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From the Muse

Lyrics 101

Finding a suitable partner for your music.

A good marriage is a team, right? It’s when two people complement one another, each making the other look better. A balanced, harmonious effort from both parties will yield the best results. Same as in a song. But if the words fall short, worthy music can be left alone at the altar. 🙁

I’ve been mentoring at a few different music festivals recently, helping aspiring (and some relatively advanced) songwriters better understand their craft. In critiquing their work, I’ve noted a number of common missteps when it comes to lyrics.

Here are some of them. You might think these are no-brainers, but it can be hard to have perspective while you’re in the heat of the moment writing a song.

– The First Line: This is sometimes the hardest of all the lines. It may take you as much time to write it (or rewrite it) as the rest of the song. Make sure it’s attention getting. Make it impossible for me to ignore you.

– Context: In high school we’re taught that in the first paragraph of an essay we should reveal things like who-what-when-where. Remember? (I hated it!) Well, the same goes for song lyrics. A little orientation in the first verse gives the listener some frame of reference as to what’s about to unfold.

– Pronoun Consistency: Is it “I”? Is it “You”? Is it “We Are The World?” Pick one. And stay there. Or else I’m not going to know whose point of view the song is coming from.

– Tense: Are we in the past? Is this happening now? Is it something you imagine for the future? Be consistent here too. Yes, we can be in the present looking back and remembering when, but make sure to be clear that you’re looking over your shoulder.

– Mood: Are you hopelessly in love? Irreparably devastated? (I hope not.) Are you sick of the world? Feeling empowered? Keep the thread of that emotion throughout.

– Flow: There can be a stream of tasty ingredients adjacent to each other line after line, but if they don’t logically connect to each other the listener is going to be confused. (My husband often reminds me that the audience isn’t in my head. What? I assume that they’re going to know what I mean even if I leave out that one thing. Sadly, they won’t.)

– Concept: It may be a noble effort, but saving the planet is too ambitious to realistically solve in one song. A song should zero in on a brief moment in time. If you put it under a microscope there is usually much to say about it.

– Overthinking: Did you have me at hello and then jump the shark with TMI? Less is more.

– Variation: If all your lines are the same length and cadence I’m going to be yawning by the second verse. Mix ‘em up. Long, short, full sentences, snippets. (You’ll find more about this in our blog article Words and Music.)

The funny things about these observations is that I learn so much about making my own lyrics tighter by listening to yours. The most important takeaway (and the one I’m constantly reminding myself of, even after 20 years of professional songwriting) is: Be Yourself. What makes a song remarkable and memorable is a universal concept with a unique point of view — something that everybody can relate to but nobody has ever said “quite like that.” So ask yourself what makes you you and try to avoid chasing the last Taylor Swift hit because nobody is going to write her song better than she is.

Last but not least, I have been surprised to hear some writers say that they write just once a week. I don’t get it. Writers write! They get better by writing. Try to put time aside every day to “journal” even when you’re not in the mood, or nothing in particular happened lately that you feel is worth journaling about. You might be surprised. It’s the best way to get through the noise and stumble on the magic.


You can read a new From the Muse blog on the second Monday of every month. Check out Shelly’s other postings.


Shelly Peiken
Grammy-nominated songwriter Shelly Peiken has been a behind-the-scenes force in the music business for more than two decades. She is best known for penning female-empowerment anthems such as Christina Aguilera’s Number One hit “What a Girl Wants” and Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch.” Her book “Confessions of a Serial Songwriter,” a memoir that chronicles her journey from a young girl falling under the spell of magical songs to writing hits of her own, earned her a second Grammy nomination for Best Spoken Word Album. Shelly lives in Los Angeles and is a fierce advocate of creators’ rights with her grassroots organization, SONA (Songwriters of North America). You can find her music at

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