"Write Songs Right Now"
...ways to bolster them in later chapters.
To counter the critical tendencies of The Voice, try saying these sentences instead of the ones above:
I am talented, and I’m willing to capitalize on my talents.
I can accomplish the goals I envision for myself as a songwriter.
Within me, I have all the equipment I need to write songs.
I have an endless abundance of song ideas.
I am surrounded by supportive people willing to lend a hand.
My voice and musicianship are fully capable of expressing my ideas.
GETTING STARTED: DEVELOPING HEALTHY SONGWRITING HABITS
One of my mantras as a songwriting coach is this: "Move from quantity toward quality." In this case, less is not more; more is more. If you wrote one song every week, at the end of a year you’d have 52 songs, and I guarantee a few of them would stand out from the pack. This is a far preferable path to writing four songs a year and obsessing madly over them.
My other favorite expression, which is intimately related to the first, is "Dare to suck." Because after all, what’s the scariest thing about laying your heart and soul out there in a song? Perhaps that it will be a gawd-awful piece of trash, that you’ll humiliate yourself publicly, and that people will point at you on the street and say, “Did you hear that terrible song (s)he wrote?”
No one expects a figure skater to do a backflip the first time she gets out on the ice, and yet many of us mistakenly expect a great song to miraculously emerge without putting in the effort, and without enduring multiple failures along the way. A certain amount of falling on one’s butt is to be expected in both cases.
The important lesson is this: don’t let The Voice stop you. If you go forth boldly, write a lot, and dare to suck, I guarantee your work will improve over time. And you’ll start to enjoy the ride!
Exercise 1 is a checklist of the items necessary for your development as a songwriter—one who is in it for the long run. Some items on the list are physical (pens, notebooks, recording devices) and others are more ephemeral (a safe place to write, uninterrupted).
YOUR TRUTH: THE ESSENCE OF A SONG
For me, songs are such a powerful art form because they engage our minds, bodies, and souls, striking all three simultaneously, and living on inside of us, sometimes long after the music ends. A great song embodies a crystal clear, palpable “essence” that transcends the barriers of time, place and language. Think of the specific songs that made you want to write in the first place. I’m sure our lists would be different, but no doubt the basic essence of a formative song rings true on a deep level for many people.
The core of your song is its rock-solid bottom-line truth. That’s the main thing you want to capture in your lyrics, your melodies, and eventually your recordings and productions. Without this spark, this inspiration, this piece of you, all the polish and shine you add later will feel like empty noise, on a gut level.
The tricky part is to tap into that deep center, and fearlessly express what’s there. Sometimes it’s not a pretty sight. We all have demons that haunt us, and they might want to be exorcized before you move on to writing, say, an uplifting, joyful anthem, for example.
In any case, I firmly believe in the old expression that says “what you put in, you get out.” In other words, if you are in touch with what you’re experiencing when you write a song, people will re-experience it when they hear it. If you’re crying when you write it, they’ll cry when they hear it. If you’re angry when you write it, their anger will be aroused when they hear it. The flip side is, if you’re faking it, listeners can always tell.
I read an interview with Bob Dylan wherein he complained that people were always asking him what a song of his was “about.” His reply was that a song wasn’t “about” anything, it was something! Food for thought, eh?
If we honor our germs of inspiration, our “Aha!” moments, using them to provide the energy and vision to see us through the rest of the process, all the various tools of the songwriting craft will be used to good ends.
TAPPING THE DEEP WELL OF YOUR CREATIVITY
Have you heard the expression, “It’s all been said and done before,” implying that there’s no point in creating anything, ever? Well, if you ask me, that’s a lie. I figure parents made it up to discourage their offspring from pursuing careers as artists.
Rather than subscribing to “it’s all been done before,” try this one on for size:
“I am unique, and I have a powerful contribution to make to the world with my songs!”
You have a specific background, a point of view, a way of seeing and saying things, and a set of musical influences and ideas unlike those of anyone else on this planet. Many of us have been waiting for years for the opportunity to express who we are. Realize that you have the authority to give yourself full permission to express the unadulterated truth in your songs, starting right now. Your artistic license is already in your pocket; you can start using it today!
Experts on the subject of creativity often point to the left brain/right brain theory: each of us has a logical, linear, practical, critical side (kind of like a parent), as well as an imaginative, free-flowing, intuitive side (more like a child). How can songwriters use this theory to our advantage?
A great first step is to look inside for those sparks that signal a song is coming on. Sensitize yourself to swells of feeling, waves of realization, and moving experiences—and get them down on paper or into a recording device as soon as possible! The world is constantly flowing through your senses, and the interesting thing, song-wise, is exploring your unique angle on life. Don’t shy away from the full range of experience; dive into it. Ask yourself, “Where do I stand? What do I feel? How can I best communicate this idea?” Allow yourself to go into a right brain trance if it helps—whatever gets you to blurt it out. Some of the exercises in this book are meant to encourage this process. Make searching your life for song ideas as natural as looking in the fridge for a midnight snack.
Sure, inspiration might not emerge in perfect song form at first. It might be a title scribbled on a take-out menu, or a melody hummed into your smartphone. It’s all good! You’ve captured the essence of your truth, non-judgmentally, and all those left brain activities (structuring, patterning, critiquing) are better left for later anyway. Take a lesson from professional writers, who usually carry around a long list of potential song ideas that they can whip out in a session and try on for size.
Which subjects move you? Keep yourself open to all possibilities. One day you might feel a love song coming on, and the next you'll tackle a political event. You might yearn to make people dance, laugh, cry or sing along. All expressions are valid, and the songs that don’t “work out” in the sense of being publicly validated often provide the most powerful learning experiences. Embrace them all, and let them flow. Personally, at least half of my song starts never see the light of day. And so what? They serve to express whatever is coursing through me at the moment, which is valuable as an end in itself.
To sum up, music moves us because it encapsulates truth so well. As songwriters, our job is to distill our unique truths into lyrics, melodies, and eventually fuller arrangements and productions of our best work. The deeper you dare to delve into your experience, your voice and your truth, the greater the possibility of making a difference with your songs. It takes courage to look inside and bare your essence, and it’s worth it.
The following is a list of reminders, in case you ever let your own self-criticism, or that of others, stand in the way of your writing:
Remember the First Law of Creativity: While creating, refrain from judgment. Silence the inner critic. Otherwise, it’s like driving with one foot on the brake!
Feel, listen to, and patiently await your sparks of truth, in whatever form they arise.
Honor your unique way of saying it, seeing it, hearing it and feeling it—whatever “it” is.
Keep your “babies” safe, like a mother lion, until you’re ready for feedback or exposure.
All songs, and all creative expressions, are valid. Don’t worry about what “they” will think of them.
Take the most powerful sparks that rise to the surface and expand on them, in whatever form emerges.
It might take hours, days, weeks, months or even years to find the perfect form for an idea.
The same idea can be expressed many ways, many times. Each is worthy.
