How to Write Song Lyrics, Maybe

8 June, 2010
In which I propose a hypothesis about the interaction between music and emotion, and based on that hypothesis I devise a strategy for the writing of song lyrics.

Music and Emotion

We know that music has some sort of emotional effect.

The art of writing lyrics is to write lyrics that somehow match the emotional effect of the music (or vice versa, if one writes the lyrics first).

The problem is, that we don't exactly know what the emotional effect of music actually is. If we did know, then that might help us know how to write better lyrics (and if you are like many aspiring song-writers, it's hard to know how to write any kind of lyrics at all which don't seem lame or ridiculous).


In the interests of science, I am going to propose a plausible hypothesis about how music and emotion interact, with the aim of developing a strategy for writing song lyrics. The success or otherwise of the strategy will be a test of the hypothesis.

And the hypothesis is:

Music acts primarily on emotions derived from imagined scenarios.

The Definition of "Imagined"

A naive understanding of "imagined" is that "imaginary" is the opposite of "real".


What the Hypothesis Explains

One thing readily explained by this hypothesis is the ubiquitous use of music as an accompaniment to scenes in fictional movies (and to some extent in non-fictional movies).

It also explains the "unreal" nature of emotion as supposedly "expressed" by music.

And it explains how we can enjoy "sad" music, because the sadness invoked (or enhanced) by sad music is fictional sadness, and we enjoy all fictional emotions, whether they be positive or negative.

So, How Do I Write Song Lyrics?

As implied by the "maybe" in the title of this article, this hypothesis cannot be accepted with certainty.

However, one can use it to devise a strategy for writing lyrics, and the application of that strategy can be considered to be a scientific test of the hypothesis.

Required: An Imaginary and Imaginative Back-Story

My primary recommendation, is that if you have already written some music, which is strong enough to provide an emotional effect, you should attempt to think of a back-story which is compatible with the emotional tone of the music. To judge compatibility, simply play the music, and imagine the unfolding of the back-story, as if the story was a film, and your music was the accompaniment. The back-story should require some degree of imaginative commitment from the person who is hearing it (or seeing it happen).

Having created a back-story, all you need to do next is write lyrics which make sense as part of the back-story. The lyrics may be a telling of the story, or they may be words said by a character in the story. Either way, the lyrics should require the same commitment of imagination from the listener as if the listener had been told full details of the story.

Of course, even if you find an appropriate back-story, there's still the problem of finding words which match the rhythm of the music, and the flow of tension and release, not to mention the requirement for rhymes. These are difficulties of satisfying multiple constraints, and unfortunately the only solution to those difficulties is a combination of trial, error and persistence.

So good luck with that.