The Secret To Writing Lyrics

hey, welcome to 12tone! so… lyrics. we don't tend to talk about them much on this channel

'cause I'm very easily distracted by cool harmony stuff, but it's hard to deny their


they're the first thing most listeners will identify with in any given song, and they're

the clearest means of conveying your story, so since, as a singer, I do have a background

in lyric writing, I suppose I might as well address the elephant in the room.

lyrics are, in a way, one of the most mysterious elements of composition: we can talk about

how a minor key makes the harmony sound sad, or how large leaps make a melody sound powerful,

and while those are both fairly broad generalizations and not necessarily true in any specific context,

at least they work as guidelines.

but for lyrics, it can be hard to even get that far: sure, mentioning crying will probably

make your lyrics sound sad, but language is so complicated and there's so many different

ways to say the same thing that even finding a good starting point for structural analysis

becomes a daunting task. and yet it's hard to deny that great lyrics and great lyricists

do exist, so what's the secret?

well, it's surprisingly simple: practice.

ok, that's not super helpful, so let's get a bit more specific: practice writing poetry.

I mean, it makes sense, right?

lyrics are basically poetry set to music anyway, but if you strip away all that extra stuff

and just focus on the poetic structure, you quickly realize something incredibly important:

words are more than just their meanings.

they're also made up of sounds, and those sounds are the fundamental atomic structure

from which we build lyrics.

the most obvious part of this is rhyme.

I suspect you're already familiar with the concept of rhyming so I won't spend too long

on the basics, but there's actually a lot more to it than you might think.

the version you're probably thinking of right now is the end rhyme, where you rhyme the

final syllables of two different lines, like in the classic BNL song One Week, which contains

the very meaningful line "chickity China, the chinese chicken, you have a drumstick

and your brain stops tickin'."

and yes, chicken sounds like tickin, but that line actually contains more than just end

rhymes. both those words contain that "ick" sound, and we can find that same syllable

in other words, like "chickity" and "drumstick".

this is called internal rhyme, where the rhyming syllables are buried inside the line instead

of just sitting at the end.

adding internal rhymes to your lyrics can help provide a bit more cohesion, making the

whole thing feel like one composed piece instead of just two lines that you haphazardly tied


you don't even have to connect these internal rhymes to the end bits: check out the use

of "China" and "chinese", whose first syllables unsurprisingly match as well.

that particular example may seem like cheating if we cared about what the words mean, but

from a strictly phonetic perspective, it totally works.

internal rhyme is a huge part of writing more advanced lyrics, and if you want to learn

more about it, the best place to look is probably hip-hop, where they're so common that they

can even replace end rhymes, blurring phonetic structures across lyrical lines to tie everything

together into one giant, complicated rhyme scheme.

it's really fascinating.

check out Cardboard Castles by Watsky for a good example.

but we're still just looking at rhyme placement: what about rhyming itself? from an analytical

perspective, what is a rhyme?

I mean, sure, it's when two sounds sound the same, but what does that mean?

well, all the examples I've used so far are what're called perfect rhymes, where the entire

end of the syllable or word is the same, like boom and zoom. but boom also sounds like dune,

which has no m, and it sounds like bam, which has a completely different vowel. this brings

us to what are called slant rhymes, where the words are kinda similar but not quite

as close.

we can break these into two groups: assonance, where the vowel sound is the same, and consonance,

where the consonant is the same.

liberal use of these sorts of semi-rhymes, especially for internal stuff, can really

help your lyrics sound deep and polished without limiting your word choices too much.

you just have to be aware of it.

but rhymes aren't the only way in which the sounds of words can affect your lyrics.

possibly even more important is the impact of accents.

not, like, sounding British or whatever: in poetry, the word "accent" refers to the specific

stress pattern in a given word. for instance, in the word "explode", the emphasis is on

the second syllable, whereas in "syrup", it's on the first.

in normal speech, these accents just fall wherever they want, but in poetry they're

often very tightly controlled: for instance, Shakespeare often wrote in iambic pentameter,

which meant that each line consisted of five iambs, which is a fancy poetry word for the

accent pattern of "explode".

the patterns don't have to be tied to the words, though: for instance, in the famous

line "shall I compare thee to a summer's day", "summer's" has the accent on the first syllable,

making it what's called a trochee, like "syrup".

but it's placed in such a way that it's actually split across two iambs, so if we zoom out

and look at the phrase "a summer's day", it works just fine.

traditional Western poetry tends to stick very closely to its accent patterns, which

gives it a sort of rhythm that you don't find in normal speech.

when I say "shall I compare thee to a summer's day", the alternating pattern of on and off

syllables creates an almost musical quality all on its own, and the sentence just rolls

off the tongue beautifully.

but lyrics are different, because music already has rhythm.

that's what drummers are for.

this means we don't have to be nearly as strict with our poetic meter, but it doesn't mean

we get to stop caring about accents.

whatever melody you're singing, there's going to be emphasized notes and less emphasized

notes, and in my opinion one of the biggest differences between amateur and professional

lyricists is how well they line up those accented notes with the accented syllables of their

lyrics. it's a really big deal: once, in a college, a friend of mine played me a song

they wrote, and the only thing I remember about it is that they said the word "secret"

but put the second syllable on the downbeat.

that stuck with me, and not in a good way.

finally, I know we set aside meaning earlier 'cause it's hard to quantify, but practicing

poetry can help with that, too, or at least it can help with one of the most important

aspects of it: imagery.

being able to evoke emotions and ideas indirectly is crucial.

for instance, Ben E. King could've sung "when we're scared", but instead he went with "when

the night is cold and the land is dark, and the moon is the only light we'll see," and

I think most people would agree that that's way better.

poetry, again, strips away a lot of the other tools that music has to make people feel things,

forcing you to invest as much emotional resonance as possible into the actual words you're using.

plus, if you follow the forms we talked about earlier, it kinda just becomes a lot harder

to use the same line over and over.

after all, there's only so many words that rhyme with "sad".

so yeah, poetry's awesome, but how do you get started?

well, I'd start by finding something to write about.

something you have an emotional attachment to, like a loved one, a hobby, or a treasured


it can be anything you want, just make sure it means something to you.

then you just… write a poem about it.

if you need some more guidance, I recommend writing a sonnet: they're a bit old-fashioned

but they've got a great structure for practicing a lot of the stuff we mentioned earlier.

we did a whole video on sonnets a while back, so if you want to know how they work, there's

a link in the description.

all in all, the conclusion here is probably fairly obvious: the more time you spend playing

with language, the better you'll get at it.

poetry is like the pure, distilled form of lyricism, and writing poems is like doing

isolation training at the gym, which I assume is a thing people do at gyms. there's no formula

for great lyrics, anyone who says differently is selling something.

but if you want to get better, probably the best thing to do is just write some poems.

plus, if they're any good you can just set them to music later and boom, free lyrics.

it's really that easy.

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