5 Easy Songwriting Exercises to Improve Your Lyrics
Are you tired of writing lyrics you don’t love? Maybe you constantly listen to your favourite songs, wondering how they wrote such amazing lines. In this article, we’ll discuss 5 incredibly powerful exercises for turning your ideas into lyrical gold.
This article is a summarised transcript of our video “5 Simple Songwriting Exercises to Transform Your Lyrics”. Click here to watch the video for more details, explanations and examples.
Exercise #1: Extending Metaphors
Metaphors are a songwriter’s best friend. They allow you to describe one thing through the lens of another, creating rich and vivid imagery. But the true magic happens when you extend a metaphor.
Take the example: “Anger is a storm.” Instead of stopping there, spend time expanding on this metaphor. Describe how anger darkens your thoughts like gathering storm clouds, how your words become lightning, and your voice, thunder. The goal is to paint a detailed picture for your listeners. You don’t have to use every line you come up with – just pick out the best bits.
The reason this works is because listeners get a large amount of dopamine from having to connect the two ideas in a metaphor. This then makes them invested in the song’s story. A great example of metaphor can be found in Ani DiFranco’s song “School Night”.
Here’s how you can practice extending metaphors:
- Come up with 5 different metaphors. You can use a random word generator such as this to help you come up with your combinations.
- Spend 5 to 10 minutes extending the metaphor, making sure you use words, phrases and images that are related to the metaphor image. For example, the metaphor image in the metaphor “jealousy is a kitchen” would be the word “kitchen”.
Listening to songs with great metaphors is also a great way to improve your usage of metaphor. Some other examples of songs with amazing metaphors are “Golden” by Jill Scott, “Circle Games” by Joni Mitchell and “Take Me to Church” by Hozier.
To learn more about how to write great lyrics, download this free PDF eBook on “The 5 Best Songwriting Exercises for Writing Great Lyrics”:
Exercise #2: Upgrading Verbs
Verbs are the powerhouse of language. They convey action, mood, tone, and emotion. Unlike adjectives and adverbs, which can weaken your lyrics, strong verbs add depth and resonance to your words. Jeff Tweedy – author of the book “How to Write One Song” – says “You don’t need to say ‘The dog barked loudly’. Loudly is implied. And adding it actually weakens the bark”.
Famous author Stephen King has also said “The road to hell is paved with adverbs”. An example of the power of verbs in practice, would be to consider alternatives like “she slid into the room,” “she slithered into the room,” or “she flowed into the room.”, instead of saying, “She walked into the room,”. Each verb choice evokes a different mood and image.
Phoebe Bridgers shows us how to use verbs very well in her song “Motion Sickness”.
Here’s how you can practice extending verbs:
- Go through the lyrics for any of the songs that you’re currently working on, and cross out all adjectives and adverbs unless they absolutely have to be there. For example, the word “red” in the line “track suits and red wine movies for two” is necessary but you wouldn’t need to say “floral red wine”.
- Underline all the verbs that you’ve used in your lyrics.
- Pick one verb per section and upgrade that verb to something more interesting.
Exercise #3: Use Specific Imagery
Stephen King has said “Good description usually consists of a few well-chosen details that will stand in for everything else”. This is even more true for song because we have limited real-estate available to create entire images in our listener’s minds.
The line “I find my glasses and you turn the light out” from Amanda Palmer’s song “The Bed Song” demonstrates this very well. It paints a vivid picture of two people living in the same space but somehow not being on the same page, because they’re both doing different things. If you want to learn more about imagery, check out this video here.
Here’s how you can practice using specific imagery:
- Take a line of lyric you’ve written that you can identify as more telling than showing or more general rather than specific.
- Spend 5 minutes and try to invert that line so that it shows more than tells. For example, instead of saying “It was a beautiful, normal Sunday afternoon”, describe how the leaves looked swaying in the wind or how the BBQ smelt on the breeze.
Exercise #4: Contrasts
There is something very compelling when we combine opposing concepts together in the same line of lyric. By juxtaposing opposing concepts such as day and night, good and bad, or hot and cold, you create tension that captivates your listeners.
A spectacular example of a song that uses contrasts is “She Burns” by Foy Vance. The constant use of opposites such as “Hot and cold”, and “Frozen and burning”, serves to amplify the hook of the song, which is “She Burns”.
Exercise #5: Power Positions
The first and last line of any section in a song will naturally command more attention from your listeners. So, it’s important that we really use these two lines to their fullest extent, and maximise the impact that they have.
To do this, we’re going to use a technique that I call the “last line pivot”. Let’s take a look at the following section from Joni Mitchell’s song “River”:
It’s coming on Christmas
They’re cutting down trees
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on
The last line of that section creates so much surprise because prior to that, there was so much Christmas imagery – which is normally associated with positivity. But the last line subverts the listener’s expectations of positivity, and keeps them interested in learning more of the story.
Here is two ways you can practice making the most of your song’s power positions:
- Stack images that describe something – whether that’s a feeling, event or experience. Then, use that last line to pivot the narrative.
- Alternatively, you could reverse engineer your section by starting with your last line. This way, you can think about what the target is and write the opposite of that for the rest of the section.
Conclusion: 5 Easy Songwriting Exercises to Improve Your Lyrics
Writing good lyrics takes a lot of practice, and is a source of frustration for many songwriters. By using these techniques, you can help ease this process through providing yourself with a set structure and method to think through during the lyric writing process.
If you would like more details, explanations and examples, then be sure to check out the video now.
Level up your songwriting with five radically practical exercises used by professional songwriters around the world: