How to write lyrics for a love song
Is there anything better than the feeling of your heartstrings vibrating and your eyes watering during the final chorus of a love song? Universal, true, essential, the love song is an ancient craft and an illusive skill.
The way to approach writing a love song is just the same as you would approach love. Are you being authentic, specific, inspired? Or do you have your go-to pick-up lines that never seem to work?
You can’t outsmart the heart
First, consider that fine line between universal and cliché.
We’re playing a subjective game, but the general consensus is that a cliché lyric or musical idea will usually alienate a listener. Why?
Well, you can’t outsmart the heart.
On an intuitive level, we know if something is borrowed and insincere.
We can tell if it’s just another trick in someone’s bag. The definition of cliché is “a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought,” or “a stereotype.” When a writer uses a cliché while attempting to convey a singular, once-in-a-lifetime affection for a specific person, they achieve the exact opposite by exposing their lack of original thought.
Romantic love isn’t a general state of being, it is pulled out of us by a special, unforgettable person.
Love is specific. What makes it universal, is that it happens to everyone. The definition of universal is “including or covering all or a whole collectively or distributively without limit or exception.”
Without limit or exception, everyone experiences love, but everyone’s love is inspired by different, specific people, for varying reasons, at just the right time.
In these details we can find lyrics that have it all: sincerity, specificity, and universality.
Let’s take a look at the different forms of love songs, some typical pitfalls, and the most successful love songs of our time.
Love song form #1: The Compliment.
The “this is why I love you” song.
A song that praises beauty, kindness, and appeal.
When writing your lyrics, make a list of all the qualities of the object of your affection, and get specific.
What about them is so beautiful? If it’s their eyes, what about their eyes? What about the way they walk, their whisper, their smile, their mind? Everyone has these things, but only by painting a unique picture will your listener sense your authenticity.
An amazing example is Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes.
“In your eyes, the light the heat, in your eyes I am complete, in your eyes I see the doorway to a thousand churches. The resolution of all the fruitless searches. Oh I wanna be that complete, I wanna touch the light, the heat I see in your eyes.”
This lyric is so exquisite, it just speaks for itself. You couldn’t ask for a better love song.
Another angle: investigate and praise how they make you feel.
How has this person changed your life? What do they give you that no else could?
Chaka Khan gave us Ain’t Nobody: “Ain’t nobody loves me better, makes me happy, makes me feel this way. Ain’t nobody loves me better than you.”
While the sentiment may be a bit overused, Khan’s upbeat performance and embodied phrasing imbue the lyrics with sincerity and make it a classic. It is a celebration of that universal truth: When you know, you know.
Love song form #2: The Plea.
The “please love me back” song.
The most vulnerable moment in everyone’s life may be when we lay our heart on the line without assurance we’ll get it back! Such a fertile ground for songwriting.
Let the song sing all the things you could never say to that girl at the coffee shop, that guy at the party, that neighbor you’ve known since childhood.
A great example is Sam Cooke’s Wonderful World.
“Don’t know much about history, don’t know much biology, don’t know much about a science book, don’t know much about the French I took. But I do know that I love you, and I know that if you loved me too what a wonderful world this would be.”
Though it is a playful doo-woo song, Wonderful World actually runs pretty deep: it touches this universal feeling that, when we find the right person and our love is reciprocated, the whole world changes. It becomes wonderful, bright and hopeful.
An incredibly successful “plea” song is Make You Feel My Love, written by Bob Dylan, performed by Billy Joel, Adele and others.It speaks for itself.
“When the rain is blowing in your face, and the whole world is on your case, I can offer you a warm embrace, to make you feel my love… I know you haven’t made your mind up yet, but I will never do you wrong. I’ve known it from the moment that we met, no doubt in my mind where you belong. I’d go hungry, I’d go black and blue, I’d go crawling down the avenue, no there’s nothing that I wouldn’t do to make you feel my love.”
Listen to this song and try not to cry!
Another angle: the plea to stay together.
The “don’t leave me” song.
The valiant fight for love. The song before the heartbreak song. How do you fight for love without anger or desperation?
