We’ve had several people ask the question: Is it possible to write too many lyrics?
I can tell you from my experiences as a producer and working with hundreds of songs and vocalists over the years, the answer is a definite YES. Now let’s go over why it’s a problem, most of the time.
Let me start by getting the exceptions out of the way first. That way, I don’t get bombarded with replies listing numerous songs that are, as we like to call them, “Wordy.” We all know those songs are out there. I’m not talking about those songs. I’m going to focus on why wordy songs are bad for most songs where melodies are sung and/or notes are sustained.
I’m sure you can name rap song titles all day long. If you are creating rap music, words o’ plenty are often almost expected. But this article is focusing on songs that are sung, not spoken (rapped). Rap doesn’t sustain notes in the way that songs with singing do. And that’s a major difference.
Rap-ish songs in other genres
If we talk about songs in genres other than Rap that also have a lot of words, the immediate thing to notice is a lot of these have very short notes to them. In rock music, Aerosmith’s “Walk this way” is a prime example. In the verses, there is a very fast delivery of short notes. When I say ‘short notes,’ I’m talking about the duration of the note in length of time, or how long it is held by the vocalist. “Walk this way” is so Rap-ish in its verses, that Run-DMC did a rap version of it. “Walk this way” goes to longer, sustained notes in the chorus, and thus is sung and uses less words and has space between words. Another song to consider is the Grammy nominated Pop song: “One Week” by Barenaked Ladies. This song is delivered in a Rap style in the lyric heavy verses, with non-rap style (harmonized singing) in the choruses. The verses are so lyric heavy that the vocalists in the group had to work out the lyrics to the song at a slower pace initially to be able to get it down. The band states that their first live run-throughs of the song did not go well, and it took time to be able to perform the song live.
To Rap or not to Rap
If you want to use a lot of words, remember this: it’s hard to sustain notes the more words you try to cram in. You will have less time to sing and hold them out and therefore, a more rap-like style is inevitable when you fill every possible musical space with a word.
Caution with too many words
If you are trying to pitch wordy songs to other artists, consider that songs like ‘one week’ which may take considerable rehearsal to record and/or perform, may be a deterrent to an artist deciding up recording your song if it’s too difficult to pull off. They may feel the song isn’t going to work for them.
Top 5 problems of too many words in lyrics
- The singer has no space to catch a breath. The results are: (a) There is no room to sustain notes. (b) The singer cannot use as much power because they are winded by the end of the lyric line because they are singing a lot of words in a single breath. They are doing this over a long line perhaps and there was no space to pull in another breath to have additional air to project with. (c) The singer cannot use as much as expression simply because it is taking all the air they have to get all the words out and they can’t waste air on style.
- No room or time for style. Every possible space is filled up and if you hold a note out trying to add some expression and style to it, you take up time that was needed to fit all the words in. Now all the words won’t fit.
- Too many words can make lyrics more unintelligible. Meaning, difficult to comprehend or understand for the listener. If the singer has to force too many words in, can’t catch a breath, and so on; it’s harder for the singer to get perfect expression, enunciation or pronunciation. The result is hard to comprehend lyrics because they run into each other creating an aural blur.
- The listener doesn’t have time to absorb the lyrics. Too many words coming at the listener too quickly can be too much to focus on and remember. By the time they start to think about the lyrics, two more word-filled lines may have gone by. Listeners get overwhelmed and the message can be lost. Thus, lyrics may lose their impact. Not only that, if they can’t remember the lyrics, they can’t sing along. Songs people want to sing along to are what hits are made of.
- Blah, Blah, Blah. Have you ever been in a conversation with a person who chews your ear off? You know, someone who doesn’t know when to stop talking and come up for air. What do you do? You lose interest and start to tune out. Don’t write songs the way some people talk. If you carry on endlessly with words, it had better be so good they are hanging on your every word; otherwise, they will tune out. That also includes the singer losing the excitement or passion for singing a song, especially demo singers.
