In music, crafting a song often requires a team of two or three creative individuals—one (or two) for the melody and one (or two) for the lyrics. Although it is also common for one extremely talented person to take both roles.
Writing the lyrics, for example, is often given to—as well as handled by—a professional lyricist. The said individual, as its name suggests, is alone responsible for writing and developing words to lay on, say, original or existing music. These folks tend to be artistic, and often are wordsmiths and enjoy playing with words.
But is that what all lyricists do?
What Is a Lyricist?
In music, a professional lyricist is a person who scribbles and develops words to create a song. They pen words for a variety of songs, whether it be for an individual song of a specific genre, TV series, movie, musical, and even commercial.
Professional lyricists are also divided into two categories: the freelancers or self-employed and the staff writers.
Freelance lyric writers, as its name suggests, are professionals who pitch work proposals to individual performers, media producers, and production companies. They too collaborate with other lyricists, songwriters, or music composers. Their work schedule is flexible as well.
Staff writers, on the other hand, are salaried professionals working under a specific production company. And compared to self-employed lyricists, staff writers work with a regular schedule.
It is also important to take note that lyricists work on the lyrics only and not the melody. It is because folks, especially non-musicians, often mistakenly and interchangeably use songwriter and lyricist—and even music composer.
That being said, do songwriters and lyricists have different definitions?
The Difference Between a Lyricist and a Songwriter
It is understandable why people—especially those that are not in the music business—often interchangeably refer to the person who writes the lyrics as a songwriter rather than a lyricist. It is because both professions have almost the same role.
In essence, a songwriter is a person who writes both the lyrics and the melody. And a lyricist, as mentioned, writes the lyrics only.
A songwriter, furthermore, does not necessarily need to arrange everything about the melody too. The idea is that as long as you are the one who developed the music structure and lyrics, then you are a songwriter.
Getting Into Lyrics Writing
Some may find lyric-making easy. But in application, writing lyrics is tough and requires—if not a degree—a proper education. Aspiring lyricists should at least take courses related to the craft to hone their skills as well as to, of course, learn new things.
Aside from that, the ability to use language beautifully and cleverly is crucial too. The Grammy-nominated lyricist Phillips Oland—who has worked with various popular singers and songwriters—said that she started writing poems before (as lyrics) and put them to music.
“I kept writing poems. I wrote millions of poems, most of them terrible. They were just full of angst and awful and I put them to music and eventually my dad bought me a guitar. It was really poems to music. It wasn’t lyrics, but it was a beginning. And then eventually I became a writer,” Oland explained.
But apart from formal education and training, Oland recommends listening to old classic songs in the Great American Book as well. She said it is sad that young and aspiring lyric writers today do not listen to the classics such as Don McLean’s “Bye Bye American Pie” or Sarah Vaughn’s “Broken Hearted.”
The Grammy-nominated lyricist said learning an instrument or two is also crucial for aspiring lyricists.
How to Write Lyrics?
There are probably hundreds of tips and tricks on how to write lyrics. But we’re not going to do it here! Instead, I enumerated below a few factors that I think are crucial when writing lyrics.
- Make it concise. Songs are often three to five minutes long only. And to be able to tell a story in such a short period is extremely difficult. As such, the first thing you should do is to make every line concise. There are plenty of techniques to do this. Oftentimes, the use of metaphor, sensory imagery, and simile is what lyricists and even songwriters do. This could be tough to do, especially for beginners. But just like any other skill, non-stop practice and continuous learning will surely help you achieve it!
- Integrate poetic techniques. Another handy and effective technique in lyric writing is the integration or use of poetic techniques. And among these techniques, rhyming or ending each line with words that has the same sound is one that is commonly used. You may think this sounds childish but listen to rap and hip-hop songs and you will hear a lot of it! Repetition is also a common and effective lyric writing technique. If you notice, songs come with lines or sections that are sung repeatedly. These repetitions are called the chorus or the refrain.
- Collaborate with other lyricists or songwriters. Last but definitely not least is to team up with other lyricists or songwriters. It is a highly recommended practice not only for beginners but even for experienced professional lyric writers too. It will help you open up to new ideas; the same goes with the person you are in collaboration with. Teaming up with other professionals in the field gets you free advice and constructive criticism!
Here’s a great video teaching how to write great lyrics:
Writing Lyrics as a Career
Now that you have an idea of what a lyricist is and how to start as one, it is time to see if it is the right career path for you. That said, income-wise, it depends heavily on your experience, skill, as well as connections—particularly true if you are planning on being a freelance lyricist.
On average, however, a salaried staff writer earns roughly $30 per hour or $70,000 per year. Freelance lyricists, on the other hand, earn between $500 and $100, 000 per project—or even more. If agreed on, freelancers get the chance to earn money through royalties as well.
The Pros and Cons
Is freelancing better than being a staff writer with regular work and income? Take a look at the benefits and disadvantages I enumerated below.
For Individual/Self-employed Lyricist
- Full ownership of song lyrics
- The work schedule is flexible
- Income is not regular
- Requires the person to build a list of prospective clients
- No partner or other creative individuals to critique the work
For Staff Lyricist
- Shared ownership of song lyrics
- Guaranteed regular income
- Work schedule is bound by contract
- Work or projects are provided by team or company
- Shares the burden with other lyricists
Writing lyrics as a profession is indeed a dream for people whose talents revolve in language. However, to be a professional lyricist requires not only skills but also perseverance to continue a less travelled road. As such, make sure that you are equipped with the knowledge, experience, and connections in able to thrive in the industry.
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.