My biggest hits have been romantic ballads or mid-tempo songs. So, I’m not the stereotypical writer who writes all of the time. I’m not afraid to write a ballad! And, I don’t think you should be either. Some of the biggest songs in music history have been love ballads and I’m going to teach you everything I know about writing them here!
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The most important thing to remember when writing lyrics for love songs is that the one BEING loved has to believe what the LOVER (the singer) is saying. If the lyrics sound made up or contrived, then the song will not work.
For example, one of my friends told me that he was lying in bed with his wife one night and she asked “Do you still love me?” He responded, “Of course I still love you. I tell you all the time.” She said, “I know, but we’ve been married 30 years. Tell me how much you love me.” He isn’t a songwriter and knew he was in big trouble, so he said the only thing he could think of, “You’re the grass beneath my feet.”
She instantly hopped out of bed and yelled, “So I’m what you walk on?” She slept in the other room and he had some making up to do in the morning. Let’s look at the reasons his comment didn’t have the desired effect even though it was creative, it painted a picture and it was poetic.
First, it wasn’t heartfelt. It was a worn-out cliché’. People don’t swoon over clichés. It’s the same old thing they’ve heard all of their lives. You’re unlikely to touch someone emotionally or make them feel loved with a cliché’.
Secondly, it wasn’t honest. He wasn’t REALLY sharing his feelings with her. Instead of trying to be clever, he would have been better off just saying “You make my life easy, soft and wonderful.” That might have had the opposite result. She might have wanted to be CLOSER to him if he had spoken from his heart. Instead, he made up something that felt contrived and disingenuous.
Thirdly, it wasn’t clear. There are ALL kinds of ways that statement could be misunderstood and she instantly went to one of them. You never want to say something to someone you love that could be interpreted in the opposite way you intend it to come across.
Finally, it wasn’t what she wanted to hear. What she really wanted was for him to say “I can’t imagine life without you” or “I love you more than I ever have”. She wasn’t looking for something creative. She wanted something real and from his heart, not a cliché’ he heard somewhere along the line.
So, how do I apply all of that to writing a romantic lyric that is fresh, honest and real, while avoiding cliché’s and clever lines that don’t hit the heart?
I start by keeping things conversational. My wife appreciates clear, direct communication in regard to my feelings for and about her. So, I keep my lyrics that way too. My biggest hit, “Must Be Doin’ Somethin’ Right” really only has one clever or creative line in it. Here’s the chorus:
Must be doin’ somethin’ right
I just heard you sigh
You leaned into my kiss and closed those deep blue need you eyes
Don’t know what I did to earn a love like this but baby I
Must be doin’ somethin’ right
The line about “deep blue need you eyes” is the only line in the song in which we tried to come up with something “different” or “clever”. And we almost took that line out because we worried that it felt out of character with the rest of the conversational lyric. Turns out, that line is the one that people love most in that song.
However, if you look at the rest of the lyrics to that song, you’ll see that it’s just plain, heartfelt communication. It’s just a guy who’s crazy about this woman and is wanting to learn how to please her. That honest emotion demanded an equally honest and REAL sounding lyric. If we had filled the song with cliché’s or tried to be poetic, it never would have worked.
Check out the chorus to John Legend’s hit “All of Me”
Cause all of me loves all of you
Love your curves and all your edges
All your perfect imperfections
Give your all to me, I’ll give my all to you
You’re my end and my beginning
Even when I lose, I’m winning
Cause I give you all of me
And you give me all of you
Again, the “curves and edges” line is the only one that stands out as super creative or fresh. My secret formula for writing a romantic lyric is to keep everything really conversational except for one line or two in the song that really stand out. But I make sure that those lines don’t cross over into cheesy or non-believable things. I continually ask myself, “How would my wife respond if I said this to her?” Would she ask what I’d been drinking, or would she melt into my arms?
When you set out to write a romantic lyric, I’d challenge you to keep it so simple, conversational and honest that all of your songwriter training will scream “This can’t be interesting!” Then, go back to it and see if there is a line or two you can replace with something really unique, but still believable. And remember, your goal is to touch someone’s heart, not to impress them with your clever writing skills.
Marty Dodson is a seven-time, No. 1 hit songwriter who has had songs recorded in country, rock, pop, bluegrass, K-Pop, J-Pop and musical theatre. His greatest songwriting achievement is knocking Psy out of the #1 spot in South Korea with his song “Bounce”. He co-founded SongTown, the world’s leading songwriter education site, with fellow hit writer Clay Mills and is passionate about teaching people to write better songs. Visit SongTown.com for 10 free videos!