Lyric Contests – exploring whether there’s a formula to win them
Is there a magical formula for writing successful lyrics? Something that the likes of Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen are custodians of and guard jealously? And, for us amateur lyric writers, is there a magical formula that will help us win lyric contests? In my last post I talked about the benefits of entering free lyric contests. In this one, we’ll have a light-hearted exploration of whether there’s a formula that you can use to win them?!
First, some context. I’ve been entering monthly Lyric Contests on the MuseSongWriters website for exactly 2 years now. I’ve won it once so far, placed highly on various occasions but also had my fair share of mid-table or bottom dwelling entries. Sometimes I have a reasonable idea that a lyric may do well or not but other times the results come as a surprise.
Recently, another participant expressed some frustration with the scoring in the lyric contests. He felt that flowery poetic lyrics (with heavy usage of metaphors) won out over more straightforward down to earth lyrics. An interesting, and at times slightly heated, debate then proceeded around whether that assertion was correct and whether there were certain types of lyrics that always won.
Another writer, Neal K, then commented that there was a set formula that could be used to win such lyric contests. He explained that he had done an experiment in 2014 of using his lyric formula in the monthly MuseSongwriters lyric contests, had been successful, and was confident that other writers could succeed with the same formula.
Sounds promising, doesn’t it?! So what were the components of this magical formula? Well, here’s what Neal outlined:
‘Here’s the formula I followed in my 2014 experiment to win/place in the lyric contest:
1) each lyric was story driven;
2) the story was easy to understand and to relate to;
3) they used imagery (show, don’t tell);
4) there were no wasted words or forced rhymes;
5) they contained sympathetic characters that people could relate to and that I cared about;
6) each and every line had to work on its own;
7) each story had a resolution that was designed to elicit an emotion, be that happiness, sadness, joy, depression, etc.’
He went on to comment ‘That, my friend, is the formula. I’m so confident that this works that I bet you I could coach you into placing 1st, 2nd, or 3rd in a future lyric contest.’
There was some scepticism about whether success in a lyric contest could be assigned in such a clear cut way to a set formula. However, it does stand to reason that there are certain attributes that, all things being equal, will tend to be favourably received by competition scorers even though they are oblivious to being influenced by them.
Magical lyric contest formula – my analysis
I decided to do my own analysis to see if I could infer attributes that are present in contest winning lyrics. What I did though was to focus not on lower level factors such as whether the lyric has sympathetic characters but rather on high level structural elements. My methodology was to analyse the 2017 monthly winning lyrics. So the caveat on my findings is that it’s based on a sample of 12 successful lyrics.
Here are my findings:
- Use an ABCB rhyming structure.
Where lyrics are comprised of 4 lines, there was a marked incidence of winning lyrics using this rhyming structure. ABCB means that the final word of lines 2 and 4 rhyme with each other. The final words of line 1 and 3 do not rhyme. 9 out of the 12 winning lyrics used this.
The 2nd most popular rhyme structure was AABB, so lines 1 and 2 have final words that rhyme, and lines 3 and 4 do likewise. Interestingly, both those winning lyrics were noted by me as being ‘light-hearted, comic/fun’ so it looks like there’s merit in using this approach if you are going with an intentionally comic-styled lyric.
- Have a chorus.
All 12 lyrics contained a chorus. It looks like voters expect that from a lyric even though many great songs have been produced that don’t include a chorus.
- Having a bridge is optional
When people offer feedback on how to improve a lyric, the words ‘add a bridge’ are often uttered. However, I found that 6 out of the 12 winning lyrics contained a bridge so it looks like you can win with our without a bridge. Go for one if you feel it’s integral to the lyric but you don’t need one to win.
- Go for sophisticated and nostalgic.
Whether a lyric is deemed sophisticated is obviously subjective but I rated this on factors such as use of metaphors, use of poetic language and the ability to avoid clichés or overly obvious rhymes. For nostalgic, I considered whether there was a strong emotional connection and a pulling of heartstrings.
I marked 9 out of the 12 winners as possessing either both of these qualities or at least one.
- Go for a song structure that sees a verse followed by a chorus
There are all kinds of lyric structures that can be used. The lyricist has in his or her toolkit the ability to have an intro, verses, a chorus, a bridge, and an outro. And there were various different song structures that the winning lyrics possessed.
I worked out though that the most successful song structure was Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Verse. Or Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus. So I guess the key thing to take from this is the lure of simplicity!
I’ve not included genre in this analysis. This is partly because it can be difficult to accurately ascribe a genre when all you’ve got to go by are the lyrics. However, it’s probably harder to win with genres like rap or metal than with more mainstream genres.
Note: Please bear in mind that my analysis was based on a small-scale analysis of just 12 winning lyrics. And no analysis of the people who voted for them, which will change from month to month. So they’re interesting (hopefully) but by no means are presented as an absolute truth.
Enter lyric contests and try out your own formula
Hopefully this post has provided some food for thought. And encouraged you to have a go at entering a contest. Remember to ask for feedback at the end of the contest too, so that you get the opportunity to benefit from any nuggets of suggestions that other writers might put forward.
Maybe you’ll do your own research and try out your own formula? Or maybe you’ll try to follow Neal K’s suggested formula or some or all of the attributes that I’ve put forward. Either way, I hope that you have fun and that it helps you continue on your journey as a lyric writer. I certainly feel that it’s been helpful for me, and I realise that I’m still at the start of my journey. There’s a LOT that I can still learn to become a better lyric writer and taking part in communities with other writers and musicians is part of that process. It reminds me of the often-quoted view that you can’t become a good novel writer unless you have read extensively.
Footnote: Result of my attempt at writing to a formula
Based on my research, I had a go at writing a lyric that ticked as many of my suggested formula elements as possible. And I entered it into the April Lyric Contest on the Muse website. It finished 7th which was in the top third from a big field of good quality entries. So I was pretty pleased with that but it’s certainly not conclusive as to the merits of adhering to a formula.
Here’s a snippet of my song’s lyrics:
And wedding bells chime
It feels like only yesterday
The sweet caress of your warm skin
Soft as petals dampened by the rain
Awakening butterflies within.
I take your hand
And you take mine
The music plays
And wedding bells chime.
I know it’s only memories
Jolted by this faded photograph
Feet squelching as we fled the rain
I can hear the echo of your laugh.
I take your hand
And you take mine
The music still plays
And wedding bells chime.
Tears not raindrops falling freely now
Not sure how long I’ve kept them in,
Petals falling from a stem
I love you, don’t, I love you, don’t
Don’t doubt I’d say ‘I do’ again.
Written by Simon Wright
A final thought from me. Whether you write to a formula or not, I think the main thing is to have fun and create something that you feel is interesting and well crafted. Regardless of what others think, you need to be proud of your lyric and be able to hear it in your head. And remember that contests aren’t the end objective. Getting your lyric turned into a song should be. And you may only need one musician to get and love the lyric for that to happen. I’ll update you if ‘And wedding bells chime’ makes it into a completed song. 🙂
Good luck if you do enter a contest. I’d love to hear how you get on.