How To Balance Conversational and Poetic Language In Your Songwriting

Although songwriters are often praised with the backhanded comment that they are not mere songwriters but poets, in truth, songwriting and poetry are quite distinct. Song lyrics are intended to be sung and heard, not read or spoken. Lyrics with a melody can be poetic certainly, but not so much as to overwhelm the entirety of the song, especially at the start. While complex, abstract ideas succeed in a poem that exists on the page, where it can be scrutinized slowly, the words of a song pass swiftly in time, and must be grasped in the moment. The challenge of the songwriter is to balance simple, conversational language with enriched, poetic language.

Conversational language works perfectly in song because it’s direct; it connects with the listener with the sharp immediacy of real conversation. Dylan understood this when starting a song by lashing out anger, as in “Positively 4th Street”: “You’ve got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend …”

“That’s another way to write a song,” Dylan said about this line. “Just talking to somebody who that ain’t there. That’s the best way. That’s the truest way.”

Paul Simon explained that the use of conversational language to start a song is effective, because, “you have to wait for the audience … their concentration is not even there. You have to be a good host to people’s attention span. They’re not going to come in there and work hard right away. Too many things are coming: the music is coming, they rhythm is coming, all kinds of information that the brain is... Sign In to Keep Reading

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