Lyric first writing – How to write song lyrics if you are not a musician

There are almost certainly lots of music fans out there who love the idea of writing lyrics for a song. However, if you don’t happen to be a musician then a big psychological barrier is the concern that music has to exist either before a lyric is written or at least be created in parallel. This is not true. There are lots of examples of lyric first songs. So with that barrier safely hurdled, what I’d like to do in this post is to explore what a writer needs to do if he or she wants to pursue that lyric first approach. And I’ll specifically look at it from the angle of a non-musician.

Are lyric writers creating songs?

Pensive woman surrounded by question marks
Lyric first writing – creating songs or not?

I deliberately titled this post ‘How to write song lyrics’ rather than ‘How to write lyrics’. The reason is that I think it’s important for the writer to keep in mind that the end goal is a fully fledged song, not just some words that look good on paper. In talking about lyric first songwriting endeavours though, I think it’s worth outing a debate that I’ve seen played out several times on various online songwriting forums. That debate is whether lyric writers are creating songs if they are not also creating the accompanying music?

I get the idea behind this. When there is ‘just’ a lyric on a page, it may not be possible to discern any melody. And maybe the lyric first writer didn’t even have a melody fully mapped out. The argument then goes that without a melody and supporting instruments there is no song.

However, this feels like an artificial argument. The way I see it is that it’s similar to saying that a drummer, or a trumpet player, or a singer doesn’t create music if the main melody had been created by the guitarist or piano player. The key thing here is that each individual in a musical collaboration is contributing a part towards the final song. We can argue about whose role is most significant but the lyrics are undeniably an important component in most songs. And it’s definitely beneficial for the lyric writer to view themselves as someone who creates songs. Think about how the lyrics will be sung. And which instruments and genre you’d like to see used.

Understand that lyric writing is different from other writing genres

One pink lemon amongst lots of yellow lemons
Lyric writing is different from other writing genres

I’m going to guess that most newbie lyric first writers will come to lyric writing from a background that has already included an interest and ability in some form of writing. Maybe you’ve written poems or short stories. Or you loved writing essays at school. Notwithstanding what form your previous writing took, writing lyrics is different. Okay, that is obvious if you’re moving from having written essays, short stories, or novels, but it’s maybe less obvious if you have been a poet. I think some poets probably think that they can just take their existing poetry style and get someone to set music to those poems.

There *may* be cases where music can be built around a poem, thereby allowing it to keep its poetic form. However, for the most part, poems do not work as song lyrics. Or at least will need to be adapted. The reason for this is that songs usually need repeating patterns in order to work. An obvious example is a chorus that will be repeated several times during the song, often after your verses. And those verses should each have the some structure and rhyming pattern.

The chances are that your poems probably don’t adhere to those songwriting conventions. And you may struggle to get a musician who is prepared to work on your poetic lyrics without them. The end result may also not work as well as you would like. People have come to expect certain conventions from songs and a piece of work will have to be pretty special if it’s going to throw away the rulebook.

Study song lyrics from your favourite bands and artists

Rock star with guitar
Study your favourite artists’ lyrics

There are various things that aspiring lyric first writers can do as they embark on their journey as songwriters. You can, of course, read up on the mechanics of lyric writing, and I’ll come onto that in a moment. However, before you get engrossed in reading about song structures, meter and prosody, etc, my suggestion would be to go and look at the lyrics from some of your favourite bands and artists.

You won’t necessarily know whether they created the lyrics first or the music first. However, reading the lyrics will help you to understand some basic components that probably exist in all or most of those song lyrics.

When we read lyrics from established acts the lyric sheets often aren’t labelled up to show which parts are verses, chorus, or bridge but you’ll probably see that there’s a catchy part of the song that is repeated at various points. That’s almost certainly your chorus. And there are probably also sections that help to move the story forward and which look similar in terms of the number of lines and syllable counts. Those are your verses. If there’s a section (often beyond the halfway point) that seems ‘different’ to the rest of the lyrics, then that’s probably a bridge.

A bridge is just a section of a song that helps connect musically different parts of a song and/or that helps to move the story on, possibly in an unexpected direction. The ‘where do we go?’ bit from ‘Sweet child o’mine’ by Guns N’Roses is an example that springs to mind! (You’ll find it t 4 mins 39 seconds in the YouTube video)

One of the reasons that I recommend looking at lyrics from your favourite artists is that it should be both educational and fun. You can listen to the music when you’re reading the lyrics and spend some time figuring out what it is about the lyrics that helps make that song sound so good to you.

Read up on songwriting conventions as you write

Wooden figurine reading a book
Read up on songwriting conventions as you write

I didn’t want to have to have swallowed a textbook on songwriting before embarking on writing lyrics. And I suspect that you don’t either! The approach I took was to dive straight in and write lyrics where I had ideas that I wanted to explore. My early attempts weren’t polished but the process of writing frequently and then putting my lyrics up for feedback was really beneficial.

