Unless the music you make is purely instrumental, the tone, felling, and narrative of the lyrical content in your songs is most likely going to be an important part of your musical identity. Depending on the kind of music you make, you might not think lyrics are all that important, but you’d be wrong. Yes, music speaks when words fail, but the stories portrayed in music often do a great deal as far as reaching out and relating to an audience. Approach lyrics with honesty, thoughtfulness, and poetic potency, and you’ll have a proven way to inspire real emotion and understanding from a listener. But all too often, songwriters rely on cliches to help tell the stories in their songs. Here are four lyrical cliches to avoid:
Speaking in extremes
Lyrical extremes like singing about how you’ll wither up and die if someone doesn’t love you are annoying, but even more than that, they sound phony. Unless you’re masterfully weaving in lyrical narratives steeped in magical realism, presenting extreme thoughts and feelings in music can often come off as sounding immature, undeveloped, and lazy. Nuanced, complicated, and poetic lyrical ideas take more work to develop, but they work better nearly every time.
Rhyming every lyric just for the sake of it
Incorporating rhymes into your music can be completely fine as what you’re doing truly serves your music. Songwriters get into real trouble when they think every word at the end of a phrase needs to be rhymed. The bigger picture of what works and what doesn’t within songs has two parts: lyrical narrative and phrasing. The lyrics of your songs should be cohesive, challenging and engaging, and the phrasing needs to be catchy, concise, and impactful. If rhyming helps these two parts work together, then go for it. But for when it doesn’t, you’ll need to find creative ways to present lyrics and phrasing without rhyming.
Singing “Tonight” over and over again in your choruses
I’m not really sure why, but so many bands do this, and it’s awful. More than hallmark of hackneyed pop punk music, singing stuff like “it all comes down to tonight” is something artists from lots of genres do. But unless something truly significant having to do with “tonight” is in a story you’re singing about, the tonight thing is a bad idea. As a general rule, there’s only so many lyrics in any given song, so everything you say needs to further a larger narrative. If you don’t have a narrative, then no amount of cheesy lyrical cliches are going to help you.
Unless you’re aiming to portray some sort of character within your music, inauthenticity in lyrics is something you should go out of your way to avoid. Most people memorize and sing along to a song’s lyrics because the music is relating to them on some level. The best shot you’ll have at relating to your audience is if you can present your thoughts and ideas in a way that is both genuine and thoughtful. No, this doesn’t mean you should just sing about whatever happens to pop in your head, but that you’ll need to present your raw feelings and interpretations of life in an engaging and entertaining way.
Patrick McGuire is a musician, writer, and educator currently residing in the great city of Philadelphia. He creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.