Keep checking in: does this spark of inspiration align well with this treatment? Does it shine through? Is it worth taking to the next level of development?
Don’t be afraid to move forward and let some song starts fall by the wayside! Remember the Theory of Endless Abundance. Practice releasing, not holding on for dear life. “Don’t worry, we’ll make more!”
Exercise 2 is intended to help you explore your unique perspective on life. If there were no rules, no judgments, and no constraints, what songs would you write?
Finally, let’s define “song starts.” A song start is that initial blurt, however far it takes you. It might be a single melodic line, a title, a lyrical catchphrase, a full chorus, a chord progression, or even the first rough draft of an entire song. The more song starts, the merrier! If you have a notebook or recording device overflowing with song starts, it’s much more likely that some of them will be worth completing.
So our third and final exercise in this chapter is to blurt out a song start, or better yet, 10 of them. Strive to ignore the incessant internal yapping of The Voice and just go for it!
DEVELOPING HEALTHY SONGWRITING HABITS
Go through this checklist and discover more about your songwriting tools and writing environment. Are you fully prepared when inspiration strikes? If you answer “no” to a lot of these questions, make a commitment RIGHT NOW to generate a more supportive set of circumstances that will allow your songs to flourish.
DO YOU HAVE A SAFE, SUPPORTIVE ENVIRONMENT FOR YOUR SONGWRITING PROCESS?
Have you created dedicated places and times to write?
Do you protect your "babies" until you’re ready for criticism or feedback?
Have you created circles of trust (i.e., supportive people, places and resources)?
Do you avoid negative, hyper-critical people?
Do you practice self-nurturing instead of self-flagellating?
DO YOU HAVE EFFICIENT, PRODUCTIVE WORK HABITS?
Do you always have your personal essential songwriting tools available, including notebooks, pens, portable recorders, instruments, and online or print rhyming dictionaries?
Do you keep track of all ideas? (This includes clearly labeling your recordings, creating a designated storage area for physical tools, and organizing the songwriting folders on a computer.)
Do you write something every day?
Do you create deadlines for yourself? Your goal may be to participate in classes, coaching sessions, collaborations, open mics, gigs, parties, contests, etc. There are also great online communities and social networks for songwriters that you can join—some of which are listed in the Appendix.
Do you have a songwriting mentor or coach whose work you admire?
Are you a sponge for inspiration, participating 110% in life and “filling the well” so that you have something to say in your work?
DO YOU CREATE NOW, CRITIQUE LATER?
Do you honor your creations, treating them like diamonds in the rough?
Can you turn off, or at least turn down, the judgmental internal monologue of The Voice during the creative process?
Have you tried unedited "blurting," speed-journaling, brainstorming and other stream-of-consciousness writing techniques?
Do you recognize and expect the occasional pure “Aha!” moment of intense inspiration?
After a certain amount of quantity is achieved, do you proceed towards quality? In other words: do you pare down, refine, improve, reconsider, record and listen?
Do you allot a grain (or pound) of salt when getting feedback from others? Respected sources deserve more weight, but you are the final authority on your own creations!
Some of these concepts might seem a bit foreign right now, but within weeks you’ll be familiar with them. Then, go through this checklist again and see where you stand.
WHAT MOVES YOU
ENOUGH TO WRITE A SONG?
A song’s core, its essential truth, is what people respond to most strongly. Tapping into your most powerful ideas and passions is an act of courage, and doing this again and again will provide the seeds of your greatest material. Don’t worry yet about the craft of writing; that will come with practice. Right now, get used to laying yourself on the line.
What subjects, what aspects of life, what experiences that you’ve had might inspire a killer song? Look into your “heart of hearts” and write, without editing, a list of as many of these as you can conjure up off the top of your head. It could be falling in or out of love, a philosophical realization, a drama that happened to you or someone important to you, a political or social event—anything, as long as it’s truly meaningful to you.
I subscribe to “The Power of Ten” theory: if one idea is what you need, come up with ten instead, and then choose among them. That way, you won’t become attached like a barnacle to any single idea or outcome. You’ll also marvel at the magnificent breadth of your own imagination. Remember: more is more!
Next, put a star next the idea(s) that might be worth pursuing in a full song. Many people write numerous songs on the same theme, so don’t let that stop you.
WRITE, WITHOUT JUDGMENT, ON SOMETHING THAT MOVES YOU
For 10 minutes, blurt out a song start that expresses something that rings true to you. Don’t worry about song form for now, whether it’s a potential “hit,” or even if you’ll ever complete it. It could be a lyrical, melodic, rhythmic or even chordal idea, as long as you can capture the spark on paper, or record it “down ’n dirty.” Don’t cross out or second-guess yourself; just roll with it.
As with all of your song starts, keep your babies organized! Whether you work on paper, a smartphone, or a computer, it’s essential that you document every moment of each session, and create a simple system for cataloguing your material. You won’t regret it!
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ANATOMY OF A SONG: HOW FORM FOLLOWS FUNCTION
THE THREE CLASSIC SONG FORMS
The big difference between a song and everyday speech or prose is the presence of so many repeated patterns. In a typical pop song there are rhythmical patterns, lyrical patterns, melodic patterns and chordal patterns, all recurring in different ways and at different times over three-plus minutes. Why? Because your brain likes it! Structure and symmetry are more pleasing and comforting than random chaos, and make absorbing new information easier. Besides, without all this repetition, you’d forget what you heard the moment it ended, and most of us want our songs to echo on and on in people’s minds, right?
A great song skillfully manipulates the listener by constructing a beginning, middle, and end according to one of the three classic song forms, which serve as overarching patterns or structures. (Of course there are exceptions, but we’ll blissfully ignore them for the time being.) Each song structure works well for certain purposes, and there are brilliant songs in all three forms. In this chapter, we’ll delve into the classic song forms as they progress from simple to more complex.
THE AAA FORM
The simplest song form, called AAA, is like the amoeba on the evolutionary scale.
As you can tell by its name, the AAA form has one main section: the A. So where is your tone established? Where are your characters and setting laid out? Where do your musical and lyrical dynamics—your build-ups and your payoffs—occur? Where does your title reside? Where else—it’s all in the A! (And as an aside: just because it’s called AAA doesn’t mean you need to have three sections; you might have just one, or 20.)
The beauty of an AAA song is its simplicity, which can serve to make it extremely memorable. Many songs we learned as children fall into this form, as well as older folk and blues songs. “Happy Birthday,” “Amazing Grace,” “Hound Dog,” and “The Rose” are all famous AAA songs. These classic songs all work well within the limitations of the AAA form, and feature catchy melodies, universal themes and strong points of view. Not to mention, they’re extremely popular.
If you’re working in this form, keep in mind that simple doesn’t necessarily mean easy. One has to be hyper-economical with lyrics and melodies to write a compelling AAA song. Notice that all of the songs mentioned above have only three or four lines in each section. A-sections can be longer, of course, but it makes them less immediately memorable. For example, it’s harder to remember every line of “The Times They Are A-Changin’” (Bob Dylan) than it is the 12 lines (total!) of “Hound Dog” (Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller).
