Three Types of Lyrics

When I was wandering around Reddit, I found that many critiques really were not helpful to the writer because the critic failed to understand the type of lyrics the songwriter was going for. My thinking is that lyrics generally fall into three types: Narrative, Lyrical, and Instrumental. Here are my thoughts and some examples of each.

Narrative lyrics , kind of obviously, focus on a narrative. They tell a story. Usually, we see characters and a setting and some event or events unfold. A few good examples are Pancho and Lefty by Townes Van Zandt and The Blizzard by Harlan Howard (performed by Jim Reeves). Those are clear examples of a story in song form.

Lyrical lyrics , (I know, it sounds funny) focus on the conveying of an emotion. The narrative, if any, is secondary to the emotion conveyed. A few good examples are Spoon by Dave Matthews Band (you could argue that there is a narrative, but it really appears that the central idea of the song is silent contemplation) and Happy by Pharrell Williams (I know, that one is really obvious). The narrative (if any) of either song is not the primary focal point of the song. What matters is that the listener feels something.

Instrumental lyrics are lyrics where the voice is simply an additional instrument. Sometimes the words are utter nonsense, and sometimes they aren’t words at all. Rubber Biscuit performed by The Chips (songwriter is iffy due to label). But basically, you have a few one line jokes and scat. Those jokes could really be replaced by almost anything else and the song remains about the same. Sarah Vaughan’s Shulie-A-Bop is an example of straight scat. For one that uses real words, listen to almost any song by Phish, but Stash is a good example. The lyrics are straight nonsense but enhance the music.

Many songs use elements from all three styles. For instance, in pop music you often hear an “oooh” vocal run, or a meaningless “baby”, or “boy” or “girl”, that is instrumental. The band Thursday has a song called “War All the Time” that is primarily lyrical, but goes into narrative (in this case, it is very clear, the story begins “I was five years old when my best friend’s older brother died…”). Learning when and how to use the three types of lyrics can enhance your songs. It also helps when collaborating. That way, the co-writers can better relay what their intent is with certain lines or the whole song.

Do you have any examples of these types of lyrics? Do you find it useful to have these types of terms to communicate?

Interesting organisation. My mind works similarly but slightly differently.

Starting with your “instrumental lyrics”, I think my mental model extends this further than just oohs and aahs to songs which do have lyrics but where the lyrics are clearly not the priority. To look at it the other way, there are songwriters who pride themselves on their lyrics above all the other elements such as the melody, arrangement and production. So I have a category for “lyric-centric” songwriters if you like.

Moving to the other two, I think I tend to categorise primarily by perspective, as in first, second or third person point of view. I know Pat Pattison writes about four perspectives, it’s been a while since I read it but if memory serves he splits the second person into two sub-categories somehow? From what you have written it seems like your narrative lyrics map naturally onto the third person point of view and maybe your lyrical lyrics cover the other two?

But of course these are all just different ways to organise our filing cabinets, all recognising valid patterns and making interesting distinctions!

I agree that this is all organizing the filing cabinet (I really like your analogy). To me, when collabing on a song or critiquing one, it helps to understand the purpose or intent clearly. I see point of view as subsets to narrative and lyrical songs. For instance, a first person narrative is The Blizzard performed by Jim Reeves. You’re So Vain by Carly Simon is second person narrative. Paunch and Left is third person narrative.

Lyrical songs are a little harder to place point of view sometimes since the purpose is not to tell a story. Pneuma by Tool is a good example, it starts off in first person plural, goes into second person direct address, and uses mandative second person throughout. But the intent is to convey a feeling of oneness with humanity and the universe. I do think that lyrical writing lends itself more easily to first person since it is all about conveying an emotion or feeling.

Instrumental lyrics are my weakness, I have tried and failed many times. But often, they are not thoughtless. For instance the way Phish uses syllables and stressed to enhance the music is outstanding. They are not scatting, they are using real words that in no way tell a story and don’t convey a solid feeling, but I’ll be derned if the singing doesn’t make the song exponentially better.

This is not to say that there is a right or wrong way to organize. Your response is exactly the kind of discussion I hoped for. Thank you!

Just came across another nice distinction between “movie songs” that move us through time and “painting songs” that capture a single moment in time with their imagery. Might be relevant to this thread!

1 Like