The Difference Between Writing Poetry & Writing Lyrics

Poetry and music share a long relationship throughout human history. They have always played well with each other, offering mutual inspiration and collaboration. Today’s modern musical lyrics are just the most recent form for music and poetry to take together.

Wordsworth, Byron, Keats, and Shelley were the “rock stars” of their day, earning adulation, celebrity, and even sometimes a bit of wealth from their poetry. Unfortunately for modern poets, today their words are often relegated to small, dimly lit cafes or the pages of obscure literary magazines and websites.

And although modern poets don’t enjoy the same prestige they did a century or two ago, any aspiring songwriter can learn a lot by studying, reading, and yes, even writing poetry.

On the other hand, there are wonderful opportunities today for poets in the music industry – provided they are willing and able to adapt their writing for today’s lyrics.

Which brings us to this week’s topic: the difference between writing poetry and writing lyrics.

The Similarities

In order to fully understand how writing lyrics is different from writing poetry, it’s a good idea to have an understanding of how they are similar first.

Speaking generally, the same things that make for a good poem – effective imagery, compelling themes/story, emotional connection, and originality – also make for a great song lyric.

Additionally, both poems and lyrics rely on a strong use and understanding of language, both engage their readers and listeners emotionally, and both are done within a predetermined structure.

Both poetry and song lyrics benefits from poetic devices, like metaphor, simile, alliteration, hyperbole, personification, and onomatopoeia. And of course, both use a lot of descriptive imagery.

The Differences

Despite everything that they have in common, poetry and lyrics are not the same thing.

In fact, for everything they have in common, there is more that separates them. Let’s take a look at just some of the more important differences.

  • First and foremost, a poem is meant to be read on the page, while a lyric is specifically designed to be sung by a human voice, accompanied by music. Think about this for a moment. With a poem, you can go back and reread sections or stanzas. With a song, short of rewinding, you don’t have the same luxury of going back. Stopping to dwell on every lyric ruins the entire experience.
  • A poem can be simple, or extremely dense, in both concept and structure. In the end, it is meant to connect with a reader. A successful lyric, on the other hand, needs to connect with a listener. This is a subtle, but important difference. Since the music carries the lyric quickly, followed by another right on its heels, the words needs to communicate in an instant, with clarity and force.It’s true that the meaning of a lyric can be ambiguous or even carry multiple meanings, but the vast majority of successful lyrics succeed because they’re clear and stated well, even to the point of repetition – after all, refrains and repeated choruses have always been an integral part of songwriting.While both poems and lyrics need to capture their audience’s imaginations, lyrics need to more easily captured by the ear. A lyric with abstract or obscure words, and dense, complicated phrases will be unintelligible noise to most ears.
  • One of the most obvious differences is as simple as the fact that poems stand alone, in that they do not require music, or anything else for that matter. Lyrics, however, must work well with the rhythm and structure of music. For most creative teams, the way they go about it is fairly simple: The composer writes the music first, then the lyricists writes lyrics that fit the melody. As legendary songwriter Paul Simon said, “Write the melodies. Live with them for a while. Then write the words.”That being said, experienced collaborators can learn to do it the other way around. If the writer has a strong understanding of melodic structure, a skilled composer will most likely be able to write music around the words.When it comes to structure, writing lyrics is a specialized art. At the very least, a good lyricist should understand the basics of how to create verses, climbs, choruses, and bridges. When learning to write lyrics, it all boils down to this: If you want your lyrics set to music, you need to write them so they can be.
  • Another fairly obvious, but important difference between these two art forms is that a poem can be read silently, while a lyric must be sung (otherwise, what’s the point?). This means that a lyric writer will need to think about the fact that other singers might perform their work. Some words and phrases are very easy and smooth to sing. Others are neither of those things.Phrases like “ambidextrous octopuses eat overripe pineapples” not only makes no sense, it’s not very likely to attract much talent.Make sure you read your lyrics out loud to ensure they’re “sing-able.” If the words don’t flow and sing well, there might be a problem. If your phrases cause awkward stops or stumbles, there’s definitely a problem. Once you start reading your lyrics out loud you’ll start to hear the difference right away.
  • Lastly, a major different between writing poetry and writing a lyric is that a poem can be almost any length at all – Homer’s The Iliad, an “epic poem,” can take the average reader almost 11 and a half hours to complete – while a lyric must be short and concise, fitting into the confines of its song.Poems can go on indefinitely, using clever and concealed language that only shows its true secrets after several, careful re-reads. Song lyrics, on the other hand, must move quickly, making every word count. The best lyric writers use as few words as possible to convey their meaning, to set a scene and to evoke a feeling. In fact, there aren’t very many songs these days that are longer than three of four minutes.Lyrics require that you express yourself quickly and clearly, the first time.

Poetry and lyrics are part of the same family – cousins, you might say – with a lot in common. But like cousins, they aren’t the same, and may even have more differences than similarities. But, also like cousins, they can get along, play well together, and help inspire one another.