Crowded Lyrics: The Usual Suspects
I have produced a lot of demos for songwriters, especially beginners. The use of too many words in lyrics is something I see in about 7 out of 10 songs. The singer can’t get it all in. I have to contact the songwriter and make suggestions as to where we can pull out a ‘non-essential’ word to make the line more sing-able. My own definition of ‘non-essential’ words in lyrics are words which can be removed from a line without changing the underlying meaning and intention of the songwriter. When a particular line is crowded, in many cases you can remove a single word without altering the meaning. The first that can often go are Conjunctions (and, but, so, because). Adjectives and adverbs can often go. However, adjectives and adverbs are often what gives a lyric its ‘color’ and visual imagery, so remove with caution. Another cure is to rewrite the line and use different words to get the same meaning across in a more concise way with fewer words. This is almost always possible. The key is not to ‘fall in love with your words’ so much that you don’t open yourself to other possibilities. Sometimes clever words are only clever words. Often, the overall meaning and evoking the emotions of the listener are more important
Top 5 solutions to getting the word amount in lyrics just right
- Give it some breathing room. Your lyrics don’t have to fill the measure from start to end. What that means is, let’s say the musical time duration that your lyric line will cover is 2 bars, or 8 counts. You don’t have to sing lyrics over the entire 8 counts. It can go over 4, or 6, or 7 counts. Give it some room to breath, even if it’s only one count. This not only helps the singer; but it helps the listener as well by giving them a moment to reflect on what they’ve just heard before more words start coming at them.
- Less is more. Avoid information overload. Don’t use any more words than are necessary to tell the story. The shorter and simpler, the more clarity. Get to the point. Don’t go on and on and on and on. Don’t repeat yourself. Say it clear and concisely. Make every word mean something and count. Get rid of unnecessary words. Don’t use a fancy “ten-dollar” word when a simple word will do. (Simple words sing better than multi-syllable words too). The use of “and” or “but” or “’cause/because” or “well” at the beginning of lines are often unnecessary. There are more examples, but these are the commonest ones. Most of the time, such words can be removed without any change in meaning to the line whatsoever. Look for similar unneeded usages in the middle of lines as well.
- Avoid redundancy. Don’t say the same the thing again a different way. I’ve seen lyrics where lines 3 and 4 are a rehash of what’s been said in lines 1 and 2. Maybe you are saying something in 8 lines that can be said in 4. Similarly, if you tell us what happened in verse one, (I woke up, she was gone, she left me, I’m lonely); don’t tell us the same thing again in verse two. We already know that now. Instead, tell us what happened next, (I’m looking for someone new, so I won’t be lonely). If verse one has 8 lines, that doesn’t necessarily mean verse two needs 8 lines. It may only need 4 lines. Say what you need say and move on. Once you’ve made the point, this adage applies: “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus.”
- Six to 10 minute epics went out in the 70s. While this is not a hard and fast rule for everyone; it is a guideline for those trying to write for modern radio. People have short attention spans these days and radio doesn’t want a six or ten minute song taking up the space where they could have played 2 to 3 songs. Currently, three something to four and one-half minutes, (5 minutes tops for ballads), are the norm.
- Best of both worlds: mix busy words and few words. Sometimes you do want to try to squeeze in a lot of words purposely. Most often in what are referred to as “list songs.” This is where the lyrics run down a “list” of related things in succession, (bikinis, surfboards, white sand, sunshine). This can be very effective. When the list is not too crowded, it can be sung. When it’s jammed packed, it’s going to be closer to being ‘rapped.’ And that’s ok, but most songwriting pros that use this technique will not do so throughout the entire song. You can also “wear the listener out” with too much information. Most times when used, the verse will be word heavy and the chorus will use less words with sustained notes so it can be sung. Singing your main chorus hook tends to be catchier and more memorable. It’s also done in reverse, verse sung and chorus rat-a-tat-tat with words, but this option is utilized less often. If you must be wordy, having a wordy verse and a not-wordy chorus gives a song a natural contrast. Contrast is an excellent technique to make each song section more noticeable and distinct.
How many words to use in your lyrics is going to be dictated, for the most part, by two factors:
- If you start with music first: the amount of lyrics is going to be determined by the underlying musical structure and how many syllables (i.e., notes) will fit in a given space.
- If you start with the lyrics first: the amount of lyrics will be determined by how many words are necessary to tell the song’s story. Once a pattern is established by your lyrical structure, you then develop music that will fit your lyric’s structure.
The meaning of lyrics and evoking the emotions of the listener are always important to consider. Get right to the heart of your message and avoid information overload. Too many words in a line make the line hard to sing and harder for the listener to absorb as well. Wordy songs force words to be sung over shorter notes. Heavily crowded lyrical lines may necessitate a Rap-like delivery in some instances. Fewer words mean notes can be sustained. Having pauses in music lyrically, not only allows the vocalist to breathe; listeners have a space in which to reflect on the previous lyrics. Fewer lyrics are less likely to become a ‘droning’ on and on that may make the listener tune out. Lyrics that are direct and succinct will most often connect with the listener more quickly. The fewer the lyrics to recall means the listener will be able to remember all of the song’s lyrics sooner and more easily. The sooner they can do that, the sooner they can sing along and potentially purchase and/or the more often they may request the song on radio or Internet playlists.