One of the top books I recommend to budding songwriters is Writing Better Lyrics by Pat Pattison (2010).
The Berklee College professor has provided us with the ideal workbook – complimenting the many principles he introduces with numerous practical exercises for you to start putting the principles into practice. Doing these exercises while reading the book instantly improved my lyric writing. Here are some of the highlights of the book, and the reasons you need to read it too.
Pattison begins right away, with what in many ways seems to be the most important practice he avows, and which many of his students have testified as to having made the most difference to them: Object Writing. In Pat’s words:
If I asked you to describe the room you’re in, your answer would be primarily, if not completely, visual. Try spending a little time alone with each sense. What’s there? How does the kitchen table smell? How would the rug feel if you rubbed your bare back on it? How big does the room sound? . . . (Writing Better Lyrics, p.4)
You could do worse than implementing this practice alone – spending 10 minutes a day, or even just once a week, to practise ‘deep diving’ into your sense-memory around a particular object – you’d be surprised what language you can come out with when you enter into this kind of focus.
Practice your lyric writing
As mentioned above, Pattison includes exercises regularly throughout the the book – a total of 50 in all, and they are invaluable.
Here’s an entertaining insight into one exercise that had me extending a simple four-line structure about a visit to a coffee shop until it was stretched to seven lines which had to stick to a particular rhyme scheme (it works best to stick to the rules Pattison sets):
A window on a coffee shop
An aromatic scene
Right then I knew I had to stop
And sample just a little drop
A nervous smile rose to the top
Lured in by froth and grind and pop
O sweet, o bitter bean!
He then plunges through several other humdingers in the next few chapters – taking in discussions of metaphors, clichés and ‘worksheets’ (this last being something that revolutionised my thinking about songwriting such that I already find I can’t do without making one when I have a new song idea that I want to seriously develop).
Things then slow down as you dive deeper and begin to breathe slower, and Pat shows you every possible which way to do rhyme, rhythm and metre, position ideas in the song, use repetition (or not), structure your song, and so much more besides. The exercises can become a bit tedious here if you are just out for kicks, but for the serious student of songwriting wanting to do better, finding the best time and place to work on these and keep yourself motivated and creatively inspired will surely pay dividends. I worked through many of them, often surprising myself with the results.
Treasure for those brave enough to go down the mine . . .
This book will have to be revisited, I think, every year perhaps for the next few years. I certainly haven’t got my head around every concept. One thing I can tell you: there were a couple of songs that emerged as I was in the first few chapters, and they are (in my humble opinion) some of my best work. Because I followed Pat’s advice. I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until I have an opportunity to record those songs to hear them.
One other thing: this is only for the unafraid. To move sideways from the diving metaphor: those ready to suit up; to chip away at the rock-face of every bland idea they’ve ever had that used to be ‘good enough’. Those who aren’t precious about their initial ideas but know there is a better song, a ‘better lyric’ somewhere in there. You might become convinced that your 3-stress line here really needs to have 4 stresses; what will that do to the great melody you had lined up? This book will be your headlamp, your pick and your harness. Start digging.