I hear songwriters say often: “There are no new songs to write.” Certain topics do come up again and again in song lyrics–romantic love and breakups are especially well-worn.
That doesn’t mean these subjects are sucked dry, though. There’s a simple way to approach a well-worn topic from a new angle:
Approach it with an unusual tone.
Note that the topic of a song is the situation or the subject it talks about. Tone is the attitude the lyric takes toward that topic.
Does the person speaking through the lyric seem to be angry? Excited? Tired? Grateful? Sarcastic? Carefree?
Certain tones are even baked into entire genres of music: dirges grieve; punk sneers; love ballads gush.
A Color Wheel for Lyricists
This starfish-looking thing is a Plutchik wheel–it works just like the color wheel that artists use, except instead of colors, this wheel maps moods.
You can use the Plutchik wheel to quickly brainstorm variations on tone.
Let’s take a common topic like “breaking up” and try out a few of the spokes.
Serenity: could be a messy love affair remembered years later, when one or both people have cooled off and can see the situation more calmly than they did at the time. Maybe there’s the beginning of understanding between them, too—or insight into how they went wrong.
Admiration: a breakup where the song’s narrator is admiring his new ex? Hmm, that’s intriguing. Why would there be admiration? Could it be because the narrator knows he screwed up, so he respects his partner for leaving? Or could it be that he still can’t help but love her even as he leaves her?
Amazement: this could be dramatic—what if the song’s narrator really, really didn’t see the breakup coming? What if the song captures that moment when the narrator’s still stunned and still processing what’s happening?
The world is drowning in breakup songs, but just by taking a glance at the Plutchik wheel you can find an angle that makes the topic seem fresh again. And of course you can do this with any song topic to find ideas.
- Use the Plutchik wheel to find an unusual tone for the next lyric you write. It doesn’t mean you have to use that unusual tone, but at least be aware of your creative options.
- I’ve only just scratched the surface of the number of possible tones. I’ll be putting together a long long list of them, so if you’d like to contribute any ideas, please post them in the comments section here!