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Sorted for rhymes and lines: the secret of great lyrics

With Jarvis Cocker giving a talk at the Brighton Festival on the craft of songwriting, Will Hodgkinson asks what makes a great lyric

On a recent trip to Brazil, I commented to the bossa nova-era songwriter Carlos Lyra that so many of the great Brazilian songs contain the word coracao – heart – in them. "It's so romantic," I said to Lyra. "It seems that Brazilians can't help but sing of the pain and the joy in their hearts." "Actually," Lyra replied, "there's another reason. Coracao is the easiest word in the Portuguese language to rhyme."

I don't know what Jarvis Cocker will conclude in his lecture at the Brighton Festival next week, but many of our songwriters would have us believe that their great songs flowed through them, as if from a divine force. But as Lyra has illustrated, lyrics generally come from a more mundane place. Words are chosen because they rhyme, and with any luck scan, and if they make some sort of sense, well, that's a bonus.

What are the elements that make up a good song? A bed of chords must support a melody that is sympathetic to the words, which should drive a message forward with rhythmic insistence, conviction and sense. To get all of these elements right is a tall order. Listen carefully to the words of a handful of pop songs and you'll realise that, more often than not, songwriters simply don't bother with the last bit.

Musicians, perhaps unsurprisingly, dominate music. Their chosen language of expression is a non-verbal one and so it is reasonable that their starting point tends to be non-verbal too, with words fitting the music rather than the other way round. "Champagne Supernova" by Oasis might be a rousing tune, but its emotional power tends to collapse if you reflect on the line "slowly walking down the hall, faster than a cannonball" too closely. "Rapper's Delight" by The Sugarhill Gang is the masterpiece that kick-started hip-hop, but how did they manage to say the line "I don't mean to brag, I don't mean to boast, but we like hot butter on our breakfast toast" without feeling a bit, well, silly?

Do lyrics matter? Isn't it the melody of a song that we whistle, and the feeling of the song that has emotional power? I would argue that lyrics do count, and that when you discover that your favourite songs have awful words the whole house of cards comes tumbling down. I remember hearing "A Horse With No Name" by America at around the age of 10, and thinking that it was so evocative of a lawless, mysterious Wild West – the kind of place the average 10-year-old boy wants to be, in fact. But then I noticed the line "there were plants, and birds and rocks... and things..." Couldn't they even pretend to be able to think of something else that you might find out there – a dead coyote, say? From that moment on America were no longer the dusty outlaws of my imagination; just another bunch of soft-rock studio boffins.

Many of the great lyricists are not musicians at all. Cocker himself can hardly play a thing, yet he has captured British life in song better than anyone in his generation. A line like "I seem to have left an important part of my brain somewhere in a field in Hampshire" (from Pulp's "Sorted For Es and Whizz") sounds like it might have featured in one of Joe Orton's plays, had he lived long enough to witness rave culture.

Occasionally, bad lyrics can be good – there is something admirable about rhyming a word with exactly the same word as Black Sabbath do in "War Pigs" ("Generals gather in their masses/just like generals at black masses") – but it's nice to take inspiration from those songwriters who really do think about the meaning of their words. A great pop song should have universal resonance while still retaining some sort of depth, which is why the lyrics that Hal David wrote for Burt Bacharach's tunes work so well. Songs like "This Guy's In Love With You" use casual language to get across something profound. This was no divine inspiration: for much of the Sixties and Seventies David wrote from 9am to 5pm every day, with an hour off for lunch, crafting and rewriting until a set of words fitted perfectly with the music Bacharach had sent him.

"I paid attention to what people said," says David on his technique. "One time I was at a dinner party when it was announced someone wasn't turning up, and the hostess said: 'that's one less bell to answer'. I went home and wrote 'One Less Bell To Answer' – 'one less spells the answer. One less egg to fry'."

Great lyrics are often infused with mystery. Carly's Simon's line "you're so vain, you probably think this song is about you" (from "You're So Vain") is an endless puzzle, while Bobbie Gentry's wonderful "Ode To Billie Joe" tells an entire soap opera over a lilting two-chord melody – of a suicide, a young girl's heartbreak, and a family's indifference – and never reveals what the narrator was throwing off the Tallahatchie Bridge. The song shows why lyrics matter: the music is made more beautiful by the words' poetry.

Of course, people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones, to use a cliché that has probably cropped up in a lyric somewhere. Last year I embarked on a mission to write the perfect pop song, picking up tips from my favourite songwriters along the way, including Cat Power, Keith Richards, Andy Partridge of XTC and Ray Davies of The Kinks. One of the compositions that came out of all this high-end tutoring is a psychedelic number called "Mystery Fox" (sample lyric: Mystery fox, come out of your box, it's time for me to chase you up that tree, oh mystery fox...). It is yet to be hailed as a classic.

I sang "Mystery Fox" to one of my all-time heroes, a reclusive genius called Lawrence, formerly of the undervalued bands Felt and Denim. He collapsed into fits of laughter. "Imagine if you played that to Elton John, or Hal David," he said. "They'd think you'd gone bonkers." When I asked him why, he replied: "Well, it's not exactly 'Leaving on a Jet Plane', is it?" Writing a great song with good lyrics, in other words, is extremely hard to do.

Jarvis Cocker: Saying The Unsayable, Brighton Dome (01273 709709), 8pm Friday 23 May, tickets £12.50; 'Song Man', by Will Hodgkinson, is published by Bloomsbury, priced £12.99