How to personalise song lyrics

One of the benefit of creating your own cover version of a song is that you have an opportunity to personalise the lyrics. One of the reasons songs are so popular is because we often relate to parts of the lyrics – they trigger us to remember feelings or specific moments in our lives. The lyrics of the song don’t need to perfectly match our own circumstances in order to create the feeling of connection. But sometimes I find some lyrics jarring. For example, I don’t drink and when I listen to songs about people getting drunk this is not something I can relate to and it creates imagery in my head which I don’t particularly enjoy. So when there is imagery in a song that feels at odds with my own experience, I like to change it to something I can relate to better.

When personalising song lyrics, it’s up to you how much you change them. You might just tweak a few words – it is common for a singer to change the gender of characters in a love song, for example, to make that character the gender that the singer is attracted to. But you can also completely rewrite the lyrics to your circumstances, using the initial song as inspiration.

In this lesson I’ll walk you through a process for adjusting lyrics to a song to make them feel more personal to your circumstances, so you can relate to it better.

Making small changes to lyrics of an existing song

In my quest to learn about country music, I googled the most popular country songs of all time, and one of the songs I found was I’ll never get out of this world alive by Hank Williams. As well as being very popular, this song is surprisingly simple. It’s proof that good songs don’t need to be complicated.

Although I couldn’t properly hear the original song as it had too much happening at once, when I entered the score into GarageBand I could hear it properly, and I liked it.

Here are the lyrics to the original song:

Now, you’re lookin’ at a man that’s gettin’ kinda mad
I had a lot a luck but it’s all been bad
No matter how I struggle and strive
I’ll never get out of this world alive

My fishin’ pole’s broke, the creek is full of sand
My woman run away with another man
No matter how I struggle and strive
I’ll never get out of this world alive

My distant uncle passed away
And left me quite a batch
And I was livin’ high until the fatal day
A lawyer proved I wasn’t born, I was only hatched

Everything’s against me and it’s got me down
If I jumped in the river I would probably drown
No matter how I struggle and strive
I’ll never get out of this world alive

These shabby shoes I’m wearin’ all the time
Is full of holes and nails
And brother, if I stepped on worn-out dime
I bet a nickel I could tell you if it was heads or tails

I’m not gonna worry wrinkles in my brow
‘Cause nothin’s ever gonna be alright no-how
No matter how I struggle and strive
I’ll never get out of this world alive

I played it, mentally singing the words. I absolutely loved the melody and the lines, ‘No matter how I struggle and strive / I’ll never get ouf this world alive.’ The words themselves felt like pleasing poetry, just as the melody did. I didn’t want to change them.

I also liked, ‘If I jumped in the river I wold probably drown’ and the way that rhymed with ‘down’. But I didn’t really love the lyrics for the rest of the song. So when making a cover of this song I decided to alter them. Afterall, I would be asking a singer to sing it for me, and it wouldn’t be a problem to ask her to sing different words.

Sometimes when I alter lyrics, I make only small changes:

  • First, I would change the gender from ‘man’ to ‘girl’, as I identify as female and so that would make the song more relatable to me.
  • As I’m a lesbian I would keep ‘My woman’ but have her run off with another girl. 
  • I don’t really relate to ‘getting kinda mad’ because to me that sounds like the guy feels that he’s entitled to a better life and is angry he doesn’t have it. More close to my own experience is ‘feeling crazy,’ but that didn’t rhyme. I searched for words that rhymed with ‘bad’ and came up with ‘feeling kinda sad.’
  • I also didn’t like the patriarchial idea of the uncle having all the money, so I changed it to auntie.

When you are looking for words that rhyme, I suggest using rhymezone.com to help find rhyming phrases. When you want to find a rhyme, type in the word you want a rhyme for, then look over the words the website offers. Some words might jump out at you as being appropriate for the theme of the song. Then you can try to make up a line that ends with that word.

The word ‘mad’ rhymes with the last word of the next line, ‘bad.’ so I searched for words that rhymed with ‘bad’ and came up with ‘sad.’ So the last line became, ‘feeling kinda sad.’

When I looked closely at the lyrics, I saw that if I had my woman run away with another girl, then we would have three girls in the song and that would be a bit confusing. I also didn’t like the thought of referring to my partner as ‘my woman’ – that seems a bit disrespectful somehow. So after mulling over it I thought a better approach would be to say, ‘My girlfriend’s run away with my best friend.’ That feels closer to natural speech and captures the feeling of agony the original song-writer was going for.

