How and Why to Write Song Lyrics for your Book

Sometimes, as part of building your book's world, you'll want to add a soundtrack.

And by soundtrack, I mean music -- songs that will feature in your characters' lives. After all, everyone listens to music. So wouldn't it be so much more realistic to show a character jamming out to Elton John, or sobbing over a heartbreaking Taylor Swift ballad?

While that would be great, there is a problem.

The law.

Song lyrics are copyrighted. Unless you want to pay a large amount of money -- hundreds or sometimes thousands of dollars -- you are not allowed to use existing song lyrics in your books (unless they're public domain, but most songs written after 1923 aren't).

You can use song titles and artist names, because they aren't copyrighted. But, a lot of the time, simply saying "I was listening to Toxic by Britney Spears" is not enough.

So, what to do?

The answer is simple: write your own lyrics!

At this point, a lot of writers go, "WHAT?! I write books, not songs. What are you talking about? I wouldn't even know where to begin!"

Relax. You probably won't even have to write a whole song; just a few verses will do for most books. And even if your book does require a whole song, you should start off with only a verse or two, and build out from there later.

Now, since the burden is off to write a whole song, it's time to get to work.

First of all, if your fictional song is in a genre of music that you don't normally listen to, you'd better do your homework. Listen to lots of songs in your chosen genre; what are the common themes throughout the genre? What words are commonly used? (example: country -- starry nights, ranches, heartbreak, southern states, fiddles, rural setting) Even if you are used to the genre of song you want to write, make sure you know that genre inside and out.

Once you know the genre well, it should be fairly easy to come up with some lyrics that sound like they're from that genre. Remember, you don't necessarily have to have a tune in mind for your lyrics (I do, but that's because I learn aurally, and the way things sound is important to me).

While you write your lyrics, there are a few points you need to keep in mind:


  1. A lot of songs contain vocalization. Vocalization works well in sound, but not on paper. A beautiful, wordless harmony in a song will be put down on paper as, "Oooo-ooo-aaa-aaa", or something like that, which looks silly. In a nutshell: keep vocalization to a minimum (unless you're doing it for comedic purposes).
  2. By the same token, lots of songs contain words like "Yeah" and "Mmmm" in order to make the rhythm fit. These also look silly on paper (have you ever looked up a song's lyrics, and realized that the song falls flat when you don't know the tune?). Again, keep them to a minimum.
  3. Try to write a song which has significance in your book. For example, instead of writing a generic verse about love, you could write a song containing details which would make the heroine think of her crush (e.g. by mentioning his eye color).
Once you're done with your lyrics, be sure to copy and paste them into Google to make sure they aren't copyrighted already.

Writing your own song lyrics is a good thing for reasons other than copyright issues. For one thing, it shows that you really care, and that you put a lot of effort into building the world by yourself (this is one of the reasons why I love The Hunger Games trilogy so much -- The Hanging Tree, a song which Suzanne Collins wrote for the book, really helped to build the world for me). For another thing, you can make the lyrics more relevant to your book. But the overriding point for me is copyright -- why pay through the nose for song lyrics when you can write a few lines yourself for free?

Use song lyrics to make your book sing!

For more information about using song lyrics in books, read this post from Anne R Allen's blog: http://annerallen.com/2013/03/so-you-want-to-use-song-lyrics-in-your.html

If you're feeling lazy and you just need a generic song, you could try using this song generator: http://www.songlyricsgenerator.com/ (be sure to double-check the lyrics in Google, though)

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