This blog post was contributed by award-winning hit songwriter, Brent Baxter
Writing a song is like going on a journey. Maybe you start out with a clear destination in mind. Maybe you just wander, discovering a satisfying destination by happy accident. Either way is fine. However, if you want to write commercially competitive song lyrics, I’ve found that it’s helpful to have a map to avoid songwriting quicksand, dead ends and detours.
For competitive song lyrics, the M.A.P. looks like this:
M.A.P.: MEMORABLE, ACCESSIBLE, POWERFUL
It’s important to note that this M.A.P. doesn’t tell you what kind of song to write. Commercially competitive lyrics can be pop or country, gospel or rock, happy or sad, silly or serious, sincere or sarcastic. Whatever your particular song is, though, using this M.A.P. as a guide will help you on your journey.
So let’s look at each element of this M.A.P. in a little more detail. This won’t be a deep dive into each part, though- just more of the 30,000ft view.
Your listener should remember your song.
How great can your song be if nobody remembers it? The right lyrics can give your song something - or several somethings - that are memorable. Here are a few places you have the opportunity to make something memorable:
Title: That’s usually the first thing a listener will take from a song, so a strong title is invaluable to a writer. A great place to start is with a fresh title. Write titles that haven’t been done to death. “Monday Morning Church” hadn’t been done before, and it helped the song stand out. “The House That Built Me” was another fresh title. Alliteration also helps your title be memorable. Think “Sunrise, Sunburn, Sunset” by Luke Bryan or “Cop Car” by Keith Urban.
Imagery: A picture can get stuck in a listener’s head a lot better than information. “You hurt me” isn’t very memorable. “You treat my heart like a baby treats a diaper” is a lot more memorable. And avoid cliche’ images, because they’re forgettable. Say it in a new way if you can. It’s like writing your lyrics in red or blue ink while everything else is in plain ‘ol black.
Your listener should understand and connect to your song.
The listener must have a way to connect to your song, either emotionally or intellectually. You can be extremely personal, but don’t be too “inside.” Build a very personal room, but be sure and leave an open door so the listener can get inside it. If you lock them out, it hurts your song’s commercial viability. Here are a few areas where you can build those open doors:
Language: Language that is too poetic or high-brow can require too much work from the listener and obscure the meaning of your song. Keep it conversational (while avoiding cliches). Why say, “starlight shimmers on her dead-star love as she breaks the golden promise that encircled us” when you could just say “starlight shines on her engagement ring as she slips it off”? The second option is a lot more clear. I don’t have to miss the next 3 lines of the song while I’m trying to decipher this one.
Relatability: What’s in your lyric for the listener? Why should they care about your song? Is your song something the listener wants to say to someone else or have someone else say to them? Does it make them nostalgic? Does it encourage them? Or does it simply make them laugh and entertain them? There are many good answers- just be sure that you know what the answer is for your song.
Your listener should change in response to your song.
The worst thing your song can do is leave the listener unchanged. You want them to laugh, cry, dance or think. It doesn’t matter if the listener can remember your song and understand your song... if they ultimately don’t care about your song. A great place to start getting the listener to care about your song is by you caring about it first.
Emotion. Write about something you actually care about yourself. If you don’t care about it, it’s gonna be a lot more difficult to get anyone else to care about it. You may have an idea that you think is interesting, but just interesting isn’t enough. There needs to be emotion in it. Have you ever fallen in love with a song because it made you nod and say, “yes, that sure is an interesting concept.” Probably not. I bet you’ve fallen in love with songs that made you laugh or cry or dance or pump your fist in the air. They were songs that made you FEEL something.
Focus. Have one big takeaway (thought or emotion) for the listener. Then focus like a laser on getting your listener to that takeaway. You don’t have time or space for sub-plots and side trips. Focus your idea and make sure every single line supports that idea.
These are by no means the only ways to make your song lyrics Memorable, Accessible and Powerful. But this is a good start. Now go write something, and I hope this M.A.P. helps you get where you want to go.
Keep writing. Enjoy the journey.
ABOUT BRENT BAXTER
Brent Baxter is an award-winning hit songwriter with cuts by Alan Jackson, Randy Travis, Lady Antebellum, Joe Nichols, Gord Bamford, Ray Stevens, and more. He’s written a top 5 hit in the US, a #1 in Canada, and a top 10 in Texas… so far. He teaches songwriters how to write like a pro, how to do business like a pro, and he connects them to the pros through his website, SongwritingPro.com and his podcast, “The C.L.I.M.B.” at theCLIMBshow.com.