In a three- or four-line AAA song, the first line introduces the lyrical and melodic concept, usually delivering a single, strongly stated message. The second line often repeats the same melody or varies it just a bit, and may or may not alter the lyric. If the lyric of Line 2 is altered rather than repeated, it often parallels the first line somehow. The third and/or fourth lines contain a variation which delivers a melodic and lyrical peak moment. Finally, the last line of the section arrives at some sort of musical and lyrical resolution.
The title in an AAA song commonly occurs in either the first or last line, and can even be repeated to make it stick. The key is to avoid complexity in this form, or you risk losing your audience along the way.
Another variation is to keep the melody and chords the same throughout the song, but repeat one set of lyrics that includes the title in every other section, making it function as sort of refrain. This is the form used by the folk song “Clementine,” Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.”
The beauty of the AAA form is its simplicity, whereas its main drawback is that it can easily become boring. There is nowhere else to turn, structurally speaking. As the country song by Dan Hicks goes, “How Can I Miss You If You Won’t Go Away?” Let’s face it, have most people ever sung all five A-sections of “Amazing Grace”? No, they usually just get through the first one or two. Why? Because that’s as much repetition as the brain can take without getting antsy.
THE AABA FORM
Luckily, the amoeba that is the AAA song form, as it were, climbed onto land and eventually sprouted wings like a bird, and thus was born the AABA song structure. As is implied by its name, the AABA gives you relief from all those A-sections by inserting a B-section at the appropriate moment.
The B-section is also called the bridge, release or middle 8 (the latter because it often lasts for eight bars of music). This addition, which is intentionally quite distinct from the A-section musically and lyrically, has the salutary effect of creating drama, release, variety, dynamics...all good things! And when it’s well done, returning to the A afterwards feels wonderfully rewarding and comforting, like coming home from a vacation in a foreign land.
A typical AABA might have an eight-bar A-section, followed by another of the same length and shape that features new lyrics (except for the title). Next comes the B-section, providing that magical, contrasting Middle 8, and then a return to the A-section. Instrumental breaks might also be inserted to provide some variety.
One of the classic AABA songs of all time is The Beatles’ “Yesterday.” In order to really appreciate the impact a B-section can have, try singing “Yesterday” through without the part that begins, “Why… she...". The song suddenly loses a lot of its dramatic, almost cinematic arc. The B-section is where the melody soars into a higher vocal range, the rhythms stretch out, and the chords change. Afterwards, you’re gently, seamlessly guided “home” to the A-section.
“Yesterday” is also unusual in that the title appears in both the A- and B-sections, and at the beginning and end of two of the three A-sections. That’s a lot of lyrical repetition, but because of the melodic and harmonic variations, it never becomes boring. More commonly, the title appears either as the first or last line of the A-section, because in that position it will be repeated more often.
AABA songs were very popular in the 1950s and 60s. James Brown’s “I Feel Good,” Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head,” Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman’s “This Magic Moment,” and Lennon and McCartney’s “Michelle” are some examples. More recently, Green Day had a hit with the AABA song, “Wake Me Up When September Ends.”
You might like to experiment with working in the AABA form, although as with the AAA form, it has some limitations in terms of its commercial possibilities. Keep in mind that some AABA songs do make it onto the charts, and some succinct ideas are perfectly suited to these simple forms. Neither of them require much in terms of lyrical detail, and they aren’t screaming for a huge, dramatic payoff.
However, you may have more to say, and want to say it in one of the most commercially viable, crowd-pleasing ways, which leads us to...
THE VERSE/CHORUS FORM
Ahh, the verse/chorus: the hot-blooded mammal of song forms! For many reasons, this is the dominant pop music structure these days, ruling the charts and enriching our everyday lives. Verse/chorus songs infuse the very air we breathe. This form, with its many variations and the availability of additional “moving parts,” allows songwriters a fuller range of artistic possibilities than either of the simpler AAA or AABA structures.
Why? Well, for one thing, nothing sticks in the head and the heart like a big, fat full-throated sing-along chorus. Not confined to a single line and/or a refrain, as is often the case in an AAA or AABA song, an entire musical and lyrical section is devoted to “delivering the goods.” For my money, there’s nothing more satisfying than a massive, catchy chorus that rings true and resides in one’s memory for a lifetime.
Both the lyrics and melody of successive choruses usually remain consistent throughout the song, although in some cases minor variations are effective, especially towards the end of the song in what are called the out-choruses.
The hook, which is most often the song’s title, usually resides in the chorus, for obvious reasons. Production elements like vocal harmonies and instrumentation often get more expansive in later choruses to ensure that listeners are riding high by the end of the song.
The job of the verses in this form is to set the stage for the magnificent payoff that will be provided by the chorus. Verse 1 serves to establish the situation, the musical mood and tonal center, the point of view, and a few telling details. It’s comparable to the first 10 minutes of a movie, during which audience members decide whether or not to stick around.
Rather than writing a single verse before arriving at the chorus, you might choose what’s called a double-verse structure. In this case, the first part of the song would be verse-verse-chorus, giving you two distinct blocks of melody and lyrics to build up tension and interest in your listeners.
Your patterning in terms of rhyme scheme and line length would be similar in the “A-Verse” and “B-Verse” sections of this form. After the first chorus, this shape can easily be pared down to a single A-Verse, for the sake of brevity.
Ideally, your verses—however many there are—serve to draw listeners in and pique their curiosity. Tension is aroused by the lyrical and melodic marriage, such that if a blackout hit just before the chorus, you’d get a bad case of songus-interruptus. Well-constructed first verses create The Inevitability of the Chorus, generating an itch that can only be scratched by the exact musical and lyrical combination you’re about to deliver. Without skillfully building up this tension, the release will not be fully satisfying.
The main thing to remember is that the essential purpose of a verse is distinct from that of a chorus. By their very nature, a verse is more informational, and a chorus is more revelatory or message-driven. Or you can look at it as a build-up followed by a payoff or a question and its surprising-yet-inevitable answer. The shift from one state to the other is highlighted by a striking, palpable contrast between the sections.
A songwriter has many tools at his or her disposal to accentuate and dramatize the leap from verse to chorus, or vice versa. These might include:
Variations in line meter and/or length
The introduction of new rhyme schemes
Shifts in melodic range and shape
The introduction of new rhythmic patterns
A shift in chordal movement
All of these elements can eventually be enhanced by a fuller musical arrangement, but they should be readily apparent in a stripped-down version of the song, rather than being production-dependent.
Some songs heighten the sense of expectation and tension with the addition of a pre-chorus section, also known as a ramp, build, climb or lift. A pre-chorus might be one line or several, but ideally it’s short and sweet, providing one last transitional push. One of my favorite pre-choruses occurs in the song “My Girl” by Smokey Robinson and Ronald White. It’s the part in which they sing, “I guess you’d say/What can make me feel this way?” The question requires an immediate answer, which the chorus provides.
