Musicians call it the scratch method of writing lyrics, and it simply means this. If you can write nonsense, you’re halfway to writing song lyrics that effectively flow with a piece of music. To illustrate, let’s rewind the clock to 1965.

Before Paul McCartney wrote the immortal lyrics to “Yesterday” (one of the most recorded songs in history), he began with the working song title “Scrambled Eggs” and the following opening verse:

Scrambled eggs

Oh my baby how I love your legs

Not as much as I love scrambled eggs

Oh we should eat some scrambled eggs

Why did he write such nonsense?

Very simply, the music came to McCartney first (in a dream, according to biographers of McCartney and the Beatles). He didn’t know what he wanted to sing about. So, as Lennon and McCartney were known to do, he came up with substitute working lyrics (commonly called “scratch lyrics”) to nail down how he wanted the melody and phrasing to sound. He then later wrote the final lyrics to “Yesterday” to match the melody and phrasing he’d worked out.

McCartney certainly wasn’t the first or last musician to use scratch lyrics.

  • Before writing the 1962 Patsy Cline hit “Crazy,” budding songwriter Willie Nelson called his song “Stupid.”
  • Before writing the smash Christmas song “Silver Bells” for Paramount Pictures in 1950, composers Jay Livingston and Ray Evans originally called their song “Tinkle Bells.”
  • Before releasing his smash 1973 song “Kodachrome,” Paul Simon originally sang the words “coming home.”

Today, musicians the world over continue to use the scratch method of writing lyrics.

So, if you find you’re having trouble writing song lyrics, try not thinking about lyrics. Overly focusing on lyrics early in a song’s birth can often become writer’s block, which can stall a song for weeks, months or years. Instead:

  • Focus on the melody
  • Begin by humming or whistling something (or whatever works)
  • Let the melody tell you how it wants to come out
  • As it does, sing any words that come to mind that fit the evolving melody, even if they sound like complete nonsense
  • Once you have your “scratch lyrics,” write them down
  • Later construct lyrics that fit the flow and form of what you’ve captured

Overall, don’t filter or censor yourself in the beginning stages of writing lyrics. Let feeling guide you through the construction of scratch lyrics, then let your final lyrics flow out.