Stevie Wonder gives us the solution.
“Like a fool I went and stayed to long, now I’m wondering if your love’s still strong… Here I am baby, signed sealed delivered, I’m yours! Then that time I went and said goodbye, now I’m back and not ashamed to cry. Here I am baby, signed sealed delivered, I’m yours!”
Have courage, playfulness, and show the part of yourself that this person will want to stay with.
Stevie uses the wonderful metaphor of a letter, really conveying how much his heart is in the possession of his love. This song is so universal and classic that at weddings, more often than not, the DJ plays it right after the officiant says “You may kiss the bride!”
Even if your heart has been broken, writing a love song to the person who hurt you could produce a song like I Can’t Make You Love Me, by Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin, performed by Bonnie Raitt.
“I can’t make you love me if you don’t. You can’t make your heart feel something it won’t. Here in the dark, in these final hours, I will lay down my heart and I’ll feel the power, but you won’t, no you won’t. Cause I can’t make you love me if you don’t.”
Still very much a love song, it laments a universal truth: you can’t negotiate with the heart. It wants what it wants.
This category doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom. The plea to stay together could be in the form of a proposal!
Promise your life to someone in your song. Promise to take care of their heart forever, to be loyal and supportive no matter what. Explore what that means to you, inside of your unique relationship, your specific circumstances.
Al Green gave us a timeless song.
“I am so in love with you. Whatever you wanna do is alright with me. Cause you make feel so brand new, I want spend my life with you. Since we’ve been together, loving you forever is what I need. Let me be the one you come running to, I’ll never be untrue. Let’s stay together, loving you whether times are good or bad, happy or sad.”
There’s such a specific vibe in this song; soulful, sexy, it makes marriage sound relaxed, exciting, natural. Pretty convincing!
Love song form #3: The Celebration.
The “I’m so happy you’re mine” song.
The song that describes the connection, the relationship, the bond. It describes love itself.
How does it feel to be in love? What are the colors, the images that come to mind? What do you really want your partner to know? How can you convey the essence of your dedication?
In answering these questions, you may come up with some cliché lines, but keep going. You’re bound to find some authentic, specific gems to build a song upon.
The love song that seems to play on loop is At Last performed by Etta James: “At last my love has come along. My lonely days are over, and life is like a song! At last the skies above are blue. My heart was wrapped up in clover the night I looked at you…”
This song is so universal and iconic that Michelle and Barack Obama danced as Beyoncé performed it brilliantly at the 2009 presidential inauguration.
Another more simple and humble example comes from Something in the Way She Moves by James Taylor.
“Well there’s something in the way she moves, looks my way or calls my name that seems to leave this troubled world behind… I feel fine anytime she’s around me now. She’s around me now almost all the time. If I’m well you can tell that she’s been with me now. She’s been with me now quite a long long time and I feel fine.”
In this song the word “fine” conveys the old meaning: blissful, joyful, with no complaints.
In Something in the Way She Moves, James displays the best of his relationship, the subtle ways she helps him as the days pass, the transformation of his world on a practical, tangible plane.
Still waiting on that special someone? Check out I Wanna Know what Love Is by Foreigner.
“In my life there’s been heartache and pain. I don’t know if I can face it again. Can’t stop now, I’ve traveled so far, to change this lonely life. I want to know what love is, I want you to show me..”
They used the universal ache to be in love as their powerful and catchy chorus, proving that even if you’ve never been in love, you can write a love song! The romantic dramas of life are the most potent, immediate stories we have as writers. Use them!
Listen to the songs listed here, find others that inspire you, and set out to write authentic, universal love songs free of clichés and eye-rolling generalities.
Almost as important as finding songs that inspire you, find those songs that make your eyes roll. Learn what about them alienates you, and file it in your “stay-away” folder.
Never write a love song just because it’s the easiest thing.
There are infinite love songs out there, so make sure there’s a good reason for yours to exist, a specificity to be celebrated, a unique story to tell. Love is universal, but each love is singular.
Study up, be authentic, and get writing!
written by Kate F., Supreme Tracks’ session vocalist.