As this example illustrates so beautifully, the pre-chorus melody might climb into a higher vocal range, and/or the chords might change more often, both of which increase sensations of excitement and anticipation. It’s unwise to linger too long in the pre-chorus, though. As my songwriting mentors were fond of saying, “Don’t bore us; get to the chorus!”
After you’ve progressed through several distinct sections (Verse 1/Chorus/Verse 2/Chorus, with optional pre-choruses), the bridge is the fourth major element of a verse/chorus song. Like the pre-chorus, it’s completely optional. Usually appearing in the last third of a song, after your second chorus and just before the out-choruses or a third verse, a bridge serves to provide a final insight, or a shift in perspective or mood after several verses and choruses.
The bridge, too, contrasts sharply with the prior sections, refreshing the ear and the mind. In a story song, a plot twist or humorous revelation often occurs in the bridge. In other types of songs, a whole new melodic or rhythmical vista is explored, such as a rhythmical breakdown, a hushed lull, a chant, or a dramatic emotional high point. A bridge can also be purely instrumental, providing an “ear break” before returning to another vocal passage.
Following are some typical layouts within the verse/chorus song form. (Note that choruses are often repeated more than once at the end of the song.)
and the most complex structure:
As you can see, a writer has plenty of latitude to vary the structure of a song using these basic building blocks. You can even start with a chorus, if your song “wants” it, and you’re not giving away the store too soon. Always keep in mind that the average listener’s attention span is short—and seemingly getting shorter by the day. A ballad feels interminable if it has too many sections, or if any of them are wordy or long. A thumping uptempo or a jaunty midtempo song might benefit from the extra sections, comfortably including additional content.
CHOOSING THE BEST STRUCTURE FOR YOUR SONG
The determination of a song’s form is ideally driven by the essential nature of the spark itself, in addition to the ultimate purpose of the song. Do you have a simple, stripped-down idea that can be elegantly shaped into an AAA? Do you have an additional thought that befits the dynamic contrast provided by a B-section? Or is your idea more detailed, with an inherently dramatic payoff, wanting expression in the more elaborate structure of a verse/chorus song?
Sometimes, a song just pops out in one form or another and feels set in stone. At other times, you might, for example, want to turn what was once an AABA song into a verse/chorus song in order to make it more commercially viable. The main objective is to create a unity between content and form, so that they are inextricably bound into a stunning whole.
OTHER SONG ELEMENTS
There are a few other optional elements of form that many songs in all three forms use, especially to heighten interest or ease transitions. The intro (short for introduction) unsurprisingly, is the first section a listener hears. Often the intro is purely instrumental, and serves to set the mood of the song. It may incorporate a musical motif that recurs later, a distinctive rhythm, or even a hint (or a blast) of the chorus to whet the listener’s appetite.
An interlude is a transitional passage that typically appears between the first chorus and the second verse, leading the ear back and providing some sonic “space.” Then, when the vocal returns, it receives renewed attention and focus. An interlude might also be placed before the bridge, setting the stage for a shift of mood or energy level. Sometimes it is an echo of the intro: a catchy riff or motif, in which case it’s sometimes called a re-intro.
Solos and breakdowns are places where the instrumentalists get to strut their stuff, providing a much-appreciated ear-break for listeners who have just absorbed two verses and choruses, or two A-sections and a B-section, for example.
Last but not least, the out-chorus, as its name implies, is that last glorious surge of sing-along repetition. By this point, listeners are familiar with the basic chorus and some liberties can be taken, like adding a call-and-response dynamic, vocal ad-libs, or lyrical or melodic alterations of the final sections. Similarly, a tag can be like a refrain: a final repetition of the song’s title or hook.
These days the term “tag” can also refer to a contrasting extension of the chorus that adds one last bit of drama, sealing the deal even more fully. Some of the songwriter-producer teams that have dominated the charts are masters of the chorus tag, in such hits as Katy Perry’s “Hot N Cold” (Max Martin, Dr. Luke, Katy Perry).
In summary, these classic song forms may feel like constraints at first, but they have withstood the test of time because they work. Soon, you will come to appreciate the order these patterns impose on your ideas. As you become familiar with song forms, you’ll start using them with confidence to capture and effectively convey your best sparks of inspiration.
YOUR SONG’S ORGANIZING PRINCIPLE
Your song can unfold in numerous ways over that magical three-plus minutes, in terms of its “architecture.” If you lay a firm foundation with your lyric, you can build a sturdy song with a clear sense of order and unity. Here are some types of songs that have worked well over the years:
The Story Song. This type of song tells a tale with a beginning, middle, and end, and usually unfolds chronologically. A great example is Johnny Cash’s version of Shel Silverstein’s “A Boy Named Sue.”
The Laundry List Song. This type of song usually lists a series of elements in the verses, and draws a larger lesson in the chorus. Examples include Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” which lists all of the major holidays in the course of saying there’s no special reason to call except to say “I love you.” Sam Cooke, Lou Adler and Herb Alpert’s great classic, “(What a) Wonderful World” lists the school subjects the singer doesn’t know much about, although he does know about love!
The Character Study. These songs reveal the essential nature of a specific person with evocative descriptions. Listen to Joni Mitchell’s “Free Man in Paris,” or Glenn Frey and Don Henley’s “Desperado.”
The “State of Being” Song. I use this phrase to describe songs that simply blurt out the way it is, right now! There’s not a story as much as there is an internal temperature-taking. Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly’s “So Emotional,” recorded by Whitney Houston, and my own dance hit, “Too Turned On” recorded by Alisha, come to mind.
The Message Song. These songs contain a clear lesson that the writer(s) want to teach the world. They might be political, like Pete Seeger and Lee Hays’ “If I Had a Hammer,” or attitude-filled, like “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” by Beyoncé Knowles, Thaddis Harrell, Christopher Stewart and Terius Nash—or anything in between.
The Novelty Song. These songs are often humorous, and might be used to introduce a new dance craze, a kooky character, or some type of oddball observation. Think of the parodies recorded by “Weird Al” Yankovic, or anything by The Chipmunks.
The Occasional Song. Holiday songs, birthday songs, and others written for specific occasions would fall into this category. Two of my personal faves are The Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping,” (Chris Butler) and Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” (Alice Cooper, Michael Bruce, Glen Buxton, Dennis Dunaway and Neal Smith).
The “Environment” Song. This type of song conveys a very strong sense of place, time and mood. Think of the NYC mash note “Empire State of Mind,” recorded by Jay-Z featuring Alicia Keys (Angela Hunte, Alicia Keys, Alexander Shuckburgh, Burt Keys, Jane’t “Jnay” Sewell-Ulepic, Shawn Carter, Sylvia Robinson).
