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

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor