Writing Lyrics: Communicating Your Message

John Legend

Lesson time 16:19 min

The first step to writing lyrics is knowing what you want to say. In this lesson, John walks you through how he wrote “Free” in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine.

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Topics include: Writing Lyrics: Communicating Your Message


- Lyrics are crucial. Obviously, they can strike to your emotional core in a certain way. The melody means something. The music means something. But you have to say something in the song. You have to say something that connects to what the feeling that you want people to feel is. Some songs-- the lyric is more fun and playful and irreverent. I've got a song called, "So Dope," where I'm just talking about how fine a girl is, and how sexy she is, and how much I want to be with her, and how addicted I am to how great she is. (SINGING) She's so dope. Wanna be her dope fiend. She showed me what dope mean. And the song is not supposed to be as deep and as spiritual as "Free" is, but it needs to be effective in doing what it's supposed to do. It's more of a party song. It needs to be effective at that. It needs to be effective at communicating the sentiment that you're trying to communicate through that song. And I have all kinds of songs. I have songs that are sexier. I have songs that are more playful, more party, more dance-driven. And then, I have songs that are these intimate, heartfelt ballads about commitment, about love, about freedom. All of those songs-- they have different moods, but your lyric needs to really capture that mood, tell that story, and connect with the music and the melody to make a beautiful song. So I approach lyric writing by starting with the melody. I mumble those nonsensical mumble tracks. And so it establishes a structure within which the lyrics are going to live. So I don't know what those lyrics are going to be quite yet, but I know what they'll sound like, what the bounce of them will be. Like, the rhythm, the spacing will be the notes on the scale that those lyrics will hit-- I know all of that. And then, I usually write the lyric. Sometimes I'll even write the chorus lyric and melody at the exact same time. So with "Free"-- (SINGING) There is a god. I did not mumble that part. I just sang that. That was a line that came to me as I was thinking about what the melody of the line would be. It came at the same time. (SINGING) There is a god. And I'm saying, Lord. So before I even sat at the piano, I sang that into my phone. But after that, I had to think about, well, what exactly do I want to say? I knew I wanted to write something inspired by what was happening in Ukraine. I knew that this invasion by Russia had galvanized the world, and we were seeing all these images that were so scary and harrowing. And I wanted to write an anthem for freedom and for peace. I started with that there is a god. And when I first wrote it, I said, if there is a god. (SINGING) If there is a god, and I'm just saying, Lord. Eventually, I changed it to, that there is a god, not because I'm trying to assert whether or not god exists in the song, but I wanted the song to be written like a prayer. And so I thought, it will be odd for me to say, if...

About the Instructor

When 12-time Grammy winner John Legend released “Free” in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine, he called it a prayer for peace. Now the recipient of the first-ever Recording Academy Global Impact Award teaches you how he wrote and recorded the song—and his process for creating hits like “All of Me” and “Glory.” Layer melodies and lyrics, develop your musical point of view, and make music that makes the moment.

Featured Masterclass Instructor

John Legend

John Legend, the EGOT-winning music icon and coach on “The Voice,” teaches you his process for creating music with impact.

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