This was part of a famous quote by one of the most iconic female songwriters Joni Mitchell. As a songwriter, the rest of the quote is probably the most important to what you do as a lyricist. “A fan once said to me, ‘Girl, you make me see pictures in my head!’ and I took that as a great compliment. That is exactly my intention.” This is how Joni Mitchell, a songwriter that many look up to when writing their own songs, views songwriting and this is exactly how you should as well.
People expect a lot out of their music. They do not always want some fluff lyrics that just sound good. Listeners want to have a story. They want to be able to feel all of your words, understand them based on their own experiences. Most importantly, they want to be able to close their eyes and see a movie play out in front of them for the few minutes that your song is playing. People want to be entertained. It is just like when people go to a concert. They want an experience where they can follow a story from the beginning to an end. Some of the best albums lead people on a similar journey.
What does this mean for you as a song writer? You need to give your listeners a short story of something that is meaningful and close to them. This is what really separates a good songwriter from a great one. A great song writer can have a complete story out in under 3.30 minutes, with a beginning, middle, and a conclusion. Think about any of the good songs that you have listened to. These songs take you on a journey and the listeners are more than willing to take a ride with you.
What you can take away from this is the importance of storytelling when you are writing lyrics. You should go about this process as you would when you are writing a story. You need to think about who you want to target with your words and then what message you want to get out there. Create the problem that will lead the song along until there is a conclusion. For a good example of this, you can look towards a song like “Cats in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin. The song starts off when a father’s child was born and follows along the father’s journey as he was too busy to be there for his son until the end where the son became too busy for him. The song took listeners on a heartbreaking story.
It is your job as a songwriter to give your listeners the story that they are craving. They want you to give them an experience, a story that they can follow and immerse themselves in. This is an incredible talent of a songwriter because you are condensing a story that would normally be several pages long into a few minutes of music. Do not just give your listeners a song; give them a movie they can watch in their heads when they are listening to your words.