Our spelling, punctuation, grammar, syntax, etc. is better than there's, so if you spot a error chances are it should be read as sic. Thanks to Sam Gaines for the careful retyping job.
The fundamental lesson in lyric writing is that a lyric is only half a song -- a song must be complete before it can be considered by either a publisher, record company, or artist. To make the song complete, the lyrist must work with a melody collaborator. Any striking originality created in the lyric must be carried out in the melody. Unless there is a sharing of this unique approach to originality in songwriting, the 50/50 collaboration can end in disaster.
The music business has functioned pretty well as a business for a long number of years. While you may not agree, the owners of the music companies feel they have made money in their hit-or-miss methods and that no other method has proved itself -- although many have been tried. These owners have seen certain definite things happen in songwriting, and because these things have proven successful, they have stuck to the tried-and-found successful methods. The first "thing" is the actual construction of a song. The repetition you hear in a song has found favor with singers and the public -- and so the publishers have fallen in the line and demand a pattern in songs. Out of all the songs published only an occasional song fails to live up to the pattern. This is a rarity, the original song, and it simply goes to prove the standard rule. When the songwriter becomes an impressive member of the songwriting fraternity, he can play around with new and different patterns and his reputation will carry the song.
For the new writer, the best advice is to stick to the standard patterns. In doing this, you not only stand a better hearing with publishers and artists (who find pattern, repetitive songs easy to memorize) but your melody collaborator will be able to work with you in a better manner. The most common pattern, used in most of our songs, is the AABA pattern. It is called this because the lyric is divided into four stanzas (each letter in AABA standing for one stanza); and the lines in each stanza conform, in syllables, to each other in such a way that there is exact repetition. Putting it in a different way: You write the first stanza to your lyric. Then in writing the second stanza, you use exactly the same syllables as in the first stanzas. The first line of both stanzas have exactly the same number of syllables and fall in the same pattern. The same goes for the second lines, third lines, etc. While you use different words, you do use exactly the same syllables, with the long and short syllables falling exactly alike, they form the AA part of your AABA lyric.
Your third stanza is totally different in the number and style of the syllables. Since it is totally different, we call it B. The last stanza reverts to the syllables in the first two stanzas and is an exact duplication (except that there can be a slight variation at the very end to reach a climax). Since there is actually a duplication, we call this an A stanza. That gives you AABA.
What does this mean to the melody writer? It means, simply, that he can write a proper melody, acceptable to modern standards. He writes a melody strain for your fist A stanza. Then, since you have exactly repeated the syllables in the second stanza, he can repeat his melody, note for note, in this second stanza. After this for the third stanza, he writes a new strain for the B stanza. He concludes the song with a reversion to the first strain. Melodically, he, too, has an AABA pattern. Using the same pattern development as the above, you can work out the other popular song patterns; ABAB, ABAC, AA. In the last one, AA, there is no bridge. You simply repeat the first half of your song, note for note, in the second half. ("White Christmas" is an example of this song pattern.)
There you have the actual construction of a lyric. It is the accepted construction in that most of our songs are written in this manner, and the publishers and artists have come to prefer them. There is a method and an art to proper lyric construction, just as you need blueprints to build a house, and a TV set plan before you go poking around the tubes and interior of your set. A good book on songwriting will help you even more in the study of proper lyric writing. Learn to learn. Don't feel that you know all there is to know, and that you don't need instruction. Most lyricists DO need this knowledge of song construction. Failure to know it can prove harmful to you in your invasion of the music world. You know now, that you need a melody collaborator in your work and that you need to write a lyric in proper pattern. The next stop is writing that lyric so that it is commercial, professional and adaptable to our present music usages.
The lyrics that are most successful are those that are written simply, are easy to sing, and tell a story that comes from the heart. A lyric is written expressly to be sung. Unless it is sung, it is not a lyric -- it is a poem. In a poem you have tremendous license. You can turn out a poem that abounds with tumultous prose. You can go to extremes in describing the extreme. But you can't do this in a popular lyric. While your lines will rhyme, you cannot and will not write "poetry". People do not sing poetry, and poetry does not appeal to our general public in song form.
You must avoid all poetic structure and feeling in your song lyrics except for the simple rhyme. Your story must be told as you would speak it to a friend or your family. It must be a simply told story, in words that come out smoothly and evenly -- easy for a singer to learn, easy for the public to grasp from a record or a radio performance. The moment you make it difficult for a singer to learn, you harm the potentialities of that song because the singer will avoid that song. And the public won't buy records and sheet music. In recent years the folk song has been predominant in our song world. These songs have been the ultimate in simplicity. The stories are told without resort to any form of poetry, or high feeling. The words seem to come tumbling out of the mouths of the singers and into the ears of the public. These have proved the most commercial, and the publisher will be more attuned to such songs from new writers. His business is to sell songs -- not to raise the level of the song audience.
The most common error in lyric writing, by new lyrists, comes in the development of the lyric story. The new writer simply puts a lot of drivel on paper -- what he believes will make a song lyric -- and then wonders why it doesn't sell. When you write your lyric, ask yourself if you would want to sing such a lyric, whether you'd buy that song in a store if you had heard it on the air. Ask yourself, frankly, if you, yourself, think it is a good salable song. There are only a limited number of lyric ideas. Our best lyric ideas have been used a million times. And the reason they have been used so often, and been successful, is that each time the idea is changed enough to give it a new story. You can't use the same idea, exactly. Your job as a lyrist, is to take an idea and give it a new twist, a new angle. The manner in which you do this, the originality you show, will make or break your lyric. Everything depends on your expressing that old idea into a new idea -- dressing it up in a new style, a new song approach. Love is the essence of most lyrics. You can't keep on saying "I love you." People want a new means of saying it. Therefore, you cange it. A song title becomes "You're Mine", or "You're Always in My Heart" -- each one expressing that same love, but telling it in a new and different manner. That twist, that changing, in lyric ideas is the core of all lyric writing.
In your story, there has to be something that will capture the imagination of the buying public. It may come in the title, or in the story you tell. Your song, actually, is a commercial product that is in competition with thousands of other songs. What is the one thing, in your song, that will capture the public's imagination and make them buy YOUR SONG? You need that selling point in your song, and your story, or your title, must provide that added incentive. As your lyric unfolds, there must be a consistency in your story. One stanza must follow the thought of the preceding one, until you reach a logical conclusion to your story. Don't change the story ideas amid-stream or amid-stanzas. Work out your story theme in advance, and then follow it as though you were writing a play or a book. Once that lyric is finished, put it away for a short time, then go over it again. Take it word by word. Strengthen it, word by word. Sing a melody to it -- any melody -- just to get the feel of the words. If those words don't roll off the tongue properly, then pick other words.
Your aim in lyric writing should be to write a good lyric that will gain public attention and consideration. To do this, you should abide by the standards, the rules and practices that are common in Nashville. You can't change these rules overnight, because that would mean changing the people who buy songs and records. Take the practical, commercial viewpoint that you should write material that has sales value. This material is in competition with every other song product now on the market. It must be a better product, it must be one that appeals to a lot of performers and record company officials. Writing a lyric takes a lot of practice, a lot of good, plain hardwork . It doesn't come easy to most people. A good lyric is one of the hardest things to write. Your chance of turning out a really good lyric can come from your mental approach: the knowledge that a lyric must be written properly, it must be easy to sing, and it must have a commercial appeal that will make a person go into a music store and buy your song. This means that you must be original; you must tell your story in a new way; you must give the public a real reason for wanting your song.