A version of this article originally appeared on Holistic Songwriting.
Love remains the number-one subject in songwriting, and being able to write great romantic lyrics is mandatory for every professional songwriter. The five techniques in this article can be applied to any type of lyric, but they work wonders for romantic songs, especially if you want to write one specifically for your significant other.
Here’s the video version of this blog:
Structure with direction
One of the biggest mistakes I see time and time again is lyrics that are written “list style”:
“I love your lips, your eyes, your hands, your hair, your smile”
This screams “I don’t know what else to say,” and you’re gonna run out of things to say pretty quickly.
“I love your left heel, your chin, your ears, er… your… shoulders I guess? ”
…and we’re still in verse one.
You want to avoid this at all costs! The big problem here is that you’re revolving around the same topic, and that’s boring.
Instead, you want your lyrics to have direction. The second verse should add something new to the picture, as should the bridge. This divides your song into three distinct acts. There are several frameworks to divide what you want to say into three parts, but here are my top three:
1. Me, you, us
This is a great and easy-to-use framework that works like a charm. The idea is to focus the first verse on yourself, bring the other person into the picture in the second verse, and then describe your relationship in the bridge.
2. Past, present, future
Here, you begin by telling your story before you guys were together. Focus on the parts of your life that felt incomplete, or where you had some maturing to do. “I didn’t even know what a toothbrush was before I met you” – that kind of stuff.
Then, get into where you are right now, and how your significant other has changed your life.
End with a look into the future. This is a great moment to talk about being together forever, especially if you want to use your song as a means to propose!
3. Your faults, my faults, together we’re strong
This is a tricky one that can backfire big time, so be extremely cautious here. The idea is to make your significant other slightly vulnerable, which opens her up for your big message in the bridge.
Again, do not attempt this if you’re inexperienced, or this will turn around on you. But if this concept sounds intriguing to you, you’re right. It’s unique and it’s extremely powerful.
Find the right words
The way you write is just as important as what you’re saying.
Be specific about your partner. Add details only they could know. Make them feel like an insider. It shows that you really know them and that you wrote it just for them. Lyrics like “you’re beautiful” or “I love how you make me feel” may work on the radio (where it’s supposed to reach a lot of people), but if you do the same thing for your significant other, you’re wasting potential.
Bo Burnham has a hilarious bit about this in his song “Repeat Stuff.” Check it out and you’ll never forget it.
Be charming. Use humor, especially if you’re using framework #3 above. Lighten the mood. Laughter establishes a strong connection like few other things, so work in some inside jokes or remind them of fun times you had together.
Be emotional. Add some power words to the mix to make your song an emotional roller coaster. Read this article to learn more about power words.
Be yourself. Write what feels right. Don’t use words you wouldn’t normally use. Yes, be a little more open about your feelings than usual, be dramatic. But mean what you say. Don’t use big words just for the rhyme or because it sounds good.
Go with your gut. If it makes you feel something, it’s gonna work. You know your partner better than anyone else. Trust your intuition.
Be careful with metaphors
This is another trap songwriters fall into. You want to be understood immediately, so be clear. Don’t use metaphors unless it’s 100 percent clear what you’re trying to say. Don’t leave your partner wondering.
“It’s nice you wrote a song about bees and flowers, honey, but what does it have to do with me?” Learn more about the usage of metaphors here.
Don’t use clichés
Above all, remember this: Love songs are terribly boring. We are so overfed with big, emotional declarations of affection that it takes something really special to make us pay attention.
The easiest way to write a standard love song that won’t be remembered is to use clichés. You know this, of course. But what you may not know is just which words exactly fall into this category. It’s not just stuff like “I love you with all my heart” – that’s the problem. I think most people are aware that this line is sappy and wouldn’t use it themselves. The problem lies in shorter phrases like “I miss you” or even “I love you” that are fine in real life, but sound way too familiar for use in a lyric.
Your primary job as a lyricist is to make things we’ve heard a gazillion times fascinating again. If you use canned lines, you are doing the opposite. Don’t say what others have said before you. Look at it from a new perspective. Sound fresh.
The best Hollywood screenwriters all know one thing: Emotion is relative.
If you’ve ever watched a 120-minute drama that was all drama, you know what I mean: Movies that are only dramatic are a drag. You leave the theater feeling lousy. Good writers put in at least one scene for comic relief.
The same goes for comedies: Remember those sad moments in the second half of Ted or 21 Jump Street? Contrast is important, because there is no light without shadows and no shadows without light.
So when you’re writing your lyric, don’t be all romantic and dreamy. Put in some moments of hard truth to contrast your message, and it will be that much stronger.
We already talked about making your partner feel a little vulnerable first to open him or her up for your message. You could talk about things that aren’t going so well in your relationship. Show that you’re aware of these things and sum it all up by saying that it doesn’t matter to you. This shows you’re grounded and not a lunatic. (When you do this, make sure you don’t make your partner feel bad. You just want them to feel a little confused, as in, “What the hell is going on?”)
It also creates a nice kind of tension that ultimately needs to resolve at the end of your song. So whatever you want to say to your partner, the end of your lyric is the best moment to do that – yes, this is your chance to get sappy!
With recommendations from industry heavyweights Erwin Steijlen (Pink, Shakira), Conrad Pope (John William’s orchestrator), Jeff Rona (God of War III, Traffic) and Rene Merkelbach (Within Temptation), Friedemann Findeisen started his songwriting/producing school, Holistic Songwriting, in November 2015. He has since written a book, The Addiction Formula, a seven-day audio program on songwriting, and a video course on drum writing.