Matching the rhythm of a line

When you are changing a whole line like this, and not just individual words, you need to make sure that the new line fits the same rhythm as the old line. The simplest way to do this is to ensure that the new line has the same number of syllables as the old line. A syllable is a single sound within a word. The word ‘cat’ has one syllable. The word ‘catty’ has two syllables, because it has two distinct sounds – ‘cat’ and ‘ty’.

Start by counting the number of syllables in the old line. In ‘My woman run away with another man’ there are 11 syllables. Since 11 syllables is a lot to hold in my head at once, often I divide a line into two parts. So the first part is ‘My woman run away’, which is 6 syllables. This was easy to replace with ‘My girlfriend ran away’ as it was the same sentence type and structure. The second half, ‘with another man’ is 5 syllables. I knew that I wanted the phrase to end with ‘my best friend’, so how can I make it fit? I have 3 syllables in there. If I say ‘with my best friend’ I’m one syllable short. What about ‘with my very best friend’? Now I have one syllable too many. Sometimes in English you can insert a rather meaningless word in order to fill out the syllables. For example, ‘with just my best friend’ – where ‘just’ is a meaningless word. But in this case it doesn’t really work! In fact, I couldn’t find a way to add that extra syllable and still have it sound like natural speech. In the end I decided to allow the word ‘best’ to be sung over two notes, the same two notes that are used for ‘other’ in the word ‘another’. In Garageband for that verse, I deleted the note that corresponded with ‘er’ and extended the note for ‘oth’ to fill the same amount of space. Then it worked, ‘My girlfriend ran away with my best friend.’

Another way you can do this, without counting syllables, is to mentally say to yourself the old line, then say an idea for the new line to yourself using the same rhythm and timing. Sometimes this way you can strike on a number of syllables that just fits nicely.

However, using ‘My girlfriend ran away with my best friend’ meant that it no longer rhymed with the previous line, ‘My fishin’ pole’s broke, the creek is full of sand.’ So I decided I would rewrite that line too. I used rhymezone.com to look up rhymes for ‘friend’. When I saw ‘wit’s end’ I thought that was perfect for the vibe of this song, so figured the first line for that verse should be ‘My fishing rod’s broke, and I’m at my wit’s end.’ Note that I changed ‘pole’ to ‘rod’, because ‘rod’ is the word we use in Australia.

The song, with small changes

Here’s my version with these small changes (in bold) that personalise it for me:

Now, you’re lookin’ at a man that’s feeling kinda sad
I had a lot a luck but it’s all been bad
No matter how I struggle and strive
I’ll never get out of this world alive

My fishin’ rod’s broke, and I’m at my wit’s end
My girlfriend’s run away with my best friend
No matter how I struggle and strive
I’ll never get out of this world alive

My distant auntie passed away
And left me quite a batch
And I was livin’ high until the fatal day
A lawyer proved I wasn’t born, I was only hatched

Everything’s against me and it’s got me down
If I jumped in the river I would probably drown
No matter how I struggle and strive
I’ll never get out of this world alive

These shabby shoes I’m wearin’ all the time
Is full of holes and nails
And girlfriend, if I stepped on worn-out dime
I bet a nickel I could tell you if it was heads or tails

I’m not gonna worry wrinkles in my brow
‘Cause nothin’s ever gonna be alright no-how
No matter how I struggle and strive
I’ll never get out of this world alive

When I make songs for me to listen to, I always take the opportunity to customise the words in these small ways, and sometimes I rearrange the song a bit too, or write in an extra verse that makes it more meaningful to me.

Making bigger changes to the lyrics

As I worked on the backing track for the song, I realised I wanted to go further with personalising the words. Rather than just alter individual words as I did above, I decided to change the entire song to be about me and my life.

I thought about everything bad in my life and made a list. Then I altered each verse so that the first two lines described that bad thing, and the second two lines were the phrase I enjoyed hearing so much, ‘No matter how I struggle and strive / I’ll never get out this world alive.’ I moved the verse about jumping in the river and drowning to the end, as this was not a thing about my life that was bad, but a result of it – it seemed a fitting conclusion.

I felt a bit strange describing my life in this song, because there are also a lot of good things in my life and my innate tendency is to take a more balanced view, provide the positive with the negative. This approach felt very ‘poor me’ and like I was making myself into a victim. But that’s what the original songwriter did. And actually there was something quite cathartic about it, so I decided to just go with it. After all, my point in making music is to have some fun and be creative and enjoy listening to something that resonates – each piece does not need to be a perfect work of art.

