but I suspect it’s small. That, though, also makes it particularly satisfying when we feel we’ve achieved that goal. Or, even better, get feedback from others saying that they had an emotional connection with a lyric or found themselves singing it incessantly.
In this post, I’m going to spend a bit of time talking about lyrics from established artists that I feel are particularly memorable and impressive. And I’ll also provide my thoughts on what lyric writers can do as they strive to create lyrics that linger. And about some of my experiences with lyrics that I have written.
Before all that though, I’m going to possible go off at a slight tangent. Bear with me though, it will be worth it, hopefully!
Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time
Rolling Stone did a feature entitled ‘100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time’. I won’t spoil the suspense of finding out which lyric writer was deemed THE greatest of all time. Check the article out for yourself if you’re interested! However, the names of some of the people included on the list are probably no surprise. There’s David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Paul McCartney, Bob Marley, Chrissie Hynde, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, etc. All the guys and girls on the list are or were great talents and have earned their place in songwriting immortality.
As an aside, one thing that was quite striking was the gender composition of the top 100. Men dominated the list with 84 entries. There were 10 women. And then the remaining 6 were male/female partnerships. Whether that gender imbalance reflects a bias in the selection criteria or is indicative of men somehow being more ‘into’ songwriting is something that’s worth pondering. However, maybe a topic for another day!
There were also quite a large number of songwriting partnerships included in the list. So, if you can find someone who you work well with, that can be a great way to create good quality lyrics. You’ll have someone to bounce ideas off. Someone who can provide a second opinion and bring in some quality control. And maybe one of you will be the lead lyric writer, with the other bring the principal musician. Again, I don’t intend to delve further into songwriting partnerships but it was interesting to see so many within the top 100. For the nerds out there, 24 of the top 100 were either partnerships or more than two people, so nearly a quarter!
Okay, that completes my tangent from this article’s main topic. But I think it can act as a sort of prelude to the next section as it’s probably fair to say that those 100 greatest songwriters were all great at creating lyrics that linger long in the listener’s mind!
Some lyrics that linger from established bands and artists
Tastes in music are so varied that picking out a handful of lyrics to showcase will always be contentious. What one person may deem to be genius will be considered by others to be trite or boring or whatever. However, I thought I’d have a go at highlighting a few lyrics that I think do linger in the mind, at least for me.
The River, by Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen doesn’t have the nickname ‘The Boss’ for nothing. He is an incredibly talented songwriter who has stood the test of time. Many of his recent songs could easily be picked out as masterpieces to study but The River is probably my favourite.
Here’s a snippet of the lyrics:
‘I come from down in the valley
where mister when you’re young
They bring you up to do like your daddy done
Me and Mary we met in high school
when she was just seventeen
We’d ride out of this valley down to where the fields were green
We’d go down to the river
And into the river we’d dive
Oh down to the river we’d ride’
(Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, 1979)
Springsteen is noted for his ability to tell compelling stories. And for those stories to be about the lives and challenges faced by ordinary people. The melody is beautiful and that first verse immediately captures my attention. The two characters are introduced and we get a sense of the background that they are growing up in.
As the lyrics progress we hear how the story of this young couple played out. As is so often the case, it’s the fact that there is heartbreak in there that creates extra poignancy. It’s also interesting that he doesn’t over tell the story. If you read the lyrics right through to the end it doesn’t actually tell you whether the singer and Mary are still together or long separated. Or what happened to their baby. It’s left for the listeners to think about after the final note ends.
Linger, by The Cranberries
Dolores O’Riordan had a hauntingly beautiful voice and her all too early death was incredibly sad. Knowing the background of her underlying sadness probably adds something to the empathy that we feel when we now listen to the legacy of songs that she left the world. But a song like Linger (aptly given its name) would have lingered long in the mind even if she had lived a long happy life.
Again, here’s a snippet of the lyrics
‘Oh, I thought the world of you.
I thought nothing could go wrong,
But I was wrong. I was wrong.
If you, if you could get by, trying not to lie,
Things wouldn’t be so confused and I wouldn’t feel so used,
But you always really knew, I just wanna be with you.’