There are zillions of other possible ways to organize your song. Your lyrics might trace the path from childhood to old age, like Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game,” or follow a back-and-forth conversation between two people. They may consist of a string of over-the-top boasts—a style which has been popular in rap for a while. You could write a lullaby with the intention of soothing the listener, or create a series of vignettes, each of which illustrates a larger theme. There are also songs written for spiritual, inspirational or religious purposes, or to describe historical events.
The important thing is that there be some clearly defined “bone structure” holding together the shape of your song’s lyrics and melodies.
MINI-QUIZ ON SONG FORM
Listen to these well-known songs and determine which song form each one uses: AAA, AABA, or verse/chorus. Does it include pre-chorus and/or bridge sections? You can note it in shorthand like this:
V / Pre / Ch with a Bridge
Don’t worry about the exact number of verses and choruses. (These songs’ lyrics can easily be found in your online search engine by typing in the title, followed by the word lyrics. The answers appear at the end of this chapter.)
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic)
“Yellow Submarine” (John Lennon, Paul McCartney)
“Since U Been Gone” (Max Martin, Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald)
“I’m a Believer” (Neil Diamond)
“Itsy Bitsy Spider” (Traditional)
“Tears In Heaven” (Eric Clapton, Will Jennings)
“Grenade” (Bruno Mars, Brody Brown, Claude Kelly, Philip Lawrence, Ari Levine, Andrew Wyatt)
“Big Yellow Taxi” (Joni Mitchell)
“You Make Me Feel (Like a Natural Woman)” (Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Jerry Wexler)
Make it a habit to analyze the form and substance of the songs you hear every day, constantly taking pointers on each element of craft from successful songwriters.
PLANNING TO WRITE IN A SPECIFIC SONG FORM
Plan out the writing of a full song, taken from your ever-expanding list of song starts. Any song start is fair game, as long as it holds a real spark of truth for you. It could be trivial or significant; happy, tormented or funny; personal, local or global.
First, describe your idea, boiling it down to the essential elements of fact; for example: “We’ve been together so long, we don’t appreciate each other as much as in the beginning.” This might just be a line or two.
Next, make your personal interpretations—in other words, your particular slant on the situation: your emotions, your insights, your unique “grains of truth.” In this case, one way to approach the situation would be, “I’m gonna meet you at the front door tonight looking so hot I’ll blow your mind!”
Next, plan the form your song would take: either AAA, AABA, verse/chorus, or with additional sections, such as: verse/pre-chorus/chorus/verse/pre-chorus/chorus/ (bridge)/chorus.
Finally, consider which organizing principle might suit this particular song. Will it tell a story, set out a laundry list, or take the form of a character study, a state of being song, or some other shape entirely?
Start to envision your song’s general style and the emotional response you want your listeners to come away with. Do you want your listeners to laugh, dance, gain a new perspective, become empowered, jump up onto the tabletop? The possibilities are endless.
When you’re ready to rock, start filling in the blanks of this song start!
LEARNING FROM THE MASTERS
Listen carefully to the lyrics of a verse/chorus song—one you absolutely love. Now read along as you listen to it, ideally on headphones, or at least with the volume up enough to affect you physically. Let this great song wash over you both musically and lyrically. Then do it again! As you re-experience the song this way, notice how the writer(s) used the tools of song form to manipulate your emotions and thoughts so effectively.
Answer these questions as the song unfolds chronologically:
If the song features an intro, what elements do those first moments of the song use to pique my interest? These could include instrumentation, melodic hooks, lyrical or vocal riffs, etc.
How do the first few lines of the verse set the stage for what is to come and effectively draw me in?
Does the verse lead straight into the chorus, or is there a pre-chorus section to build up my expectations even more?
What elements combine to provide the payoff in the first chorus? Is there a lyrical twist? How is the hook made fresh and memorable? Does it repeat a lot? Is there an extension on the chorus (a tag) that provides a cool detour? How does it resolve at the end, if it does at all?
Does this song feature a short interlude before launching into Verse 2? If so, does it somehow echo the intro?
How does Verse 2 “up the ante” and keep me interested after the peak moment of Chorus 1? Am I taken to a deeper level emotionally or story-wise?
Is the song form shortened after Chorus 1, for example by using a single Verse 2 instead of a double-verse, or is it the same length as before? What have the writers added to spice it up?
Is there a bridge section, and if so, what does it add musically and lyrically to what came before? Is there any contrast in terms of lyrical shape or melodic and chordal movement?
What happens at the very end of the song to send me out with a bang?
EXERCISE 1 ANSWERS:
1. V/Pre/C; 2. AAA; 3. V/C; 4. V/Pre/Ch with a bridge; 5. V/Pre/C; 6. AAA; 7. AABA; 8. V/Pre/C with a bridge; 9. V/C; 10. V/Pre/C with a bridge
* * * * * *
CREATING COMPELLING LYRICS
GETTING REAL: WHAT EXACTLY ARE YOU TRYING TO SAY?
A well-written song has the power to shake listeners from the head right down to the soul, and getting your lyrics to say what you mean is half the battle. As discussed in Chapter 1, tapping into the deep well of your life experience is the first step. Once you’ve done that, you can use the tools of songcraft to shape those core ideas into full songs.
The trick is to always stay deeply connected to the ultimate purpose of your songs. Why do you write lyrics, and songs, in the first place? What needs does this process fulfill for you? Here are some reasons you might be compelled to polish your skills as a lyricist:
My lyrics express who I truly am—writing is a great emotional release.
Other people will relate to my experiences and gain inspiration from them.
I naturally have a way with words and enjoy the process.
I love music and want to marry my lyrical ideas to melodies and create full songs.
I want to make tons of money, and this seems like the best way.
You might have other reasons entirely, and I suggest you ponder them for a moment. Why? Because this underlying motivation is what sees you through the ups and downs of the entire songwriting process. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to make a million as a songwriter, but I guarantee that there will be days—maybe years—when you’re putting more money in than you’re getting out. Will you still have the drive to pursue this dream? You will if your authenticity is the driving force of your songwriting.
The world, as I see it, is suffering from an overabundance of bogus, false, insincere, phony hype. (I could think of another word for it, but I’ll refrain from profanity.) You don’t want your songs to contribute to this towering pile of... uhhh, trash, do you? If you’re like most songwriters, you have a higher calling: you want your songs to truly touch, move and inspire people.
So, how can you translate your desire to make a difference with your art into the art itself? Beyond learning the tricks of the trade, the touchstone for committed songwriters is their authenticity, their willingness to lay it on the line. Not to belabor the point, but if you have the nerve to really bare your soul, people will respond accordingly.
LYRICAL DEVICES, AND HOW THEY ENHANCE YOUR SONGS
Most of us studied poetry and literature in school, so we have some familiarity with rhyme, alliteration, metaphor, and other literary devices. These aren’t luxuries when it comes to lyric-writing. They are the very lifeblood of your song.
