Hit songwriter Tom Douglas once said, “You can’t write a great song trying to write a great song.” Over the years, we’ve listened to many songs that fail because they try too hard to be brilliant, either lyrically or melodically.

Douglas and co-writer Allen Shamblin wrote Miranda Lambert’s “The House That Built Me” – a very simple-yet-profound song that was CMA Song of the Year in 2010. They could have loaded up the first verse with philosophical observations like “our lives are shaped by our childhood homes.” But instead, they built the song with simple details like “these hand prints on the front steps are mine.”

Another example is the Bonnie Raitt classic “I Can’t Make You Love Me”, written by Shamblin and Mike Reid. The song paints a simple picture of the last night of a romance that has no future: “Turn down the lights, turn down the bed, turn down these voices inside my head.” This simplicity sets the stage for the emotional payoff in the chorus: “I can’t make you love me if you don’t.” The song would lose all its power if the first verse had lofty lines like “we’re not destined to be lovers.”

Here are some tips for how avoid being grandiose lyrically and overly ornate melodically:

Write a song that’s deliberately simple

Your finished song may strike you as “boring” – yet it might pack a powerful punch for the listener. We once challenged Lyric Master Class students to do this very thing, and one member almost didn’t submit his song because it didn’t have clever lines or fancy rhymes. The song got an ovation from the class for its emotional power and clarity.

List the main emotion at the top of the page or Word doc

As you craft your lyric, make sure that every line stays true to the primary emotion. If the main emotion is “sadness over a breakup”, don’t wander into “gonna go dancing ’cos I’m free now” in the second verse. Stay true to the primary emotion of the song.

Read your lyric out loud

This is a great way to tell whether your lyric goes from simple to Shakespeare in key spots.  When you hear flowery language spoken, it’s easy to spot, because that’s not the way we talk.

Don’t put too much salt and oregano in your first draft

By that we mean, don’t oversaturate your lyric with spicy language.  Focus on clearly conveying the emotion instead. You can always add seasoning in moderation once you successfully convey the primary emotion.

Write lyrics to an existing hit melody

This exercise helps your lyric match a melody that already has a simple and effective flow. Taking the melody “off your plate” can help you write simpler, more powerful lyrics.

Listen to your song like an A&R person

Once your song is finished, put yourself in the shoes of a busy A&R exec. This puts some distance between you and “your baby” – and makes it easier to identify small imperfections: a line that needs to be more conversational, a bridge that’s a bit too long, etc.

Two things that never go out of style are simplicity and believability. “The House That Built Me” would have been a dud if titled “The Edifice That Shaped My Identity.”

~ Write on – MD

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Author: Marty Dodson

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