Fleshing out an initial line or idea for a lyric can be a seriously taxing, tortured process.
Likewise, finding the right lyrics to fit a musical motif that you really like can also be a struggle.
While the skill comes very naturally to some, others have to work a lot harder to hone their craft.
Luckily, there are techniques and jumping off points that can be helpful when it comes to get lyrics down. The more you listen to and analyse the lyrics of the greats, the more of these tricks and techniques will become apparent.
In this article:
We’ll run through pointers showing how to analyse the lyrics of others and inform your own to help you improve.
And we’ve set some exercises so you can practice the techniques for yourself.
Perspective and voice
A common misconception people make with regards to analysing lyrical content is presuming that whoever wrote the words or is singing them must be delivering them in an autobiographical manner: that is to say, they are speaking as themselves. But many lyrical masters frequently adopt different characters in their songs, often without changing the delivery of their vocals.
Gangster rap came under particular fire for this in the 1990s, when its detractors assumed that any rapper telling stories about the streets and gang life must have be advocating for and glamourising that way of life. In truth, some of them were, but many of them were simply exposing the environment they were created in, the oppression of the system that shaped them and the difficulties people faced in escaping these dangers.
So the first question to ask is:
• ‘who is really talking?’
• Is the singer delivering their own feelings and thoughts?
• Or are they conveying those of someone else?
• Are they using the song to tell their own story or someone else’s?
• Are they talking about the distant past, their current state of mind, or an imagined future?
• Are we hearing someone’s inner monologue, someone narrating a story, or a conversation between two or more people?
Eminem’s Stan is one of the best-known examples of a song written from someone else’s perspective. Written in the voice of Stan, an obsessive fan of Eminem’s, the song’s verses take the form of the fan’s letters to the rapper, which take an increasingly dark tone before we hear a belated reply letter from Eminem.
Kendrick Lamar’s Sing About Me is written from the perspective of the brother of his deceased friend Dave. The brother blames Kendrick for Dave’s death, which forms a key part of the narrative that runs through the album Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City.
Kate Bush is a master of adopting personas and telling stories of different characters through her lyrics, both from works of fiction, her imagination and real life. Wuthering Heights recounts the story of the Emily Brontë’s novel of the same name; Babooshka narrates the story of a wife who tests her husband’s loyalty by writing letters to him under a false name; and Cloudbusting is about the relationship between psychologist and philosopher William Reich and his son Peter, written from the perspective of the latter.
Exercise: come up with an idea for a song written from someone else’s perspective. Write down a basic structure.
While a song might start with the idea for a line that sounds nice, picking a theme to write about is a way to give yourself more structure.
Themes can be explicitly worded, take the form of a parable where a story is told that relays a moral or reflects a real-world issue, or can be delivered in a more oblique, complex way that requires more decoding.
Don’t think that you have to stick to the usual themes of love and loss to write a great song. Dare to be different and tackle something less obvious.
Some examples of great songs with unusual themes:
• Kanye West ‘Diamonds From Sierra Leone’ (blood diamonds)
• John Grant ‘Global Warming’ (self-explanatory!)
• Pink Floyd ‘Another Brick In The Wall, Pt. 2’ (education)
• Sleaford Mods ‘Jobseeker’ (unemployment)
Songs with more subtle meanings include:
• The Police ‘Every Breath You Take’ (about either a stalker or a disgruntled person failing to move on from a divorce)
• Bruce Springsteen ‘Born In The USA’ (about the poor treatment of Vietnam war veterans)
• The Eagles ‘Hotel California’ (about the greed of the music industry)
Exercise: pick a random theme from topical events and write a verse about it
It’s important to think about the socio-political context of a song. When it was written or the time it was written about is key, as is the personal situation of the person writing it at the time (the aforementioned song by The Police was written following Sting’s divorce, for example).
Kanye West is an artist who has spent the vast majority of his career rapping about himself and his personal circumstance, with his albums laying his heart on his sleeve whatever stage he is at (the aforementioned Diamonds From Sierra Leone stands out as a rare example of him dedicating a song to a topic that isn’t directly about himself). His album 808s & Heartbreaks was written in the wake of his mother’s death and his separation from his long-term partner. The follow-up My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was penned in the aftermath of his VMA / Taylor Swift outburst, and as well as dealing with the fallout from it and the perils of celebrity, he aimed it to be his ‘apology’ to the world. All of this context helps to decode the lyrics.
Exercise: what is your current personal and socio-political context? Write down some themes and thoughts that could form ideas for songs.