Lyrical or literary devices are what separate your song lyric from a conversation, a journal entry, an essay, or a speech on the subject. Your skill at seamlessly incorporating these elements into your work, and somehow making it all seem effortless, can eventually make your songs hit whatever bull’s-eye you’re aiming at. Whether you’re pursuing commercial success or personal satisfaction, your mastery of these tools is essential to your development as a writer.
As an overview, here are a few general pointers to keep in mind:
Aim for maximum emotional impact. Don’t hold back in this respect. It’s much more compelling to take a strong stand and risk ridicule than to play it safe and bore everyone, including yourself. Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em mad, make ‘em feel!
Get personal. Rather than distancing yourself with intellectual or vague language and general concepts, keep your lyrics intimate almost to the point of being uncomfortable. Get naked, metaphorically speaking.
Keep it conversational. Rather than a dry lecture to an amorphous crowd, write as if you’re directly in contact with your ideal listener. Pose questions, make demands, trace fragmentary thoughts; stay “in the room” even if the room is the size of a football stadium.
Appeal to the senses. Can you make people see it, smell it, taste it, touch it, hear it—not just intellectually grasp it? If you use concrete words and images rather than abstract concepts, your song will have a much more lasting effect on your listeners.
On that happy note, here is a rather extensive list of some of the most popular literary and lyrical devices that will bring your songs to life. Later you’ll practice identifying and creating examples of them in actual songs.
Your theme is the message of your song; it’s the core concept that holds it all together. What insight, what revelation, what lessons do you want your listeners to come away with? When you experience the original “Aha!” moment that makes you want to write a specific song in the first place, the theme is that grain of truth you’re intending to put across. All of the other devices (lyrical, melodic, chordal, etc.) are meant to enhance and amplify the impact of your theme.
Let listeners look deeply into your world and see themselves reflected there. Reveal your indelible realizations, stabs of emotional intensity, and profound (or profoundly silly) experiences you were born to share with the world. We all have “Aha!” moments, but songwriters can put them in a form that’s easily accessible to others.
You’ve gotta love the hook—the catchiest, most memorable part of a song! That part that sticks in your head after the song plays through? That’s your hook. The hook is often the title, but not always. It can be vocal, lyrical or instrumental—or all three! The main requirement of a great hook is that it be unique, succinct, and hard-hitting on an emotional, psychological, and even a physical level. A great hook sums up your theme in a few thrilling seconds. My beloved mentor, Doc Pomus, drilled into me the importance of creating a rock-solid marriage between the lyric and melody of every line, but especially the hook.
These days, multiple hooks are practically required to generate commercial success. You might have an instrumental hook in your intro, really hooky verses, and catchy-as-hell guitar or keyboard parts, all culminating in a mega-hook that occurs at the peak moment of your chorus. Notice how the songs that have made it to radio over the years are overflowing with hooks, and learn from those songs. We’ll delve into hooks more fully in Chapter 6.
SPEAKER/LISTENER RELATIONSHIP, POINT OF VIEW
Ideally, the writer makes it clear from the get-go who the speaker is, his/her point of view, and his/her intended audience. This relationship is implied by the overall context: the pronouns, the setting, the tone and height of the language. It might be a first-person “I” speaking to a “you,” as in Adele’s “Someone Like You,” or Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain.”
Another type is the third-person story song, like Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City” or Lou Reed’s “Take a Walk on the Wild Side.” Some songs, like John Lennon’s “Imagine,” or Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” are relayed from the point of view of a leader speaking to a collective audience. “We Shall Overcome” and “We Are Young” each put the speaker in the collective, as a member of a particular group. A song might also shift the speaker/audience relationship as it moves from one section to another—from the verse into the chorus, for example.
A song’s power can derive from the choices you make in terms of exactly who is addressing whom. For example, in Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach,” the speaker is a pregnant daughter addressing her father, while in Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s In the Cradle,” a father owns up to his neglectful parenting, and gets his comeuppance. Notice how these dramatic choices influence the depth of the songs, and how these two songs might have suffered if told from third-person perspectives.
Rhyme is a huge element of songwriting; it deserves its own chapter! But for the sake of brevity, let’s boil it down to the basics.
Most pop songs make ample use of rhyme because it adds catchiness, predictability, symmetry, and often a rewarding payoff, both sonically and meaning-wise. Here are several distinctions within the vast realm of rhyme:
Words that match up exactly sound-wise, except for the initial sound(s) (e.g., butter and stutter) are called perfect rhymes. They’re very satisfying indeed. Many old-school songwriters prefer to use only perfect rhymes, but it does limit one’s palette pretty drastically.
Slant or off rhymes (also known as imperfect, near, false or half-rhymes) are less perfectly matched (e.g., butter and mother). Personally, I love the expanded possibilities available within the universe of slant rhymes, and experience a thrill when I’m writing and hit upon what seems like a fresh match-up. Of course, there are degrees of slantedness, and if you depart too radically from the sound-alike quality of your rhyme, you lose its impact.
End rhymes occur at the ends of lyrical lines, and that’s where most of us naturally place them right off the bat. End rhymes look something like this:
I dropped the other shoe
And drowned in shades of blue
By contrast, internal rhymes (a.k.a. inner rhymes) occur either within a single line or at the end of one line and the middle of the following line. These variations look like this:
She dressed up in her shoes so blue
Why am I so blue
When my shoes are underneath your bed
Check out Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” if you want to be blown backwards by a writer’s mastery of internal rhyme. A more recent example is Eminem’s rap in “Love the Way You Lie.”
Masculine rhymes end on an accented syllable or word, (e.g. SAY/to-DAY) while feminine rhymes end on an unaccented syllable (e.g. WIL-low/PIL-low). Open rhymes end on a vowel sound, making them very singable: fly/try, snow/grow. Closed rhymes end on a consonant, making them harder for a singer to sustain a note on (crunch/bunch).
And then, tragically, there is the forced rhyme. We all fall into the trap of shoe-horning a word in just because it rhymes, not because it’s the right word in the right place at the right time. A forced rhyme usually causes an alarm to go off in the listener’s head, because it’s a transparent attempt to hoodwink them! Be on the lookout for these little demons; they’re so very tempting. How many songs would feature the words “shove,” “glove,” or “dove,” for example, if they didn’t rhyme with “love?”
Rhyme schemes are the larger patterns of rhyme that occur over the course of a song, or part of a song. For example, in a verse that has an “abab” rhyme scheme, (written vertically next to the lines) the first and third lines rhyme, as do the second and fourth lines, thusly:
Blah blah blah blah DAY a
Blah blah blah blah YOU b
Blah blah blah blah AWAY a
Blah blah blah blah TRUE b
An “abcb” pattern would only rhyme in the second and fourth lines, and so on.
Varying these schemes in the different sections of a song adds interest and contrast. Notice that typical rhyme schemes (“abab” or “aabbccdd”) quickly become tiresome, because we see them coming a mile away. Unusual patterns, including lines that don’t rhyme at all, can add lots of surprises to the shape of both the lyric and the melody.