(The Cranberries, 1993)
Whereas Springsteen’s The River impresses itself on our mind by virtue of his amazing storytelling, I feel that Linger relies more on O’Riordan’s vocals. It feels genuine. You can imagine that she has suffered heartbreak and then committed it to lyrics. And anyone who has loved and lost, or loved and not got far enough to have lost, will be able to relate to the song. And may be left not just thinking about the song from the singer’s perspective but by putting themselves into the role of that heartbroken lead protagonist.
Hurt, by Trent Reznor
The mesmerizing lyrics from this song were written by Trent Reznor from the band Nine Inch Nails and were released as a single in 1995 by that industrial rock band. Then, in 2002 an aging (and ailing) Johnny Cash did an incredible raw emotional cover version on his ‘American IV: The man comes around’ album.
Probably most people have heard the song from Cash’s version. That’s fine because it’s probably one of the most wonderful, if unexpected, covers songs of all time. I’d also recommend checking out Nine Inch Nail’s version as well.
I just love the lyrics in this song. It’s one of those songs where I remember the first time I heard it and REALLY wishing that I had written it. And not just for the royalties!
Here’s some of the lyrics:
‘I hurt myself today
To see if I still feel
I focus on the pain
The only thing that’s real
The needle tears a hole
The old familiar sting
Try to kill it all away
But I remember everything
What have I become
My sweetest friend
Everyone I know goes away
In the end
And you could have it all
My empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt’
(Nine Inch Nails, 1994)
It’s a song about addiction and about how addiction causes its victims to hurt those they love. It is an incredibly powerful and personal lyric and to me it feels like every word is there because they are essential. Good writing often involves cutting out everything that is superfluous. It doesn’t matter if some parts of your lyric sound nicely poetic; if they are not vital to the story you are telling or emotion you are conveying then they should be cut.
What lyric writers can do to create lyrics that linger
As a writer you want to produce words that create an emotional connection with your audience. However, it’s not an easy task to create a lyric that is going to stick in the minds of lots of listeners. Sometimes we hear songs that have beautiful music, lovely vocals, and great lyrics but, whilst we like them, they don’t embed themselves in our mind. We don’t feel the necessity to listen to them on endless repeat. They don’t change our life.
That doesn’t mean though that we shouldn’t strive to produce lyrics and songs that do linger in the minds of at least some of our listeners. I don’t claim to have all the answers in how to achieve that. However, here are some tips that I think can point songwriters in the right direction:
- Write from the heart. A lyric or song that feels genuine has a much better chance of creating an emotional connection. This doesn’t mean all your lyrics need to be deeply personal, revealing your innermost workings. However, you can use emotions you’ve felt, and situations you’ve gone through, and work them into a fictional story that you are telling.
- Try to find a fresh take on a familiar theme. We’re moved by stories of loss and love but you can bet that pretty much any situation you are writing about has been covered before. The trick is to try to find a fresh way of conveying that theme.
- Use of light and dark and of story twists. How many times have you listened to a song that is hauntingly beautiful but at about the 3 minute mark you realise nothing new is going to be introduced. It’s going to remain resolutely uniform. I think that songs that genuinely linger with us often do so because the writer and musicians have understood the need to take the listeners on an emotional journey. Maybe you have a gentle ballad where the vocal suddenly becomes an agonised scream. Or you bring in an unexpected twist in the story that pulls at our heartstrings.
- Pick powerful topics to write about. I’m not sure what percentage of songs are about love and other lovely fluffy topics that make us smile and feel good. However, it feels like it’s quite a big number. That’s fine and there’s no doubt that upbeat positive songs do well in the charts. But if you want to create a song that people will dwell in people’s minds, then I think a good approach is to write about powerful emotive topics. That could be to do with bereavement, war, abuse, mental health issues. Basically, if there’s something you’ve experienced or something you’ve read or watched that has really moved you, then there’s a good chance that a song about it may also move others. Provided you’re able to approach it sensitively and are comfortable with tapping into your own emotional response.
My attempts at creating lyrics that linger
Okay, so I listed some songs by established acts that resonated with me. Now it’s time for me to put my money where my mouth is and talk about some of my lyrics. I must say though that it’s a bit daunting to have to try to follow ‘Hurt’. Maybe the lyrical equivalent of a band who have to go on stage after Hendrix, Nirvana, or The Beatles!
