Let Your Lyrics Breathe
You can save your song instead of trashing it
Are you fighting with your song, wrestling with the lyrics until you’re ready give up and throw it out….
If your song has any of these symptoms then there’s hope, keep reading!
- It’s hard to memorize (or harder than usual)
- It’s hard to sing the lyrics
- There are too many words
- You can’t explain what the song is about (in less than 2 sentences)
- It looks good on paper but it sounds weak when you sing it
- It started off great but you don’t like it anymore
- The lyric sheet is more than one typed page
- You know there’s a problem but you don’t know what it is….
You need to let your lyrics breathe!
Your need to breathe while singing it…
If there are too many syllables in the line, or there’s no time to breathe between phrases you have to carve out some more space so you can sing without running out of air.
But your audience needs to breathe too!
You have to leave space, rests in the lines of lyrics, for your audience to absorb your message…
For your audience to love your song, to remember your lyrics and be moved by the song, they need to understand your message the first time they hear it… if there’s too much going on, the story isn’t clear, or the lyrics are too hard to figure out… it’s time to simplify the song or:
You will leave your audience out and you will lose them.
Let’s start with why you’re causing this problem, so you avoid it in the future.
Then we can move on to solving it, so you can save your song….
You could be creating breathing problems because:
1. You feel you have to fill up the whole song with lyrics. This is more common in singer/songwriter situations, when you only have your voice and an instrument to work with.
2. You can have a disconnect between written words and how you sing them especially when you write lyrics first (before the music):
- if there are too many syllables in a bar
- write lyrics for every bar
- forget to write transitions, or
- forget to plan for or include signature instrumental licks / phrases
3. You don’t have enough tension and release – a constant stream of lyrics creates tension or intensity … if you don’t release it with rests (instrumental passages) the effect becomes monotonous, boring the audience attention and losing their attention
4. You don’t test your songs… your audience needs to connect with your song the first time they hear it. When you have been working on a song, you have been immersed in the world you are creating. Getting useful musical opinions from people you trust gives you a reality check… fresh ears can identify problems and challenge your assumptions, so you can find and fix problems without driving yourself crazy. (Read more about testing your song)
Finding Breathing Solutions
Listen to your favourite songs, listen for:
- pacing in the lyrics,
- space (rests between lyrics), and
- how instrumental transitions connect between phrases and song sections
Learn new songs, listen for:
- space between the lyrics,
- instrumental transitions, at the end of lines or between sections
- when and where to use signature licks
Listen to how the lyrics create tension/intensity and how it is released by instrumental passages.
During rests in the lyrics your audience has time to absorb and understand the meaning of your words. It takes a little time to decode and fully understand the lyrics, to figure out the words, understand your metaphors and mentally paint the picture you are singing. Short rests in the lyrics give your audience the chance to mentally interact with the ideas in your song.
Action Steps to Fix Your Breathing
- Improve your imagery, maximize your metaphors, clean up the language
- Parse your lyrics, remove unnecessary words or use phrases with fewer syllables
- Simplify your lyrics, use fewer words, use fewer syllables
- Simplify your vocabulary, use words that are easier to sing and easier to understand
- Play with the intensity of your music / lyrics, notice how the energy rises and falls within a section and throughout the song. It is common to have more syllables in a line of verse than a chorus, to build intensity (as well as tell a more detailed story
- Trust yourself when you make a “mistake” singing your lyrics – sometimes you have just found a better lyric. I notice this most often in new songs… when I “accidentally” sing something better than I originally wrote down
- Repeat some lyrics, especially keywords or important phrases
- Repeat a section, doubling a chorus is an easy one, add something to the arrangement to add interest to the second one
- Add instrumental transitions, between lines or especially between sections. Reuse part of a chord progression in your chorus to move to the next verse.
Other helpful articles:
What to Write (when you don”t know what to write)