YOU CAN’T WRITE LYRICS IN A VACUUM: Playing with Assumptions

So, you wrote your song top to bottom and the story is solid. The flow is great and you can follow what’s happening in the lyrics.

Finished, right? Well, not quite.

There is another invisible force at play that needs to be considered. Before anyone even hears your song, they already have thousands of assumptions about life, music, and probably about the content you chose to write about. These assumptions only accumulate as the listener gets further into your song.

For example, without ever listening to your heartbreak song, I already know that heartbreak is sad. I know how it feels. I know what kind of instrumentals and melodies feel sad. I know the type of phrases that sad music often contains. 

You need to think about your lyrical message in relation to these assumptions.

Let’s dig more into the “heartbreak song” example. Say the first couple lines of your song indicate a breakup, saying things like “I had to pack up my things” or “I can still smell your scent from where you used to sleep” or whatever it may be.

Immediately, people are assuming a couple things, including: you are sad, you care about this person, you miss this person, you got dumped, etc.

What do you do when you are writing against assumptions?

If you are writing a song where these assumptions are FALSE, you need to fight these assumptions HARDER with your lyrics.

Say the song is really trying to say you are relieved that the relationship is over and you’re actually happy about it. Well, the first couple lines about packing up your things and smelling their scent can still be true and valid in this context, but it doesn’t lead a listener to assume you’re happy.

Now, say in your Pre-Chorus you write a line like, “I am finally able to breathe again.” Great! That should be a job well done. We told the listener that we are happy about the breakup! 

But in truth, the listener is already thinking about packing up their things and smelling the scent and being sad. So now the listener thinks, “Wait, that’s not what I thought you were going to say!” They might actually just discard the new information coming at them. Or worse, they might not really be paying attention to every single word in your song. You’ve set up a scenario where if they don’t hear this one line, they risk completely misunderstanding what’s happening.

What’s the solution? 

If you’re going against assumptions, you need to really drill your point home. You might need to say “I am finally able to breathe again” AND “I’m so much better without you” AND “I have smiled for the first time in a couple weeks” AND “there’s an extra skip in my step this morning”, etc, before the listener will really get it. You basically need to convince them to change their mind about what they assumed you were saying from the start.

So what about writing along with assumptions?

Conversely, if you are writing a song where the assumptions are TRUE, it is beneficial to pull back lyrically with the message.

In the same example, let’s pretend you wrote a heartbreak song and you are sad. You say the thing about packing your bags and about smelling your pillow and your listener has already assumed the situation you want them to be in.

So in this case, if you were to then write ten more lyrics describing being sad, the listener might get bored. You’re not telling them any new information. It might seem like new information in the scope of the song and what they’ve heard so far, but truthfully, they came into the song with SO much information about heartbreak and sadness already. 

So what do you say then?

This is your opportunity to say something unique and something the listener isn’t expecting. It’s way easier said than done, but it will definitely keep your listener interested. Talk about your sadness in a weird or fresh way. Use a funny metaphor to describe your sadness. But don’t tell the listener five things that they’ve already assumed in their head. 

In conclusion:

Get in the shoes of your listener. It might help to listen to a song you have never heard before and start writing down all the assumptions you have while you listen. Pause after ten seconds. What do you think the song is about at this point? What gave you those thoughts – the musical elements, certain words, etc? Keep doing this for the remainder of the song – and pay attention to how your favorite artists play with your assumptions.

And next time you’re thinking of lyrics, don’t write in a vacuum. Because no one listens in a vacuum.

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