Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Lyric Philosophy (Part 1)

Lyrics   If you're the type of person who 'doesn't listen to lyrics', imagine the songs you listen to without the words. Would you still listen to them? We all listen to lyrics even if we don't focus on them. They are important in popular music because we are accustomed to hearing a dominant melody delivered with words over music. So what makes a good lyric? It's a great question...and a terrible one because as with any art, it's whatever the artist thinks it should be. So all I am discussing is what constitutes quality writing to me. Quality writing is the culmination of several constituents requiring a bit of higher thinking, or mental multitasking to achieve. Getting started Always the hardest part. The following are what I consider catalytic processes of writing.  Hydrate- Yes, caffeine is great. It stimulates mental processes and the delivery methods are usually tasty too. It does not directly dehydrate you, despite common belief. We also know it helps keep you awake. What's bad about that? Nothing...unless you're not hydrated. Coffee, soda, and energy drinks DO NOT enhance the creative process. They simply give your body and mind a purely physical and temporary burst of 'energy'. Why do you seem to 'think better' when youve had caffeine? Probably because you are physically stimulated and are moving around more than usual. Physical movement - not caffeine - jumpstarts the brain. Water on the other hand makes up 90% of your whole body. Your body and brain are essentially a walking, thinking sponge. What happens when a sponge has no water? It dryes up and then starts tightening up or contracting; so does your mind. Writing complects several mental processes simultaneously, which absolutely requires prolonged hydration. This Mental multitasking is referred to as 'higher thinking', when an idea seems to create itself, and you merely feel like the conduit. That's your subconscious higher brain functions at work. Again, caffeine does not stimulate this type of thought. It simply wakes you up - which is not always the best thing for writing either. How many times have you gone to bed, only to turn the light back on and write down a great idea? Utilize your brain as it is. It needs no manmade chemicals to operate as nature intended. Hydrate at least 3 times every day. Caffeine isn't evil. Just balance it with clean water and you will create a dance floor for your higher thinking processes. Openness of mind-  You sit down. You write one line. You read it. You put the pen down and walk away. What happened to that moment of pure inspiration? You gave yourself the chance to second guess your work! Most of us cant stand when someone looks at our work before its done. It hasnt reached its full potential or intent. And we know we are our own worst critic (as it should be)...but the time to criticize your work is NOT while you are beginning to create it. Do not prejudge. Allow yourself to write anything - no matter how honest, bad, corny, offbeat, controversial or just unusable. The true strength of your work is that it is yours, and no one else's mind could generate it. Most of us see this as a negative the moment we come up with something 'bad'. Remember the one constant in ALL music: emotion. Everyone on Earth accepts that emotions make people do funny things, extreme things, and decisive things. That universal assumption gives your words a certain impact when combined with music; The corniest lyric can be transformed into an unexpectedly cool, in your face, laid back, aggressive, or heartfelt line, which will be taken as seriously as you take your own writing. Look at any song you love, forget about the music, and imagine the a newscaster dictating them. Are they still as unreachably profound as you always thought? If the reason isnt obvious to you, I'll detail why shortly. Also, most artists detest their work while generating it, so at all costs, remember you have time to edit if you don't get your wording perfect immediately. Usually you won't. The writing process begins with simply capturing concepts related to a theme, not instantly delivering a polished product. Dont expect the world; otherwise you're a record label executive, not a wordsmith. Patience I can't stress this enough. BE PATIENT with your brain. Its like being in a relationship: If you're in the mood but your partner isn't, back off. Ideas are everywhere, all the time, yet they don't tend to strike when you're poised and waiting. Over-anticipation focuses the mind on the feeling it must generate something at some point. This is when art turns to chore. How do you feel when your boss is constantly looking over your shoulder? Thats what you're doing to your inner writer when you are impatient. The ideas will come. I've had times when it takes months. And it sucks...but the more patient I am, the more often the muse visits. Its that same old cliche: if you love something let it go. That absolutely applies here. Patience, patience, patience. Once you've gotten rolling, you can focus on the fundamentals an audience expects from a lyric. These are simply things to keep in mind as you write. I've found it detrimental to focus too heavily on any one of these items, but to simply monitor your writing for them as you go. Again these can be adjusted and enhanced during the editing process anyway. Communicating your meaning You can be as vague or strait-forward as you choose, but it is important to stick to your theme. Even lyrics with little or no meaning have a through line which gets the listener through the song. There's always a concept. You can even start out not knowing what you want to say only to discover it half way through writing. One could even set out to write something which doesn't make sense - and yet there is the concept. What is The Beatles'  'I Am the Walrus' about? Nothing at all...but John Lennon was somewhat a student of the absurd, and was intrigued by the writing of Lewis Carroll. So he wrote lines like 'I am the egg man, they are the egg men, I am the walrus, koo koo ka choo'. So wherever your meaning lies, whether it be portrayed in the actual lyrics, or just a nebulous thematic sketch in words, every line should serve to further communicate your theme. It's easy to side step or veer off course if you are careless.  Rhythm If I haven't firmly established the rhythm of the lines I've written in the early writing process, I go back and edit. I enjoy experimenting with rhythm and won't always avoid stressing odd syllables if it sounds interesting. That said, it's important to me to always keep the line of communication from song to listener as open and intelligible as possible, so if a word feels indecipherable because of a bad syllable, I brainstorm an alternate word or phrasing. Rhyme It's the same as rhythm: if it hasn't made its way into the writing early on, go back and work it out; if it's important to you. Some writers don't see rhyming as necessary, and it isn't always. I look at it as a stylistic choice case by case. Sometimes I rhyme, sometimes not.  I'm not against utilizing a rhyming dictionary when I feel stuck, but I try doing what I can without it. It's a good exercise and the rhyming word or phrase my mind generates usually fits into the theme it's been working with better than a rhyming dictionary, maintaining continuity and belonging, as opposed to sounding like you just wanted to rhyme. Melody Up til now, all the information is useful with poetry, as well as songwriting. But melody is obviously key. In my experience, the great thing about generating lyrics is that I often have the music done already. So having the rhythm of the words and the chords to back it up, a melody usually presents itself almost instantly.  If you don't have music already, that's fine too. I would like to say I am a great melody writer - that I write melodies and subsequently arrange music around them...but I usually don't get so lucky. If on occasion I write rhythmic lyrics without any music in mind though, it's the same as before: the rhythm will suggest a melody, and the lack of prewritten music will be replaced by the mood of the lyric. Your brain is powerful in this way. It will intuitively combine these suggestions into a single melodic output. Give it a try. All these items require specific brain functions. The trick is to get all these departments communicating with one another while you're writing. Again, it's not something you would be wise to focus on, but it's healthy to monitor them while generating ideas. Be patient and let your mind wander and eschew themes and related concepts. Editing is where you visit each department and see how they're operating. Get in there, get your hands dirty on the drawing board, erase, redo, and adjust. Experiment and enjoy the process. If you don't...why bother...?