Similes & metaphors
Rappers are probably the foremost exponents of similes and metaphors—describing one thing in terms of something seemingly unrelated. But good similes and metaphors, when deployed with a good dose of humour, subtlety or poetry can fit any genre. It’s a little like synesthesia—the phenomenon where some people experience one sense through another (such as perceiving a certain sound as having a certain colour). That last sentence was a simile in itself!
Joni Mitchell’s beautiful A Case Of You (as covered more recently by James Blake) is an extended metaphor about how her lover affects her in a way similar to the pleasant effects of alcohol intoxication. Each line of the choruses strengthens this comparison and twists it in new directions:
You are in my blood like holy wine
You taste so bitter and so sweet
I could drink a case of you, darling
And I would still be on my feet
Yes, I would still be on my feet
Exercise: write down five similes or metaphors that feel poetic enough to be part of a song lyric.
Double and triple entendres
A double entendre is when one word or lyric has two meanings. Very often used for sexual innuendo or implication, there are many ways to use them. Rappers excel at packing in many meanings into one or a few lines.
Gucci Mane’s Bricks is about drug dealing and features the line:
“95 Air Max cause I’m a dope runner” – the double meaning both referring to his ability to run well and the fact that he used to be a drug dealer.
A triple entendre is considered the holy grail in rap and is no mean feat to pull off. Jay Z is a master of entendres, and this line from Hello Brooklyn 2.0:
“we got some victims to catch
So in a couple years baby I’mma bring you some Nets”
He is referring here to:
• His ownership of NBA team the New Jersey Nets
• A 1920s slang word for stockings (‘nets’)
• Fishing (catch/nets)
Telling a story with verses and choruses
While most songs see the verses and choruses repeat and reinforce a theme through different turns of phrases or emotions, some songs use their structure to tell a story in a way similar to how a film is made. A repetitive chorus that underlines the song’s theme can be used as an anchor around which the story progresses through the verses. Or there may be no chorus at all.
Some example of story songs:
• The Beatles ‘Rocky Raccoon’
• Queen ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’
• Doug E. Fresh & Slick Rick ‘La Di Da Di’
Exercise: outline a story in song form. If you can’t think of a compelling original one yourself, take an existing story and break down its key parts into a song outline.
Explicit meaning vs feeling
Another question to ask when analysing lyrics is, is this song trying to relay a story or emotion or idea through coherent words? Or is a feeling trying to be created through the sound and feeling of the words themselves rather than the meaning they create when put together?
Some songs employ a stream of consciousness approach to lyrics where the words might not necessarily make sense together but still create a feeling. In this way, they are used more like colours to paint a picture. Not all song lyrics have to make ‘sense’: they can just convey a feeling or a sensation, or sound right with the music. Many Red Hot Chili Peppers songs use such a technique – although singer and songwriter Anthony Kiedis may argue that he has hidden some hard-to-find meaning in them.
A related style of songwriting is the ‘ramble’, which comes across more like an inner monologue or conversation than a traditional verse-chorus song structure. This allows a more free-flowing approach where rhyme schemes are less important. LCD Soundsystem’s Losing My Edge is a great example of this approach being used.
Bonus exercise: ‘Songing’
Pianist and alt-rapper Chilly Gonzales created a technique to help train students at his Gonzervatory ‘school’ called ‘songing’, which he says can help with the songwriting process.
It’s very simple. All you do is write down as many song names as you can in a few minutes. They don’t have to be ‘good’ or make sense; it’s just a question of putting down the first thing that comes into your head, repeatedly. Don’t question it. Just give it a go.
Once you have 10-20 written down, see if any of them stand out to you and feel like they could actually be the name of a song you would want to write. Then take it from there. Write a song to fit the name. It could provide you with a lyrical jump-off point, or it might give you the germ of a musical idea.
Genius is the ultimate website for lyrical analysis, where contributors add annotations to individual lyrics of thousands of songs as well as the background and overarching meanings.
The Dissect podcast is an excellent resource for hip-hop and R&B fans who want to hear detailed deconstructions of lyrics on classic albums. The Kendrick Lamar To Pimp A Butterfly and Kanye West My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy seasons are particularly good, uncovering layer upon layer of hidden meaning, multiple entendres and clever wordplay. For more podcasts of interest, check our roundup of the best podcasts for musicians.
Whether it’s songwriting, recording or getting your tunes ready for release, our Guide to Recording: From Songwriting to Mastering is the ultimate toolkit for getting your releases ready to hit the world stage.