“Lyrics are so important, but they are underrated” – Billie Eillish
If you are a songwriter in country, or folk music, your lyrics are of special importance (but these tips apply to any genre really). It´s the storytelling songs that have a special way of connecting with listeners emotionally. A lot of times, such lyrics stem from real life and are either written like a poem or in a very conversational style.
Bottom line: They are being created from a speaking voice mindset.
In today´s post, you will learn how to write lyrics specifically for singers!
While it may sound obvious that lyrics are meant to be sung, there are in fact a lot of pitfalls when writing lyrics without a proper understanding of the challenges a singer faces when vocalizing vowels and consonants in certain pitches all while focussing on the rhythmic challenges as well.
You might think that singers just take your lyrics and sing them with ease no matter the words that are in it! And while very well trained vocalists might be able to do that, you want to make sure that your lyrics are singable for artists of all genres and including you yourself.
Alright! Enough of an intro already. Let´s look into the most important rules:
1) Understanding vowels and pitches
To begin with, there are obviously 5 vowels in our alphabet, those are: [a], [e], [i], [o], [u] (ah, ey, ee, oh, ooh).
The vowels [i] and [u], are the hardest to sing at higher pitches as they are so called closed vowels. To understand this, let´s make a distinction between tongue and lip vowels:
Lip vs tongue vowels:
[i] and [e] are considered tongue vowels, where your lips don’t move in order to form the vowel, whereas [o] and [u] are lip vowels, that don’t require your tongue to move.
[a] is placed in the middle and is referred to as the most neutral vowel.
Maybe, try singing all those vowels on a comfortable “speaking voice” note. Pay attention to how the tongue moves and how the lips change their shape when you sing out each vowel. This will help you internalize the concept more!
Open vs closed vowels
Besides distinguishing between lip and tongue vowels, we should also distinguish between open and closed vowels. As the name suggests, closed vowels don´t require your mouth to be very open, not needing much space…whereas open vowels take up a lot of space in your mouth and require for you to open your mouth generously.
Closed vowels are harder to sing on higher notes, because generally – higher notes require more space in your mouth to create – especially when singing them loudly.
Singers will often avoid singing closed vowels on higher pitches, and will modify them to their slightly more open neighbours [e] and [o] instead. This is a good way to keep the overtones in the sound, as closed vowels that high up can easily sound forced, and thus not as pretty as intended.
So, keep in mind: When writing lyrics, always make sure to remember, that words with closed vowels might not be the best choice in high pitch areas of your song!
2) Understanding consonants
Besides the 5 vowels, our (Latin) alphabet contains tons of consonants. 21 to be precise! There are two types of consonants, namely voiced and unvoiced ones, and we will look into what that means for our songwriting right now:
Voiced and unvoiced consonants:
The easiest way to find out whether a consonant is voiced or unvoiced is placing a finger on your throat (where the larynx sits). Start pronouncing a letter and feel the vibration of your vocal cords.
If you do feel a vibration, the consonant is voiced.
Try ZZZZ = voiced
Then say PPPP = unvoiced
Noticed the difference? Good!
Still confused anyways? Don´t worry! Here´s another way to explain this:
Voiced consonants use the vocal folds to create sound. Included sounds are
Z , M, N, B, L, G, D, W, J as well as diphtongs such as Ng, Sz.
What about unvoiced consonants?
Instead of making the vocal folds vibrate, those consonants allow the airstream from your lung to flow directly to the mouth where your tongue and lips determine the sound (similar to what we learned in the vowels section). Some voiceless consonants are
Ch, F, H, K, P, S, SH, T, and Th.
How do these consonants affect the singer´s performance?
Voiced consonants can actually benefit the singers breath preparation before belting out the vowels. Sounds like Z or V engage the abdominal muscles, which will support your vowel sounds. Other consonants, such as M and N are super helpful in preparing to sing in the mask, which is crucial in producing a bright, forward sound, which is what pop music aims at, as opposed to classical singing, that tends to be more throaty and darker here and there!
G is a great consonant to add at the beginning of a word (e.g. Go, Give)
Unvoiced consonants can add a bit of airy silkiness to the voice. Think F (as in feel) and K (as in keep). P is a so called “plosive”, that has a very percussive element to it, great for accentuation!
Keep in mind that the following consonants might result tricky especially when recording: ZZZ, SHH, P…These hissing sounds as well as the very plosive P can easily become overbearing when using very sensitive microphones. Obviously, there are tricks to reduce the noises, like using a pop filter and adjusting the placement of the singer in front of the microphone. But it is good to be aware of the problem when writing!
3) Understanding metrics and pitches
Songs that are based on a very fast beat and move up and down the scales constantly, are obviously a challenge for a singer, as those require a great breathing technique and a lot of support from the diaphragm. That´s why a lot of times in modern EDM or pop music, you will hear great beats, but the melodies do not necessarily follow up the fast-pace mood. You can place longer notes and breaks upon a fast-pace groove. Don´t be shy to try the counter intuitive!
4) Understanding prosody
Your verses are traditionally the elements to tell the actual story. A lot of times these verses are very conversational and lower in pitch than the chorus. They are the place in a song, where you connect to the listener on an “eye to eye” level so to say. Or should I say “ear to ear”? In the verses, you may use more complicated words, as melodies won´t be too challenging mostly.
In the chorus on the contrary, you want to create that high energy feel! You want people to get chills and feel like the singer is voicing what they themselves hold inside!
Understanding this, will change your songwriting per se.
Now, to make the singer deliver your message with ease, I recommend using sounds that are pleasent to the ear, which means, open, bright vowels like ah, aa, ee in the chorus.
Those vowels are also easier for the singer to sing in high pitches. Now, just make sure not to use words with too many harsh, or closed consonants in between those open vowels.
Choruses often play with long notes, keeping the pitch up high as long as possible, and then lowering down to the root note or at least “close to” the root note at the end of the hook, thus allowing for a smooth transition back into the verse.
When coming back down to the lower pitch, do make sure to place the most important line of your chorus on this feel good moment. This is a place that gets stuck in peoples heads. A lot of times the last word of the chorus is on an open vowel as well.
So, what next? Why don´t you go back to some of your songs and revise your lyrics with these new tips in mind? Always an eye-opener!
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