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How to Write an ELT Hit!

Written by Katie Cloutte and Richard Lewis

It's a TikTok world and we're just living in it. The overexposure of short catchy songs - lyrics constantly stuck in our heads, whether they're the right words or not!

Tom Dick and Debbie can churn out a club thumpin’ hit even with the lyrics 'He's a builder, his name's Pat.' But what really sets apart those great songs from our cream of the crop songs that never leave our heads, no matter how hard we try to exorcise them, are the lyrics.

ELT songs are their own breed because they have so many rules compared to the rest (while still needing to sound like the rest). They have specific vocabulary needed, specific grammar needed, specific grammar and vocabulary NOT needed. So how can we apply these rules to standard songs in order to end up with a chart topper?

Okay here’s where we get technical. Let’s start with the basics.

HOW to make it easier to write lyrics with good structure.

We tend to use a grid showing the strong and weak beats and line length. (Flashback to learning iambic pentameter). Here’s an example of an 8-syllable nursery rhyme:

If you say this through, you can

hear that all the strong syllables in the lyrics are shown in the strong boxes. Also the grid helps you see that the first word of each line is often a weak syllable - such as its/and/the shown here. In the music this is known as a 'Pick-up' beat, and we write the tune to start the beat before the first bar.

There are two main reasons why a song seems to stick in the mind more easily than prose.

Melody and Rhythm

When you send lyrics to TDD, it’s our job to come up with a really catchy tune that delights the ear of children and adult learners, is easy and quick to pick up, and hard to forget! (Sometimes that drives us crazy, because we can’t forget them either).

But the most important part that you play is to create the rhythm of the words, by the scan and structure of the lyrics you send us.

If you compare some well-known catchy and least catchy lyrics, it’s easy to see the difference:

Jingle Bells Jingle Bells Jingle all the way

(lyrics by James Lord Pierpont)

You can immediately get how to say this in time, and where the strong syllables are.

If we looked at ‘You can call me Al’ by Paul Simon it’s less obvious:

A man walked down the street. He said why am I soft in the middle now

Why am I soft in the middle when the rest of my life is so hard?

(lyrics by Paul Simon, published by Pattern Music)

So what makes a good rhythm to sing?

Three main rules:

  1. Make sure the strong beat of the word falls on the strong beat of the music.

  2. Make the lines of each verse similar in length and structure

  3. Use repetition where possible - this helps create a more memorable musical structure

What do you mean by strong beat?

This is where we go back to the structure grid. The classic example of a weak syllable falling on the strong beat is ‘Holiday’ by Madonna. Just sing that to yourself, and ask if you would want someone learning English to say: I am going on holiDAAAY.

(lyrics by Curtis Hudson and Lisa Stevens, published by Pure Energy Publishing)

Nope, didn’t think so.

You might not like the song as much, but you’d probably rather they said it like Cliff Richard: “We’re all going on a … Summer Holiday”

(lyrics written by Brian Bennett and Bruce Welch, published by Elstree Music)

If you sing this to yourself you’ll notice the HOL of holiday lands on the strong beat of the

music, so it’s better right? Well yes, but still the rhythm of the melody drags out the syllable HOL, so if TDD re-wrote these songs we would be making sure that there was emphasis on the first syllable, AND equal time spent on all syllables. So you learn to say the words the way they’re sung.

Why make the lines similar length?

Lines of different lengths are tempting because of vocab and content requirements, but the rhythmic unpredictability makes it harder to learn the song quickly and to remember it, especially for young learners. Imagine trying to create a regular pattern to hold these words from ‘Africa’ by Toto?

I hear the drums echoing tonight But she hears only whispers of some quiet conversation She's coming in twelve-thirty flight Her moonlit wings reflect the stars that guide me towards salvation I stopped an old man along the way Hoping to find some old forgotten words or ancient melodies He turned to me as if to say. "Hurry, boy, it's waiting there for you." [Chorus:] It's gonna take a lot to drag me away from you There's nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do I bless the rains down in Africa Gonna take some time to do the things we never had The wild dogs cry out in the night As they grow restless longing for some solitary company I know that I must do what's right Sure as

Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti I seek to cure what's deep inside, frightened of this thing that I've become

(lyrics by David Paich and Jeff Porcaro, published by Hudmar Publishing Co.)

Now have a look at Wonderwall - one of the most sing-a-long and karaoke-successful songs of all time.

Today is gonna be the day that they're gonna throw it back to you

And by now, you should've somehow realised what you gotta do

I don't believe that anybody feels the way I do

about you now

And backbeat, the word is on the street that the fire in your heart is out

I'm sure you've heard it all before, but you never really had a doubt

I don't believe that anybody feels the way I do

about you now

(lyrics by Noel Gallagher, published by Sony Music Publishing)

Each line has a satisfyingly similar number of syllables and beats.

The first verse: 3 lines of 7 beats with a one beat gap at the end, followed by a 4th short line to close.

The second verse: exactly the same structure

What do you mean by repetition?

Not only does repeating a chorus or a word make it easier to absorb the song, you’re also trying to create patterns with the words - and repetition is a crucial part of patterns:

Again from Wonderwall, here are two lines which start with repetition And all the…. Together with the same placing of strong beats, the identical line length, and the rhyme, they make an instantly singable bridge section of the song.

And all the roads we have to walk are winding

And all the lights that lead us there are blinding

What else? Verses should have four lines. A chorus should have two or four lines. Stick to even numbers! It should flow naturally like a nursery rhyme.

Rhymes or imperfect/half/slant rhymes always help. Repeating the last lines or parts of those lines is useful as is adding in some fluff like 'yeahs,' 'heys,' 'oohs,' etc. Expect the composer to add in some backing vocals as well, but feel free to add in some of your own. Songs love balance! If you include a question at the start of verse one, try and do the same in verse two, etc.

Writing a song with other songs in mind is also a great tool. Get inspired! Copying certain elements of those songs will help your writing along with the composers'.

We’re not saying these techniques will make you into Leonard Cohen, but they will help you and us write effective educational songs together.

When in doubt, send a draft to us - we're at the ready to give our thoughts and ideas to help it become catchy enough to override those TikTok songs. Oh and you’re welcome for getting ‘Wonderwall’ stuck in your head!

xoxo TDD


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