Writing a Song in English?

The first question is why? Why English?

What does English offer you, as a collection of sounds, that your own maternal language doesn’t? Listen to Madonna and Gogol Bordello mixing English and other languages to express themselves here. They do it out of choice, not because they don’t know how to speak English. They choose the best word. Whichever language it comes from.

It’s worth thinking about. If you can work out what English offers you as a songwriter, you’ll use it better. If your own language can do the job just as well, ask yourself why you don’t want to use it. Or mix your maternal language with English. Like Lady Gaga.

Or invent a language. Think of Sigur Rós or Ekova.

What are your reasons? Tell me in the comments below what attracts you to English.  What does English offer you, as a songwriter? I’d love to know.

If you’re sure that you want to write songs in English, enjoy yourself. Let English dance to your music. English in song is close to poetry. It’s not the English you learnt in class. They’re sisters, but not twins.

Remember: The English you learn at school is neutral. It carries meaning, not emotion. At school, you learn a clear, inoffensive, unemotional English. Perfect for doctors, lawyers, hotel receptionists or tourists, but unconvincing in song. It’s a skeleton English. As a songwriter in English, you need to put flesh on the bones. You choose the flesh. You don’t choose the bones.

Build on your ‘school English’, bend it and stretch it. Bring it close to your own heart. English comes alive in the best songs. Think of Alex Turner here or David Bowie here. RAYE here or Ray Davies here.

Who’s your favourite songwriter? Investigate their lyrics. Why did they choose the words they did? Or, a better question: how do their choices affect you when you listen to their song? Listen carefully. Think of songs as machines. Take them apart. Look at the component parts. Listen too. Sound and meaning work together.

Try this English songwriting exercise: imagine you want to write a sad song in English. You know the word cry, I’m sure. But do you really know it? Have a look here. Right down to the phrasal verbs. Surprised?

Now, cry isn’t the only word. Look in a Thesaurus and you’ll find weep, sob, wail, bawl, whimper, grizzle, blub, and more. Each with a slightly different ‘feel’. All describing tears of sadness, but each word gives your audience a different ‘flavour’ of tears.

For a good songwriter, choice  is fundamental. Try this sad song test:

  1. Why does Nick Cave use the word weeping instead of crying here:

My thoughts here.

2. If weeping is right for Nick Cave, why is sobbing right for Chrissie Hynde:

3. And why is crying right for the Arctic Monkeys?

Crying, weeping and sobbing are synonyms; they mean the same, but not exactly the same. Shades of meaning are your friend when you write in English, but your enemy if you misjudge them. The shape of a word will fit it to your music. Weeping has a long, swooping sound, mainly because of the long ee vowel at the beginning, with the soft before it. Its central consonant, the light p, holds the word up for a moment, then lets it fall. Sobbing is a shorter, more insistent sound. The double hits the beat. Chrissie Hynde can repeat it easily and quickly. Crying opens out at its centre – the is a hinge, not a stop. Crying Lightning is a satisfying repetition of sound. Sobbing Lightning or Weeping Lightning would have sounded clumsy. Nobody’s crying in Crying Lightning.

The moral? Use a Thesaurus when you write a song in English.

Taste each word in your mouth before you place it in your song. This is important. The words that look good on the page may not feel good in your mouth. Does the word feel right as you sing it? Does it link comfortably to the next word in the line as you sing? Some word combinations are difficult to sing smoothly – too much re-organisation of lips and tongue will cause you problems. Easier word combinations are always available.

All words hold emotion in their sound and in their mouthfeel. Remember this and this.

Where to begin? Listen, listen, listen. Then listen some more. Every word of English you hear feeds your mind and nourishes your songwriting vocabulary. Listen with attention, read official lyrics (not online lyrics), think about what works, and what doesn’t.

Open your ears to songs you don’t immediately like, in styles you don’t like. All song is useful.

  • If you don’t know much about hard rock, try this or this.
  • If musical theatre isn’t your thing, try this and this
  • If modern folk leaves you cold, try this or this.
  • For the sake of variety, try this and this.

You’re a craftsman now, so think about your craft material:  English sounds and words. Every English word, when it’s well used in song, is a useful learning opportunity for you. Listen closely:

  • How do the syllables in a song work with the beat of the music?
  • How does the sound of each word make you feel?
  • Why did the songwriter choose one word instead of another?
  • Think as you listen. Think of yourself as a doctor, studying the human body in order to understand it. You are a doctor of English song now. The best words are your responsibility.

There are very few words that translate exactly from one language to another. Every word contains subtle layers of meaning, reflecting the culture where it’s used. Every single word in your song needs to pull its full weight. Like the tiny word do here. Or the crucial choice between the and a here.  Choose your words with love and care.

If English isn’t your mother tongue, beware:

  • The translation trap
  • The ‘first word in the dictionary’ trap
  • The ‘gonna,’ ‘wanna,‘ ‘f**k’ – “hey, look at me, aren’t I cool? I know English slang” trap

Google Translate can be a friend, but not a best friend. It’s useful for checking a phrase or a word, but not useful for constructing or expressing. Don’t write in your own language and feed your verses into Google Translate. It will sound wrong.

Never take the first word as the right word. Direct translation isn’t always the right translation. English words have a life outside the dictionary.

Use English words that are close to your heart. Words that mean something to you. If a word doesn’t connect with you, it won’t connect with your audience. Avoid using powerful words that aren’t part of your personal history.

