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Have you ever gotten stuck trying to write lyrics for your song while an awesome melody is brewing inside of you? Don’t let your lack of lyrics stifle your creativity. In these lyric writing tips, I'll explain what dummy lyrics are and how they can help you in your songwriting.
Setting the stage
As a songwriter, you know that sometimes the words come first, and other times a melody will strike you. For times when writing the melody comes before you have lyrics, you may sing la-la-la, na-na-na, or some other nondescript sound.
That’s a good starting point, but it’s not a great representation of how the melody will sound once you add lyrics to it. Different words have different vowels, and those vowels produce varying sounds, which in turn give each note a slightly different timbre. When you’re only singing na-na-na, every single syllable sounds the same. You have no concept of true flow, phrasing, or rhyme scheme.
Hearing your melody with actual words would show you exactly what works and what doesn't. This is where dummy lyrics come in.
What are dummy lyrics?
Dummy lyrics are placeholder lyrics. They act like a skeleton around which you can build your song without having to write the final lyrics. Dummy lyrics can be about absolutely anything you'd like. Often, they make absolutely no sense. And that's perfectly fine. Actually, sometimes it's even better if they make no sense, since you won’t be cornered into a specific story.
Dummy lyrics have been used for decades by some of the greatest songwriters to help them complete their song's melody before they went in to settle on the final lyrics. One of the most famous examples of dummy lyrics was in The Beatles’ “Yesterday.” The original dummy lyrics to the song started as “Scrambled eggs, oh my baby how I love your legs.” Does it make any sense? No. Did it end up in the final song? No. But do these dummy lyrics help give you a sense of rhythm and rhyme as you're singing the melody? Yes, they absolutely do!
Try singing these dummy lyrics to the original melody of "Yesterday" and see how it helps the melody flow with more clarity. The Beatles aren't the only ones who wrote dummy lyrics. Paul Simon famously used the words "Coming home" in his dummy lyrics before finally settling on "Kodachrome." Having placeholder lyrics is a great way to give you something to work with as you're trying to develop ideas.
Dummy lyrics area also particularly useful in helping you remember the melody. Let's be honest, we've all been there. You write a melody and the next day you've already forgotten it. Having just na-na-na or humming throughout doesn't help. Using dummy lyrics is a great way to help you remember the melody, as we tend to cling to melodies much more easily if there are words attached to it. Famed songwriter Hal David once said, "I’d often write dummy lyrics, and I still do that. It helps me retain the melody, and particularly if the melody is a little complex."
Lyric writing tips: how to write dummy lyrics
The beauty of dummy lyrics is that there are no true rules around writing them. They can literally be gibberish. Write down whatever comes to mind. They're placeholder text. So if I were writing new dummy lyrics to Yesterday, I could write:
"Midnight sun, happy that the school year has begun"
Or: "Privacy, see you holding on to memories"
Or: "Stars align, have a donut and drink up some wine"
As you can see, none of these make sense. But they all give me a placeholder to sing my melody to and help me figure out how my melody is working and if it needs adjusting.
Frequently dummy lyrics are created as the melody is being written. Other times, you may want to write a bunch of dummy lyrics ahead of time, that way when you sit down to writing your melody you already have lyrics to put your melody to.
Notice how in the case of the original dummy lyrics the words "eggs" and "legs" already rhyme. Setting up your rhyme scheme early on will not only help you determine which one works best, but it'll also come in handy when you get to writing the actual lyrics, so you know what you're aiming for. Take a look at the final lyrics to “Yesterday” and notice how the final words that replaced "eggs" and "legs" rhyme as well.
Try out different sounds
One of the best things about having dummy lyrics is that you get to play with how different vowel sounds sit on different notes. Take the three dummy lyric examples I'd written above and sing them to the melody of “Yesterday.” Compare how in each case the long notes sound different depending on which word is being sung.
Being able to sing different versions and compare what works best gives you the flexibility to choose the types of sounds that work really well in certain key places (for example on your hook, or in key moments in your chorus). Between the three options above, which sounds most pleasant sonically to you?
Once you finalize your melody, it's time to replace all the dummy lyrics with actual lyrics. How far or how close you go is up to you. In most cases, you'll end up writing about something completely unrelated, but occasionally you may find inspiring ideas in the dummy lyrics, so use those to your advantage.
As you know, in the case of “Yesterday,” the final lyrics did not retain any of the dummy lyrics. However, what did stay the same was the rhyme scheme and the accent placement of different words in the line structure. Some songwriters end up completely ditching everything about the original placeholder lyrics and writing new lyrics with a different rhyme structure that works better for one reason or another. Trust your instincts.
In the early 1920s, composer Vincent Youmans and his lyric writing partner Irving Caesar were working on a new musical called No, No, Nanette. Youmans had written a bouncy melody and requested that Caesar give him some words to work with. Caesar ended up writing a set of dummy lyrics to which the two could continue working. "Tea for Two" happened to be one of the lines in the dummy lyrics. Youmans loved the idea of "Tea for Two" so much that when it came time to write the actual lyrics, he refused to let Caesar change that line. “Tea for Two” ended up being one of the more popular songs from the show.
This is such a great example of the fact that sometimes you'll find inspiration in your dummy lyrics. So, although they're meant to be temporary placeholders, don't be surprised to occasionally discover some great ideas in your dummy lyrics. Those great ideas wouldn't be there had you not written the dummy lyrics in the first place.