While sharing notes with a group of musicians recently, an interesting question came up, as to what goes into the making of good musical lyrics. The person who brought this issue up was, in other words, trying to identify the features of good musical lyrics. The question caught me and my fellow musicians by surprise, because it is something that most of us had never given conscious thought to. Most of us write music under inspiration and we never give much (conscious) thought to the mechanics of the music composition process. Writing musical lyrics is something we do more or less subconsciously. We can subconsciously tell good lyrics from bad lyrics. While writing music, we can subconsciously figure out when we are doing sensible work and when we are doing nonsensical work. But now that someone had brought it up, we decided to give the subject some conscious thought, and subsequently came to the conclusion that good musical lyrics have certain distinctive features.
Firstly, good musical lyrics tend to be memorable. When creating musical lyrics, good artists are always at pains to come up with lyrics that will ‘stick around’ in the listeners’ minds for long durations of time. Lyrics that will keep on ringing back in the listener’s minds, if you know what I mean.
Secondly, good musical lyrics tend to be simple. Music is meant to be enjoyable, and if one uses very complex lyrics, they end up with music that is not entirely enjoyable. Ideal lyrics are supposed to be so simple that the listeners are able to sing along.
Thirdly, good musical lyrics tend to be profound. So we end up with a paradox – where the lyrics are supposed to be simple, yet profound at the same time. It is like what we are told about credit card passwords: that they need to be simple enough for us to remember, yet hard for anyone else to guess. That is also how musical lyrics are supposed to be: simple to understand, yet profound in terms of how they deal with the subject matter being sung about.