I received helpful suggestions from more experienced lyric writers on the MuseSongWriters website. It also had songwriting resources that I started to dip in and out of. I found guidance on the various parts of songs (verses, chorus, etc) and the common ways in which they are lined up to create successful songs. There were tips about rhyming structures and how verses in particular need to be consistent with each other in order to survive the transition from words on a page to being part of a coherent song.

There are lots of songwriting books that you can also explore. Some of the most popular include:

 Songwriters on Songwriting, by Paul Zollo

The Craft of Lyric Writing, by Sheila Davis

Writing Better Lyrics, by Pat Pattinson

Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting, by Jimmy Webb

There will be people who are sceptical about whether you need to read a book to create great lyrics. My view on it is that those books can’t teach you to write; your talent to string words together in a compelling fashion will come separately and grow through regular writing. However, there are definitely tips and tricks that I have picked up through spending just a few hours reading the advice of more experienced songwriters. Try it and see if it works for you.

Hearing the lyrics as a song

Depiction of someone hearing music
Hearing the lyrics as a song

One of the big challenges when we are creating words for a song before the music has been thought of is imagining how your lyrics are going to sound when a musician comes along and magically transforms your words into a song.

It’s probably not realistic for most of us to imagine all the music components being put in place at exactly the right parts of the song. If you’re that musically gifted then it would probably pay to pick up an instrument and learn to play it! However, we’re generally not creating lyrics with the intention for them just to be spoken. And when a vocalist sings a lyric they may not sing it exactly the way it appears on a page. A single syllable word may be elongated to stand out or to fit with the song structure. Certain words may be given prominence in terms of how they are pronounced or how loudly or softly they are sung. So how do we lyric first writers avoid the trap of creating something that looks good on paper but can’t easily be translated into a song?

Sing your lyrics out loud

Well, one thing you can do is to actually sing the lyrics as you write them. Test out how the lyrics should be sounded out. This will help you determine whether they feel natural and could work. Are there any tongue twisters that are going to be horrendously hard for a vocalist to work with? Are there sections that need to rhyme but don’t? Or parts that just don’t sound right?

Sing your lyrics in your head

If you don’t want to sing the lyrics (or can’t because you’ve got a baby sleeping next to you!) then ‘sing’ them in your head. This is a trick that I frequently utilise. I’m not the greatest singer so I find it’s beneficial to imagine someone with a better voice singing my lyric. The human brain is strange – it will allow us to sound like Steven Tyler or Pink when we’re singing a song in our heads even though our vocal chords translate the song into something resembling a strangulated cat! 🙂

When you sing along to your lyric, whether outwardly or in your head, you are effectively creating the melody that you imagine being used on your song. One of the dangers that lyric first writers face is that you have a clear idea about what the melody is and how the song should be sung when you write it but when you then revisit it months later you can’t remember those details.

For that reason, it’s desirable to do a rough vocal demo of your lyric once you’ve finished writing it. It will be a handy reference point for you in the future. Additionally, though, it may be invaluable for the musicians who end up working on your lyric!

I use a programme called Audacity to record my vocal demos and purchased a cheap USB microphone (similar to this one from Amazon) to sing into. You can then save the vocal track to your computer’s directory. I then upload it into iTunes and convert it to an MP3 format.

Final step – collaborate with musicians

Multiple people touching their fists together
Collaborate with musicians to turn your lyrics into songs

Assuming again that you are a lyric first songwriter who isn’t a musician, then you’re going to need some help to get your finished words turned into an exciting song. That’s fine – you just need to find out the best ways to link in with musicians who are looking for original lyrics.

For me, this has mostly been through the Kompoz website. It’s a musical collaboration website. Both lyric writers and musicians can upload their ideas and invite others to jump in to help progress the collaboration. You’ll reap the benefits if you put the right amount of effort in.

A second website that has led to musical collaboration opportunities for me is the MuseSongWriters website. It’s more set up to enable lyric writers (and musicians) to post their work and get feedback on it. However, along the way, a couple of musicians have approached me and offered to turn my lyrics into songs.

I’ve also seen evidence of people collaborating through Facebook songwriter groups. One that I’m a member of is called Songwriting though I’ve not used it to link in with musicians yet.

And of course you don’t have to go with online collaborations. If you have friends or family who are musically talented then why not speak to them? Or advertise in a local newspaper or in a music magazine? Or go to music concerts and speak to people. Look for opportunities to identify musicians and tell them that you have lyrics that are available for use.

Have fun and develop your talent!

Boy singing into microphone
Have fun and develop your talent!

I hope that you’ve found this post useful. My final guidance is to keep writing, have fun with it, and keep developing your talent. If you don’t instantly manage to get musicians lined up to work on your lyrics, then don’t despair. First and foremost, hopefully you are writing for your own enjoyment. So take pleasure from the lyrics you create and make writing them regular exercise. And like physical exercise, the more you do it the easier it should become and the better you will become.

If you’ve found this article useful, then I’d love to get that feedback. You can write to me via this site’s Contact me  page. And you can also follow me on my LyricSlinger Facebook page, and on Twitter where my handle is @TheLyricSlinger


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