Melodies often align with the flow of the rhyme scheme. For example, if two melody lines “rhyme”—meaning they use a similar sequence of notes—the effect can be electric if the lyrics rhyme as well. And you can defy expectations, for better or worse, if the melodies “rhyme” and the lyrics don’t.
For inspiration in this department, or to break out of your boxy or predictable rhyming patterns, try downloading and studying the lyrics of successful songs. Christina Aguilera’s hit, “Beautiful,” written by Linda Perry, has an “abbcdd” pattern in the verses, whereas in the chorus it’s “ababa.”
It can be very helpful to circle the rhymes on your lyric sheet during the writing process in order to make your chosen patterns clearer. Also, note that successive verses will generally adhere to the patterns of rhyme and rhythm you’ve established in Verse 1. I know it sounds a bit mathematical, but these forms of repetition are what will make your songs stick in your listeners’ heads.
Meter is the pattern of light and heavy stresses in a line of lyrics or poetry. A heavy stress is indicated by a slash or an accent mark placed above the syllable (/ or ′), and a light stress looks like the letter “u” or a horizontal curve (u or ˘).
To get technical for a moment, an iamb is a light stress, followed by a heavy one (e.g., to-DAY). A trochee is a heavy stress, followed by a lighter one (e.g., MO-tion). Others include the spondee (two heavy stresses, as featured in Tom Petty’s title, “Breakdown,” or Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”), anapest (light-light-heavy: un-der-STAND) and dactyl (heavy-light-light: STRAW-ber-ry).
In lines of song lyrics, these groups of stressed and unstressed syllables are called metric feet. The songwriter has unlimited possibilities with regard to the use of meter, so don’t get trapped in typical patterns like “ba-DUM ba-DUM ba-DUM ba-DUM ba-DUM”—the famous iambic pentameter popular in Shakespeare’s day—that repeat over and over. As with rhyme schemes, this type of pattern can easily become boxy and cause your listeners’ attention to drift off.
When constructing the metrical pattern of a song, I prefer to count heavy accents rather than syllables. It’s a smaller number, and more accurately reflects how a song will be sung. Try speaking the lyrics out loud to see where the heavy stresses fall naturally, and experiment with altering particular rhythmic accents for effect.
Your melody can exaggerate or shift the meaning of a line, depending on which syllables are hit harder. Check out the carefully constructed meter of this Bob Dylan Title: “STUCK in-SIDE of MO-bile WITH the MEM-phis BLUES a-GAIN.” He hits the word “with” harder than a person speaking the line might, which I think is a conscious choice, in that it keeps the rhythm steadier.
A song’s scansion is its overall pattern of meter. Ideally, the different sections of a song scan in contrasting ways. This dynamic lyrical flow then marries up with contrasting melodic patterns, so for example, the verse and the chorus never get too samey-sounding. Varying the line lengths is an easy way to generate contrasting melodies and scans.
Closely related to scansion is lyrical density, which might be measured in “lyrics per square inch,” as I like to say. How many words fit into, say, four bars of music? A great songwriter varies the lyrical density from section to section, even line to line, to avoid a feeling of sameness. You might have wordy verses and a sparse, flowing chorus, for instance. Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” illustrates this technique beautifully.
Since lyrics are meant to be sung, the best ones roll off the tongue. (Hey, that rhymes!) Singability matters in every line, and even more when the last syllable is meant to be held out longer, melodically speaking. Of course, you might want to use hard-consonant-filled words (e.g., the title “Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster The People) for effect, but I don’t suggest putting a pile of consonants at the end of a line and expecting a singer to hold out that last note. Try reciting your lyrics out loud to see if you become tongue-tied, paying special attention to whether or not the sonic effect enhances the meaning you want to achieve.
Great lyricists revel in the repetition of sounds, words, phrases, rhythmical patterns, entire lines—you name it. Why? Because the brain enjoys repetition, to a point. Whatever part of a song is repeated gets more emphasis, meaning-wise, so strive to make sure that whatever it is bears repeating. The skillful use of lyrical repetition and patterning also tends to force melodies into catchier shapes. We are immersed in repetition daily, so begin to notice and appreciate it!
In fact, many of the literary devices we’re immersed in are actually forms of repetition: rhyme, alliteration, assonance, and meter all use repetition to great effect.
TONE/HEIGHT OF LANGUAGE
The specific language the songwriter chooses conveys an overall ambiance and context. Is the usage and vocabulary of the lyric sophisticated? Slangy? Streety? Culturally or temporally specific? Compare the language of a romantic ballad, a gangsta rap boast, a tween pop hit, an angst-ridden punk anthem, and a truck-drivin’ country uptempo. Check out the different tones set by the lyrics of two party anthems, Nicki Minaj’s “Starships” (Onika Maraj, Nadir Khayat, Carl Falk, Rami Yacoub, Wayne Hector) and Pink’s “Raise Your Glass” (Max Martin, Pink, Shellback). As you can see, the possibilities are endless.
Tune your ear to notice whether a consistent tone of voice is created within your songs—and also pinpoint words that break the tone. They stick out like sore thumbs!
Using imagery is like painting visual pictures with words. As writing teachers are fond of saying, “Show me, don’t tell me.” It’s much more effective to write, as Harold Barlow did, “I’ve Got Tears In My Ears From Lyin’ On My Back In My Bed While I Cry Over You” than to say “I’m sad,” for example. Don’t be afraid to experiment with bold images, rather than settling for the same old tired clichés that are often the first to come to mind.
Your song will have more power if you use fresh imagery, because you’re appealing to the listener’s imagination and their inner eye rather than just their intellect. Taylor Swift’s “Teardrops On My Guitar” (Taylor Swift, Liz Rose) conjures up a striking image, for example, as does Jim Steinman’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.” Notice that the latter title also features internal rhyming (paradise/by/light), and a metaphor. All those devices are packed into five words!
SIMILES AND METAPHORS
Similes use the words “like” or “as” to compare two otherwise-dissimilar things. When Martha and the Vandellas sang, “Love Is Like a Heatwave” (Holland, Dozier, Holland), it drew attention to the dramatically overheated nature of romance. One of Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s classic songs points out that the triumphs and struggles of Marilyn Monroe’s life were like a “Candle in the Wind.”
A metaphor takes the comparison to an even deeper level: one thing actually “is” another. In Rihanna’s song “Umbrella” (The-Dream, Christopher Stewart, Kuk Harrell and Jay-Z), the object in question is a loved one’s emotional shelter—there’s no need for a physical umbrella. In David Guetta’s song “Titanium” featuring Sia (Sia Furler, Guetta, Giorgio Tuinfort and Afrojack), she sings about becoming strong to the point of being bulletproof in response to a destructive relationship.
Metaphors can also be subtler, as when Joni Mitchell sings that she could still stand up even after drinking “A Case of You.” She implies, without ever saying it outright, that her companion’s effect on her has a lot in common with alcohol.
