I often hear people say that “lyrics are just poems put to music,” but I disagree. Whenever I hear a poet speaking, their words seem much different than anything I could write to a song. It’s as if the absence of melody requires them to take bolder chances, to read and speak in a different way than if they were to sing. Let’s say you’re a poet interested in having your poem turned into a song. What are the steps?
Poets and Writers: How to Write Song Lyrics
I’m numbering these to make them easier to remember, but don’t feel like you need to follow them step by step! Here’s how I created these steps:
When I was a kid, I *really* wanted to be a songwriter, but had no idea how. I couldn’t play any instruments, and I didn’t feel confident about my music abilities at all. Since all I could do was write lyrics, I started there. These “poems” were not good (you can read more about them in my About Page here). Over time, I developed a system to take these words and create songs from them. I’ve also helped several poets and writers turn their poetry into lyrics with these steps!
If you’re going through this process, tweet me and let me know your progress!I'm turning my poetry into song lyrics! Click To Tweet
1). Use reference songs
Who are your favorite artists? Favorite songs? What do you want your song to sound like? You can actually take a song and fit your words into it – simply find a karaoke and speak your words over it. How do they fit? Play around with different songs and styles until you find something that works for you.
“Are you suggesting I just copy another song? Isn’t that illegal?!”
Yes, it’s highly illegal and yes, that’s what I’m suggesting. This is just practice! In no way will you be selling or even posting these songs anywhere. This is just to get your mind to think in terms of song rhythm and away from poetry. I have MANY clients who have me sing covers that are parodies. They take lyrics and re-write them for a friend or loved one. They’re not selling the song, so it’s not illegal. As long as you don’t post these or try to release them as your own, you’re fine! A producer will help make your song different anyway (see #7).
I do not recommend copying someone’s work and releasing it as your own! That’s not what you’re doing here. See #7 for how a producer can change your song!
2). Work with a songwriter or topliner
I’m a topliner, which means I create vocal melodies and lyrics for instrumentals. I’ve been doing this professionally for years, so I’m often able to see someone’s poems in a way they won’t.
A songwriter would honestly be better for this, because they can also create the instrumental track for you. Either way, just have someone who is music-minded look over it for you. They’ll look at it in a completely different way and they’ll give you ideas you wouldn’t have considered.
3). Speak/rap your poetry to a metronome
This might feel silly, but you’ve got to do it! It’s the only way to find out how your poem flows. If there are spots that feel clunky or are difficult to say, this means they’ll likely be difficult to sing as well. You can change up the timing and see if that works, but if you have any spots that won’t work, you’ll find out with this exercise.
Here is an online metronome. You can also speak your poetry to a karaoke track if hearing the music helps you!
4). Choose your poem’s refrain
Most songs have a chorus or refrain of some type, so you’ll want to keep that in mind when converting your poetry into lyrics. There are two options for doing this:
a). You choose the section of poetry words that you want to repeat
b). You don’t repeat words, but you repeat a melody
B is a lot harder in my opinion, but it is possible. One of my favorite examples of this style of writing is “Dear” by Maria Mena. The chorus lyrics are different every time. You only know it’s a chorus because the melody is the same. If you are not a songwriter, you’ll definitely need to work with someone in order to use this option!
The far easier method is A. Simply choose your favorite words (or the words you think sum up the meaning of your poem) and repeat those. It can be as simple as one line. You’ll just need to make sure it fits a song structure (see #6).
5). Study other songwriters who are famous poets and writers
Not every songwriter is a poet, so you’ll want to study artists who are very lyric-focused. Some examples would be Joni Mitchell, Jewel, Justin Nozuka and Maria Mena. Anyone whose lyrics you admire, study how they do it! Find their lyrics online and read them without thinking of any music. In this case, it’s easier to study someone you don’t know well, because the song won’t be in your head when you read it.
Study how they write. Pay attention to their rhyme structure, the words they use and how they end lines. This will help you see how they approach writing for music instead of poetry.
6). Study song structure
Typically, a song will follow this type of structure:
Verse 2 (or pre-chorus)
Verse 4 (or pre-chorus)
Of course, there are MANY different ways of arranging this. I don’t want to give you too many ideas and overcomplicate things, so just focus on this structure for now. See how your words might fit into this format.
7). Hire a Producer
I worked at a recording studio in Detroit and we would often have poets or lyricists come into the studio. They simply handed us a sheet of lyrics and we would work on it for a few hours until we got something the writer liked. This isn’t a cheap option, per se, but it’s the easiest on your part and you’ll get to leave with a song.
This kind of ties in with #2, but you can do either separately. Songwriters typically still use producers to flesh out and finish their songs, so you’re essentially skipping that step here.
Also, I want to mention #1, because this step is why you can feel free to copy an existing song. A producer can use the copy you’ve made and turn it into something completely different. You bring the rough idea and they can do things like change the key, add different instruments, even change the genre, so that by the end you’ll have a different song. This is the reason why I say you can copy other songs! I do not and never would advocate just copying a melody or lyrics and releasing them as your own. That’s illegal and you can get sued. However, this method will ensure that you get a start on a song and wind up with something completely different.
What if I want to create a song this way, but I don’t have a poem I’d like to use?
There are many exercises and challenges you can find online. Try searching for “Poetry prompts” or exercises or something, then work on something that speaks to you! It is also helpful if you decide on some type of rhythm or tempo NOW before you get started. Trust me. If you know what beat you’re writing to, you’ll avoid tricky situations later where you either have too many or not enough words. This isn’t a requirement, but is helpful down the road!
Ultimately, either term (poetry or lyrics) is subjective. What you consider poetry may be entirely different from what I consider it to be. And that’s okay. The beauty of word ‘creativity’ is that even if no one reads or hears it, it still exists. Every diary you’ve written, every Post It note, every song unrecorded has still existed and changed you. Even if no one hears your words, like a tree in the woods, it still makes a sound.
Do you have a favorite poet or lyricist? Let me know who I should check out!
This post was originally published on 4/1/2016.