Good writers listen to the music

Justin Bieber concert in Columbia South Carolina
Justin Bieber performs in concert at the Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, South Carolina, Monday, August 5, 2013. (Tim Dominick/The State/MCT)

In a world of text messages and status updates, good writing is the lifeblood of our credibility. Reading great literature is the most obvious way for the writers to improve their craft, but what about those who don’t enjoy reading books? Though good writing comes from those who read, writing is not a skill reserved only for bookworms.

Good writing also comes from those who listen.

Actively listening to the words flowing around in the air can turn us into better writers. From TV shows and movies, to speeches and podcasts, our written language is inside of what we listen to every day. Though there are many words in the air, none of them are more powerfully written than the ones embedded into music.

Great songwriters tell stories with their lyrics. Any singer can repeat the word “baby” over and over in a chorus, but it takes a true writer to compile lines with meaning. These are the musicians to pay attention to. Study the way good singer-songwriters write. Listen to the words they choose to articulate the emotions in their songs. If you’re actively listening, these songwriters can be some of your greatest writing mentors.

Take an example from English folk singer-songwriter, Passenger. In his song, “Staring at the Stars” Passenger sings, “Tobacco stains our yellow teeth and all our fingers, and underneath our fingernails that clasp on sheets, and we try desperately to sleep.” Passenger has put a great deal of care into the words he’s chosen to use in the first verse of this song. He’s trying to tell us something without blurting it outright. He paints a scene for the listener with his words, just as a novelist would.

Descriptive sentences are key for any good storyteller, but it cannot be done without the use of a vast, personal vocabulary. Many songwriters possess gifted vernaculars on par with accomplished authors. Punk rock icons, Bad Religion is certainly among that group.

Known for their thought-provoking social commentaries, Bad Religion is more importantly known for the incredibly intricate lyrics written by their lead singer, Greg Graffin. In the song, “1000 fools” Graffin writes, “I heard them say that the meek shall reign on earth, phantasmal myriads of sane bucolic birth. I’ve seen the rapture in a starving baby’s eyes, inchoate beatitude, the lord of the flies.” One can only speculate what Graffin meant while writing those lyrics. A deeper analysis of any Bad Religion tune might go smoother paired with an academic dictionary.

Great lyric writing is all around us and can be used to our advantage, if we’re listening. Paying attention to the words coming through our headphones is just as important as dancing to the rhythm of the music. All genres of music offer artists who can write with a dignified caliber, but the listener must know what they are looking for. Tread lightly in the popular music section, for every Mumford and Sons masterpiece, there are five meaningless Justin Bieber tunes. Finally, always remember if the lyrics contain dollar symbols or any form of textese, move along immediately.