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The Problem With Stream of Consciousness Lyric-Writing

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Let’s say that you’re working out a lyric that tries to explain to your listeners how you’re feeling about some aspect of your life. It might be that you’re going through a rough patch, let’s say, and you want the audience to feel something of what you’re facing.

So the lyrics come to you quickly — aspects of what you’re feeling, how intensely you might be feeling them, how you’re coping with those circumstances and feelings… that sort of thing.

When you look at what you’ve written, it looks like a stream of consciousness in which your innermost thoughts are laid bare for all to read.

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But there is a problem with stream of consciousness in song lyrics. Actually, several problems:

  1. Lyrics written as a stream of consciousness don’t offer much in the way of context for the listener. It can be fun to write, but it’s hard for the audience to follow it.
  2. Stream of consciousness lyrics often lack a focus. It’s sometimes hard for a listener to know exactly what is being talked about.
  3. Stream of consciousness lyrics will often lack direction. They often don’t make it clear what’s happening, or in what order those things are happening.

That’s certainly not to say that stream of consciousness writing won’t work for lyrics. My personal opinion is that it works better as a technique applied to a writing style rather than as a method for an entire lyric.

“Because this, then that“: Writing a “logical follower”

Because many musicians are thinking a lot about Leonard Cohen this week, it’s appropriate to take a look at one of his lyrics to get an example of what I mean. His song “Coming Back to You” from his album “Various Positions,” is not really stream of consciousness, but it uses that sense of rambling thoughts as a technique, as he moves from one concept to another.

Here’s what’s important about Cohen’s lyrical style: his lyrics have a strong sense of “because this, then that.” In other words, as you look through the lyric, it may be hard initially to put meaning to every line he writes, but even when that’s hard, you notice that every line is a logical follower to the one that precedes it:

Maybe I’m still hurting
I can’t turn the other cheek
But you know that I still love you
It’s just that I can’t speak
I looked for you in everyone
And they called me on that too
I lived alone but I was only
Coming back to you

As you see, the lyrics aren’t exactly a story — more a description of a circumstance or situation — but each line acts as a logical follower to the line before it. It’s either that every line works this way, or sometimes this will work in pairs of lines, where for each pair, the second line acts as the logical follower.

If you like a lyric that bares your soul in pleasantly disconnected ways, you may find yourself struggling with a lyric that makes sense to you but others find confusing. Here are some tips to help you take that disconnected lyric and help the audience understand it (and you) a little better:

  1. Write a short story that describes what you’re really trying to write about. A story helps you find a chronology, a line of direction, that an audience needs to make sense of your lyric.
  2. Create word lists. Once you have a story, create a list of words and phrases that pertain to your topic, words that can act as the vocabulary for your lyric. Notice the words and phrases that go well together, and re-fashion a lyric out of those words.
  3. Adjust your lyric so that each line, or pair of lines, has a logical follower. This is not an easy step, and it might cause you some impatience as you work. You might want to have 2 or 3 songs on the go so that you can switch to something completely different when you feel frustration setting in.

After that 3rd step, you’ll still probably have a lyric that resembles stream of consciousness, but with the added benefit that the audience can make better sense of what you’re trying to say.

Always remember to use simple, everyday words to create your lyric. Concepts can be complex, but words need to be familiar and easy to grasp.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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