Rhyming patterns

A song rhymes when the last word (or few syllables) of a line has a similar sound to that of another line. A common way to structure rhyming verses is to have two lines that rhyme in a row, in an A A B B pattern, like this:

Everything’s against me and it’s got me down A
If I jumped in the river I would probably drown A
No matter how I struggle and strive B
I’ll never get out of this world alive
B

In this song, the third verse is different from the others – it’s actually a bridge, with a different melody, chord progression and rhythm. See how it is structured A B A B:

My distant uncle passed away A
And left me quite a batch B
And I was livin’ high until the fatal day A
A lawyer proved I wasn’t born, I was only hatched B

When rewriting words, first identify the rhyming pattern, then if you change the last word of a line that ends with A, look for the other lines ending with A in that verse and change them too. Same if you change the last word of a line that ends with B.

Process to rewrite the verses

For the second verse I changed the second part of the first line to ‘and my friends left me,’ then I searched on rhymezone for words that would rhyme with ‘me’, but I didn’t find anything that felt right. I tried ‘and my friends vanished’ and I found ‘banished’ which suited the tone of the song, but I couldn’t get the line with ‘banished’ to sound natural.

I tried rearranging the words to ‘and I lost all my friends,’ even though in truth I didn’t lose all my friends, only some of them. I decided to go with creative licence – a song doesn’t have to be perfectly true. I searched for rhymes for ‘friend.’ I saw ‘bend’ and thought I could write something about ‘going round the bend’ but I couldn’t make it fit. I also saw ‘amends’ and thought of ‘I can’t make amends.’ This one did work, and the second line for the verse became ‘My baby’s gone and I can’t make amends.’

I used this same process of searching on rhymezone and rearranging words and searching again until I found pairs of lines with which to start each verse. I followed the same rhyming pattern used in the original song, of A A B B for the verses. With the bridge, I struggled to find words that fitted the format A B A B so I decided to change the rhyming pattern used. I knew that in other songs, sometimes the rhyming structure of the lines is such that some lines don’t rhyme at all, like this: A B C B, where A and C don’t rhyme with anything. I swapped the bridge for that rhyming pattern. When you alter songs, you are always free to change the rhyming pattern if you prefer.

Here’s the result, with the words I changed written in bold:

Now, you’re lookin’ at a girl that’s feeling kinda sad
I had a lot a luck but it’s all gone bad
No matter how I struggle and strive
I’ll never get out of this world alive

My home was smashed down, and I lost all my friends
My baby’s gone and I can’t make amends

No matter how I struggle and strive
I’ll never get out of this world alive

I had my finances sorted
I’d saved up my bank notes

And I was livin’ high until the fatal day
The council took my money away, yeah they left me broke

Deaf discrimination strikes me every day
It’s always so much effort then to fight my way

No matter how I struggle and strive
I’ll never get out of this world alive

I’m sick of being sick and I wanna get well
Whatever’s wrong with me makes a living hell

No matter how I struggle and strive
I’ll never get out of this world alive

Everything’s against me and it’s got me down
If I jumped in the river I would probably drown
No matter how I struggle and strive
I’ll never get out of this world alive

Now you try

Now you have a go. Pick an existing song and customise it for yourself. If you’re stuck for a song, make your own version of I’ll never get out of this world alive.

Customising songs like this is tricky at the start as you get the hang of creating rhyming phrases. But the more you practice, the easier it will become. Adjusting songs in this way is fun and low pressure, because the original song-writer has already come up with the concept and ideas for the song, and you can fit into that framework by making small changes (like in the first example I gave) or big changes. You can even change every single word of a song if you prefer.

This is a good way to build your skill towards writing your own songs.

Back to course page.

4 thoughts on “How to personalise song lyrics

  1. jypmok

    One day I will be able to explain to you how useful this post of yours can be. It’s a beautiful description of one beautiful way codesign practices can be applied to improve lots of things at the same time. It ticks so many boxes, including the “therapy” box.

    Like

    Reply
    1. Asphyxia Post author

      Thank you so much for your comment. It was very meaningful to get that right after publishing that page. And yes, writing song lyrics can be a very cathartic form of therapy, I have discovered!

      Like

      Reply
  2. Tim Atkinson

    Every morning, I wake up loving living in love,
    Love living in love,
    For all there’s so much to love,
    Love living in love, Love living in love,
    Nobody’s letting anyone down,
    Nobody’s acting a clown,
    Love living in love, Love living in love,
    The roses scattered on your bed,
    The thorns awaits for your jump,
    Hold your stead,
    You know we all love living in love,
    Di di di di da da da di di di…

    Like

    Reply

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