How to start analyzing the lyrics of a song?

Step 1: How to start analyzing the lyrics of a song so that you get a general understanding of what it is about?

I've analyzed the lyrics of all the 82 songs of the seven studio albums of Placebo.

This analysis proved once again that the craft of telling captivating stories in songs or on albums truly matters in songwriting.

Content Overview:


How to start analyzing the lyrics of a song?

Analyzing the lyrics of a song.



In this first article, I show you how I analyze the storytelling in songs so that you know what the most important storytelling criteria are that you have to look out for when writing songs.

 

Analyzing the lyrics

What's the problem the character in your song faces?Stories are in our DNA from the time we’re born. But for a story to resonate, certain elements must be present. 

Songs are no different. 

Memorable songs, or songs that “work,” fulfill certain criteria that belong to the craft of storytelling. 

If you consider a song to be a chapter taken out of a book or a scene from a movie, then something needs to happen in your song.

Something must be on your character’s mind that he is trying to accomplish or solve.

 

Step 1 - Look for a problem the song addresses.

That’s why I’m always looking for the problem that the character in the song faces.

Including a problem in a song that the character has to deal with is one of the most important factors to find out if the song is telling part of a story, or if it’s just a snapshot of a single moment in time in which nothing happens.

If the song addresses a problem, the character in the song needs to find a solution to the conflict he faces.

That’s his goal. 

In every story, the main character needs to WANT something. 

Otherwise, the audience would not invest themselves in hoping the character reaches (or not reaches) his goal.

 

Step 2 - What came as a surprise to the character in the song?

When we talk about stories that work, chapters that work, or scenes that work, then there’s one factor that decides if we can say Yes or No.

 

Consider your story to move up and down on a scale.

Scale - Consider your story's song to move on a scaleAfter all, you don’t hit a note over and over again to play a melody because that would only create a rhythm.

But a rhythm does not change.

But a melody tends to change notes over time.

So whatever the problem is your character has to face, he will not face is over and over again as if it was a rhythm constantly challenging him.

Something needs to change for him.

If a story, a chapter, or a scene changes from its beginning to its ending, something happened that either led to the character being better off at the end or worse off.

If you hit a note, then that’s where your character might be in his life at one particular moment in time. That’s his starting point. It’s like the key of the song you’re using.

 

Now something unexpected happens to him, that either turns his world for the better, and he’s going up on the scale to something positive, or he falls down the scale, and life gets darker for him.

This unexpected event is the most important indicator to see if your story, chapter, or scene turned. In storytelling terms, we call this a turning point.

A turning point is like a crossroad moment. 

Either new information comes to the forth that throws the character off his set path to reach his goal, or someone else does something completely unexpected - like breaking up with him.

This unexpected moment is the reason why there’s a change.

 

So whenever you write a song, ask yourself:

  • What was life before the unexpected event?
  • What was the unexpected event that turned the tables?
  • What is the dilemma that the character has to face? What are his options now? (Unsure about the crisis: Listen to this episode: How to tell a story in a song)
  • What is life like after the unexpected event?

 

Analyzing the storytelling aspect of a song

To show you how I analyze a song, let’s use Placebo’s single “For What it’s Worth” of the album Battle for the Sun.

 

 

For What It's Worth

For What It's Worth © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, BMG Rights Management

 

The end of the century

I said my goodbyes

For what it's worth

I always aim to please

But I nearly died


For what it's worth

Come on lay with me

'Cause I'm on fire

For what it's worth

I tear the sun in three

To light up your eyes


For what it's worth (x repeated)


Broke up the family

Everybody cried

For what it's worth

I have a slow disease

That sucked me dry

For what it's worth

Come on walk with me

Into the rising tide

For what it's worth

Filled a cavity

Your god shaped hole tonight


For what it's worth (x repeated)


No one cares when you're out on the street

Picking up the pieces to make ends meet

No one cares when you're down in the gutter

Got no friends got no lover

No one cares when you're out on the street

Picking up the pieces to make ends meet

No one cares when you're down in the gutter

Got no friends got no lover


For what it's worth (x repeated)

Got no lover


Got no friends got no lover

 

So now answer those five question to the song:

  1. What’s the problem the character in the song faces?
    Should someone renounce everything that makes them who they are just for experiencing sexual pleasure?
  2. What was life before the unexpected event?
    The protagonist was in love with someone for whom he felt lots of physical desire and for whom he gave up on everything.
  3. What was the unexpected event that turned the tables?
    He almost died as he ended up in the gutter.
  4. What is the dilemma that the character has to face? What are his options now?
    Should he change his approach to salvage some form of victory OR stay who he is and continue that downhill path being just concerned about the next sexual encounter?
  5. What is life like after the unexpected event?
    He gets out of the gutter, all lonely, but can look back on that experience and act as a mentor.

 

Further storytelling criteria

After you’ve figured out what the problem is that the character in the song has to deal with and if there was an unexpected moment that turned the tables, you could answer a bunch of other criteria about that song in a spreadsheet.

 

Placebo SpreadsheetNext to the general information like:

  • song title
  • writers
  • first line of the song
  • last line of the song

 

I’ll also take note of

  • what is the song about
  • what is the problem the song deals with
  • how was the problem answered
  • if the song belonged to a larger story, what genre would it be?
  • Is the song a cautionary tale or a prescriptive one?
  • What’s the message of the song?
  • What kind of person is the character?

 

Let’s look at Placebo’s song For What It’s Worth again:

  • Song title: For What It’s Worth
  • Writers: Steve Forrest / William Lloyd / Brian Molko / Stefan Olsdal
  • First line of the song: The end of the century I said my goodbyes
  • Last line of the song: Got no friends, got no lover

 

  • What’s the song about: Person reflects on what led to his downfall.
  • What is the problem the song deals with: Should someone renounce everything that makes them who they are just for experiencing sexual pleasure?
  • How was the problem answered: The character faced a dilemma and decided to change.
  • If the song belonged to a larger story, what genre would it be? It’s a love story primarily about desire.
  • Is the song a cautionary tale or a prescriptive one? It’s a cautionary tale.
  • What’s the message of the song? Loneliness results when you give up everything that makes you You only to be with someone for mere sexual pleasure.
  • What kind of person is the character? When he’s reflecting on his old self, he’s mature and wiser now, even though he was very rebellious.

 

In the spreadsheet, you can make even more columns to answer a lot more about those different aspects.

And in the next post, I’ll tell you what the 13 most important criteria are to come closer to figuring out what your Uniqueness Factor is.

© Stories in Songs, Melanie Naumann

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