Don’t drop gonna, wanna, fuck etc into your songs without careful thought. Gonna and wanna, wrongly used, make you sound clumsy. They don’t make you sound cool. Used well, gonna is the perfect word- look at Shura’s song What’s it Gonna Be? here. Used badly, it sounds wrong.

On the level of sound alone: wanna and gonna have strong, soft, double consonant centres. Want to and going to have springy, elastic centres, with a light consonant. Which sound helps your music most?

The same goes for swear words. Sprinkling lyrics with fuck or fuckin’ makes them sound childish. And you’ll probably use the words in a way that a native English speaker never would. Swear words have power but the power of rap/grime/garage etc, lies far beyond them. Investigate the lyrics of the songs you like. What are the swear words/slang words doing? Building up an emotion? Calling audience attention ready for another bit of meaningful language? Expressing disappointment? Think. If you need them, use them. But know why.

Use English slang/swear words for no reason and you sound like this:

What else?

  • Simple words are sometimes the most powerful words. Don’t over-complicate your language when you write songs.
  • 3-syllable words have a special musicality in English. Like this.
  • Don’t sacrifice the prosody of your words to your memory of English exams or the voice of your English teacher. Correct grammar isn’t always correct songwriting. Sometimes ain’t necessarily is better than isn’t necessarily or she don’t love me works better than she doesn’t love me. As long as your audience understands you, musical necessity always trumps grammar. Read this for more advice on what’s important. You’ll be surprised.

It comes down to this: Use the best words. Not the clever, cool or complicated words.

Some Extra Songwriting Resources:

  • Some reasons why other songwriters have chosen English. Some for love of the language  some for business reasons.
  • Tom Service’s thought provoking podcast here.
  • David Bowie talks about inspiration and ‘cut up‘ lyrics here. Cut up lyrics, done well, can liberate you from ‘standard English’.
  • BBC ‘Sold on Song’ page takes you all the way from inspiration to finishing your song, and finding a publisher.
  • Songwriter Steve Earle speaks on the BBC here.
  • BBC Radio programme ‘Hit Songs and Love Songs‘ here.
  • The Coventry Singer Songwriters group have their own page of songwriting resources here.

The lesson – thinking about songwriting, about technique, about the aesthetic – can be instructive, but not when you’re writing a song. When writing, trust your gut, trust your internal editor, trust that you know what is beautiful, and get on with it. Which is what I did then and what I try to do now.

Lloyd Cole

© Sing Better English, 2014

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12 thoughts on “Writing a Song in English?”

  1. This is really thought-provoking advice…not just for someone who is writing songs in English as a second language but for any writer. I’ll have to read give these tips some god thought. Many thanks!!

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    1. Thanks for that kind comment, Rowena. They’re things I’ve noticed people doing when they feel insecure in English – which is such a shame, because the words in a song have to serve the music. So they can bend out of ‘English exam’ shape, just as long as they bend with the song.

      Imagine ‘I can’t get no Satisfaction’ being corrected to ‘I can’t get any Satisfaction’ – the power of the line would dissolve. Or Presley’s ‘You ain’t nothing but a hound dog’ corrected into ‘You aren’t anything except a hound dog’ – would be such a horrible mouthful, and I’m not even sure what it means. Maybe a simple ‘You’re a hound dog’ would be a better correction. But I can’t imagine it ever being a hit!

      I think truth is the thing to aim for in songwriting – which is one reason why I talked about dropping swear words into songs in the hope of sounding ‘cool.’ It never works. It always sounds a bit like Great Aunt Ethel dropping carefully pronounced slang into a conversation with local teenagers, to ‘get down with the kids’.

      It’s true that songs have to make sense,

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s really great that you are putting yourself out there to help people trying to write songs in English when it’s their foreign language. I’ve written a few songs myself, although am, more of a poet. In my poetry in particular, I fiddle and fiddle and fiddle around with the words and that must be so hard in a foreign language but your market expands exponentially when you sing in English.

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    1. Too true, Robert. I take my proverbial hat off to anyone who can pull a poem through the mirror, from one language into another.
      Translating instruction manuals or straight non-fiction must be a cinch, because the words behave as their straight, polite dictionary selves, but once words are set loose in music or poetry, it’s like dancing archaeology, isn’t it? All those layers of meaning and all the meaning woven between the words.

      I’d guess that translating poetry well involves putting yourself into something close to a trance.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve even “translated” English into English. Quite the challenge. And working with languages such as Chinese presents even greater challenges – their characters are so multi-faceted as to render simple word-to-word translations impossible. But trying is fun!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes, it’s the trying that’s the joy. I’ve had to translate English into Spanish or, long ago, Greek, for friends, usually song lyrics. There’s a feeling you get when you can almost feel connections firing inside your head as you shift between languages. It’s an intangible physical feeling, somewhere just beyond your mind somehow.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I don’t write poetry, but I’d imagine it’s something like the feeling a poet gets when the perfect word offers itself up. Or when the answer to a cryptic crossword clue, set by a compatible compiler, pops into our heads. The glory of the unseen clockwork of our minds and of all the burrs of information that attach themselves to us as we walk through our own lives.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Hello again Robert – I saw a post on self-translation that I thought you might find interesting -especially if you follow the links within it. I had no idea that there was a Centre for Translation Studies at the American University in Cairo. I used to teach English there, long ago, and I remember it being a place of dusty blackboards and rationed chalk. Anyway, here’s the piece: http://arablit.org/2016/02/13/notes-from-a-self-translator-and-other-translation-talks-in-cairo-this-spring/ Hope you enjoy it.

        Liked by 1 person

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