Songwriter Theory Podcast
Episode 12

How To Write Lyrics Within Your Theme

Joseph Vadala published on

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Episode Writeup:

Do you ever wonder where to go with your lyrics? Do you have a great theme, but don’t know how to get a chorus, bridge, and 2+ verses?

We’ve all been there. Here are 3 methods to figure out how to write a full set of lyrics from your theme.

Expansion Principle

A song idea often starts with a single lyrical line or symbol.

And then you ask yourself how you get to 2 verses, a chorus, and a bridge out of that. Maybe even 3 verses.

That is where we get the expansion principle.

I’ll illustrate with a story.

A long, long time ago, in a state fairly far away, I had just found out my grandfather had cancer and likely only a year or so to live.

I was upset and already angry at the people who would respond with some cop-out like “I’m so sorry, but I’m sure it will be ok” or “You’ll get through this”

Let me feel some sadness, will you? So I wrote the lyric “This night seems so long, just waiting to hear it’s all a bad dream, maybe someday it will be alright, but no it won’t be tonight”

In other words “shut up about how it will be alright someday. It’s not someday yet. Let me feel this sadness without trying to make me feel bad about it or saying I should just pray away the sad.” That just doesn’t make quite as good a lyric.

But that was all I wrote.

So the lyric, at this point, was simply about how it won’t be ok tonight. “Why?” and “What happened?” haven’t been answered yet.

A few months later my girlfriend broke up with me. So, I did what any sane human would do. I did nothing but cry and watch “Everybody Loves Raymond” for 50 hours straight, all while consuming no liquids and no food.

Then I decided that songwriters lived for the sad moments they could use for creative magic. So I sat at the piano and cranked out 3 verses and all the music for “Won’t Be Tonight”.

The lyric that started from a short lyric about today not being alright became a song mourning the rejection and loss of someone you thought was always going to be there. The first verse captures the feelings in the moment of the breakup, the second deals with bitterness in the direct aftermath, and the third with the loneliness you’re left with at the end.

The expansion principle. We started with a rough night. We ended with a story of many rough nights, with shock, bitterness, and sadness in between.

Reduction Principle

Sometimes we start with a concept that is just too big to tackle in a song. “Homelessness” or “Alzheimer's” for example.

If you wrote a song about homelessness in general, it would probably come across as preachy or unrelatable.

But what if you told the story of the woman on the street corner in the pink, dirty jacket. All of a sudden we have story we can attach to. Something we care about. Homelessness is a fact. A homeless PERSON is a tragedy we care about.

Or, how about Alzheimer's Disease? I wanted to write a song on this for a while as two of my grandparents had it.

 

But I just didn’t know where to start. Alzheimer’s in general is far too broad and factual. For some reason, I couldn’t figure out a way to write a song from my experience either.

But then I went to a play that was about Alzheimer’s and finally got the inspiration I needed.

The play was called “The Things We Keep”. It centered around a man suffering from Alzheimer’s and the effect it had on his family.

A recurring part of the play was the concept of him going outside and sitting down on a stump. He believed it was a bus stop and the bus would come and take him where he needed to go- to those he remembers.

After the play, they talked about how using a fake bus stop is actually something some Alzheimer's care facilities do. It prevents the patients from running away, as they merely wait at the fake bus stop. This gives the workers the opportunity to go out and talk to them. Eventually the patients forget why they were out there in the first place, and the workers can guide them back inside.

Now I had my story. I started with the huge concept of “Alzheimer’s” and ended with a story of a man and his older relative who keeps waiting for the bus to take him back to those he knows.

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