“The world is a songwriter’s farm,” I once heard someone say. When searching for song concepts and all the eloquent and vivid descriptions it may entail, sometimes you don’t have to look too far. There are singers and songwriters who even sit in coffee shops and discreetly listen to conversations while jotting down certain phrases. They’re listening for: 1) what people are experiencing, 2) how people are describing it. They’re looking to utilize the underrated power of everyday language.
I remember once overhearing a woman in the subway say, “...And I’m like, ‘it’s not like that. It’s like, you don’t even know how it’s like.’” As profound as that is, I don’t foresee myself using such deep lyrics in a song anytime soon. Seriously, though, I have heard of songwriters who carry notebooks with them everywhere and can be seen fervently scribbling expressions and terminologies at all times in almost any setting. A creative must be vigilant about not allowing good ideas to go to waste.
So what are things to consider when writing lyrics? What are things to stay away from? Or better yet, there’s the classic question that just about every songwriter is asked: Which comes first - the melody or the song idea?
I asked songwriter/lyricist Riva Borbely (BOR-bay) some of these obligatory questions. Riva has provided lyrics for a number of songs in Jewish music, including most recently Ari Goldwag’s “Ani Yehudi,” and she can be found on Facebook and Instagram at @jmlyricsdoctor. She was gracious enough to provide insightful, thought-out responses. The remainder of this week’s article is Riva’s replies to the above questions.
Q: Which comes first: melody or song idea?
Riva: Either is a fine way to write a song. Personally, when I’m writing my own song, I usually start with at least a little bit of a melody in my head before I know what I want to write about. Occasionally, I’ll have a song idea first, but even then, a melody (though not necessarily a very good one) usually comes pretty much immediately with the first words. In writing for others, it varies. The most typical scenario is for someone to approach me with both a melody and a song idea, but I’ve also been asked to write lyrics on a topic without any melody, as well as to write lyrics for a melody without any particular topic. In terms of doing the writing, I’m equally happy to work either way. I enjoy fleshing out an idea with or without the constraints of a melody, and I also enjoy tuning in to a melody to figure out what it might want to say.
Q: Do you have melodies without lyrics? Do you have lyrics without melodies?
Riva: If I have a melody of my own that I think is reasonably good, and I manage to remember it, it won’t usually go more than a week or so without at least draft lyrics.
I have lyrics with melodies that I’d be happy to have better melodies for, but I don’t have any without any melody at all.
Q: What are things to consider when writing lyrics? What are things to stay away from?
Riva: Aside from the obvious rhythm and (optionally) rhyme, there are a lot of considerations that go into a lyric.
Purpose: Is the song intended to inspire people? Help them grow? Give chizuk? Show appreciation? And do the lyrics match that purpose?
The message and the market: Is the message one that the intended market will relate to, and is it communicated in a way that that market will be receptive to and find memorable?
Originality: If writing about a common topic, is there a new angle on it or an interesting way of expressing it?
Consistency: Who is singing to and/or about whom, what is the tone, and do the events in the song take place in the present, past, or future? If these things change in the course of the song, it should be for a good reason and in a clear and logical way.
Structure/organization: Lines should flow logically together and be organized into stanzas that make sense together, with different verses bringing in new ideas, and the main idea in the chorus.
Repetition: Aim to repeat (only) words and phrases that are the important ideas in the song.
Poetic devices: Beyond rhyme, things like imagery, metaphor, and alliteration.
The natural rhythm of the language: Put the melodic stress on the right words and the right syllables. [Simcha here. I can attest that Riva is very persistent and consistent about this. The emphasis and cadence should resemble how one would speak. Just like we wouldn’t say, “he studied every day” or “he studIED every day” when speaking, such stresses when enunciating the lyrics are just as awkward.]
Singability: While extra unstressed syllables can usually be added without fundamentally changing the melody, too many of them can become unreasonable
to sing. Likewise, too many of the wrong consonants in the wrong place can turn a line into a tongue-twister or make it hard to hear where one word ends and another begins.
Linguistic details: For example, whether an “and” or a “but” is the best choice, whether it’s clear what/whom a pronoun refers to, and correct usage of words.
Clarity and focus: Is the message presented clearly? Are there lines that the listener might find confusing or be likely to misinterpret (even momentarily)? Are there apparent contradictions? Are there off-topic or tangential ideas that distract from the point or should be better tied in?
Length: Don’t write too much (listeners may tune out) or too little (the message might not really come across or hit home).
Is it done? I love the quote from the previous “In Tune with JM” article: “a song is done when none of it bothers you.” But I would take it even a step further – are there things that are likely to bother other people? While you can’t necessarily please all the people all the time, it’s worth making an effort to try to see beyond any blind spots you might have.