Always in my arms
This was one of my early experiences of writing lyrics where the music already existed. Nicola Offidani had created this beautiful piece of music and Christine Linge then hummed the melody that she ‘heard’ over the topic of the music.
When I create lyrics to existing music, the initial process that I go through is to listen to the music a lot of times. The first few times I just try to get a feel for what emotions it’s conjuring up. Is it a happy song, a sad song? Are there any words or thoughts that just jump out and grab me? Then, I go through a more painstaking process of trying to map out which parts are verses, chorus, bridge, etc.
For this song I got a sense of longing regret. Maybe it was someone mourning a relationship breakdown? That could have been a possibility but actually what came to me was that it was a song about the loss of a loved one.
Here’s a snippet of the lyrics:
Looking at old photographs
Like well-trod paths marked out on maps,
Remembering sweet moments shared
It’s hard to think they’re in the past.
I can see
You’re still there,
Always in my memory.
I can feel
You right here,
won’t let go of this reverie.
But I don’t believe you’ve
Gone so soon,
Too good for this world.
How can I go on now
When you’re not here?
Hold you close
Always in my arms
Never let you go.
The lyrics emerged from putting myself in the shoes on someone who has lost a loved one. As a father I could imagine how awful it must be to lose a child so I focused on that, although I think the song could also apply to the loss of a spouse or a parent, etc. And the presence of the music determined the shape of the lyrics. There’s certainly a discipline involved in that process but it’s very rewarding when you end up with a lyric that fits well with the prosody of the song and sounds great.
I remember when I posted this song, someone commented that it had touched them quite deeply because it reminded them of a loss of someone they had loved dearly. As a songwriter, it’s very gratifying to get such feedback.
Listen to the song: http://www.soundblend.com/store/release/747492
Read the lyrics: https://www.kompoz.com/music/collaboration/715092/file/715093
Simon Wright: Lyrics
Christine Linge: Vocals
Nicola Offidani: All music and Production
Bring your body close to me
I’ve written plenty of lyrics about conflict. Many of them are about war, particularly from the perspective of the soldiers who are the principal protagonists. However, with this song I focused instead on the innocents who suffer from the fallout of war.
The spark for this song was an image that, in some ways, I’d like to expunge from my memory’s library of stored images. It was a picture of a little boy lying facedown in the shallow water of a sandy beach. The boy’s name was Alan Kurdi. He was three years old and died (along with his five year old brother) when they and many other refugees were trying to escape the absolute horrors being inflicted on ordinary civilians in war-torn Syria. I wrote more about the context to this in a previous post, called ‘How to generate inspiration for song lyrics – part 2’
How people react to news stories that are this sad differs greatly. For me, I needed to get some thoughts and emotions out on paper, so the lyric to this song emerged.
Here are some of the lyrics:
Somewhere in the world
Someone’s holding peace talks,
Laying down their guns.
And somewhere in the world
Someone’s dropping warheads,
Raining down their bombs.
Yet another conflict
I’ve got battle fatigue,
Sandbags round my sofa
For the latest blitzkrieg.
There are wars we can fight
And wars we can’t win
So choose your battles carefully.
There are terrors in the night
That go when we turn on the light
Baby, bring your body close to me.
I guess the lyric is about feeling helpless and overwhelmed. And being acutely aware of the two sides to humanity; that whilst there are people who dedicate their lives to doing good, there are also those who are only interested in their own selfish aims and who think nothing of causing devastation to others. And through all that, it’s important sometimes just to hold your loved ones close to you.
Listen to the song: http://www.soundblend.com/store/release/698149
Read the lyrics: https://www.kompoz.com/music/collaboration/696447/file/696448
Simon Wright: Lyrics
George Schiessl: Music, Vocals, and Production
Viktor Weijola: Guitar
Hopefully you’ve found this article on lyrics that linger useful. Maybe it has prompted you to think about some of the songs that you’ve heard that have lingered in your head? I think all songwriters set out to create lyrics and songs that stand out and that achieve an emotional impact upon their listeners. However, it’s worth thinking about what we can do to create more memorable lyrics. Lyrics that linger long after the music has stopped!