We are up to our ears, as it were, in similes and metaphors daily. Lyrically, both devices provide a speedy way to say a lot about a subject, because they bring to one thing the whole raft of characteristics associated with the other. Extended metaphors continue the comparison over the course of many lines, even an entire song, which is tricky to do without seeming contrived but very cool when it works. A great example is “My Baby Thinks She’s a Train” by Leroy Preston.
Symbols are words that are rich with meaning derived from our common cultural experience. For example, a ticking clock, a distant star and a tattered flag all have years and years of accumulated meaning, and putting them into your lyric incorporates that history into the song. Notice that after centuries of use, the romance associated with roses, for example, has become a worn-out cliché, so you have to freshen it up somehow. Neil Young’s “Southern Man” makes effective use of many symbols of slavery—cotton, bullwhips, crosses burning, the Good Book, mansions, and shacks—in order to make a strong political statement about the evils of racism.
ALLEGORIES AND LITERARY ALLUSIONS
Allegories and allusions make use of well-known stories, often classic or mythical ones, to bring out meaning by placing them in new or different contexts. For example, one’s lyric might recast the mythical tale of Icarus flying too close to the sun, and use it to comment on a fallen rock star or politician. Bruce Springsteen’s song “Fire,” (a metaphor!) compares his romance to Romeo and Juliet, as well as to Samson and Delilah—famous couples through history.
Onomatopoeia are words that sound like what they are. For example, using words like bang, crash, purr, or whisper gives the listener a direct sensory experience, rather than just a description of an experience. When the Black Eyed Peas perform their song, “Boom Boom Pow” (William Adams, Allan Pineda, Stacy Ferguson, Jaime Gomez), I’m sure they’re aware of the sonic effect they’re creating that wouldn’t exist if it was called “Na Na Na” instead!
ALLITERATION AND ASSONANCE
Alliteration is the use of repeated consonants, often at the beginnings or in the stressed syllable of several words in a line. Its sibling, assonance, is the repetition of vowel sounds (which are often within the words).
Notice the alliteration the songwriters used in these titles: “Man in the Mirror,” “Dancing in the Dark,” and “Good Girl Gone Bad.” Assonance is a bit subtler: check out the repetition of “a” sounds in “Amazing Grace,” “u” sounds in “Somethin’ ‘Bout a Truck” and all the “i” sounds in “Right By My Side.”
Used throughout the body of your lyric, alliteration and assonance are effective at creating a sonic layer that compounds the literal meaning of your words. For example, you can lull listeners with lots of lazy sounds, jerk and jostle them with a crush of consonants, or imply sinister intentions with lots of sibilance. (See how I did that?)
Personification is a device whereby human characteristics are given to non-human objects. For example, in Calvin Harris’s hit, “We Found Love,” Rihanna sings about finding love in a “hopeless place.” Notice that the emotion of despair is actually felt by people in the environment, not by the place itself. When Green Day performs “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” (Green Day, Billie Joe Armstrong), the actual boulevard isn’t dreaming anything, the experiences are happening to the people who travel on it. Many uses of this device probably slide by beneath the level of your awareness, because although we use personification frequently in speech, it can be subtle.
COINING PHRASES / INVENTED LANGUAGE
This is one of my favorite devices, because the writer is creating new language. You can make up your own word or phrase, or give a whole new meaning to one that already exists. Gwen Stefani’s song, “Hollaback Girl,” popularized a slang phrase. Rap is creating new words and expressions at a great rate, like the whole “-izzle” range of vocabulary. How many people knew what “Bootylicious” meant before Destiny’s Child popularized the word? A scan of the Top 100 on any day of the week will reveal a whole new crop of words and phrases.
IRONY AND SARCASM
Irony gives us the opposite of what’s expected, in order to provide additional meaning, and sarcasm is saying the opposite of what you really mean. It’s striking and provocative to surprise us with these kinds of reversals. When Shirley Manson of Garbage sings, “I’m Only Happy When It Rains,” or John Mellencamp sings “Hurts So Good,” it’s the opposite of what you’d ordinarily expect in the context. In Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” the first double-verse and pre-chorus lead listeners to expect a woe-is-me chorus, but then the surprise revelation arrives with a bang: she’s way better off without the guy, singing “I can breathe for the first time...” In John Waite’s “Missing You,” the singer insists “I ain’t missing you at all,” when it’s clear that the opposite is true.
Using pairs of related things gives us a sense of symmetry. Katy Perry’s song “Hot ‘N Cold” was full of them. The Beatles’ “Hello Goodbye” and the Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night,” are some other examples of parallelism in titles.
A paradox is two contradictory statements that seem like they can’t both be true at once. The writer is often aiming to convey a larger truth that encompasses both meanings. The line confounds our logic, and makes us look deeper to see the larger perspective. For example, one can be alone in a crowd, feel close to a loved one even when miles apart, or as Adele sings, “Set Fire to the Rain.”
PUNS AND TWISTS OF PHRASE
These are plays on words, wherein the writer takes familiar phrases and revamps them to create new or humorous meanings. Country song lyrics are a great source of these devices; for example: “If I Said You Had a Beautiful Body Would You Hold It Against Me” (by David Bellamy), “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles)” (Wayne Carson), “If You Leave Me, Can I Come Too?” (Chuck Krumel, Jeff Raymond, James Stewart) and “She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft)” (Tim DuBois).
Humor in general is a great way to make your song stick in people’s minds. In Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” (Josh Kear, Chris Tompkins), she sings “I dug my keys into the side of your pretty little souped-up four-wheel-drive.” Unforgettable! If you can make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em feel, or make ‘em think, you’ve got your audience in the palm of your hand.
Hyperbole is an extreme exaggeration, to make a point. In “Brighter Than the Sun,” by Colbie Caillat and Ryan Tedder, for example, the exaggeration serves to make her romantic relationship seem ultra-special. Strive to come up with fresh examples, rather than resorting to lines like, “I can’t breathe without you” and “I kissed you a million times.”
A provocation is a lyric that’s intended to push your buttons. It might include an off-color word, a really edgy or attitude-filled phrase, a daring concept, a sly double-meaning, or some other over-the-top attention-getter. Its purpose is to cause an immediate reaction in listeners, and therefore become instantly memorable. Titles that include curses have become very popular lately, much to the dismay of many old-school folks. Or the provocation might be ever-so-slightly subtler, as in Pink’s “Blow Me (One Last Kiss)” (Pink, Greg Kurstin).
CLICHÉS WILL BE THE DEATH OF YOU!
I’ll say it ‘til I’m blue in the face: you can write clichés ‘til the cows come home, and still your lyrics will fall on deaf ears.
How’s that for three tired expressions in one sentence? The point is: clichés are often the first thing we reach for when starting to write a lyric. Why? Because they’re familiar, they’re comfortable, and we don’t have to courageously expose our own personal truths when we use them. But it’s like shopping at the one-size-fits-all rack: nothing really fits. In real life, do you ever actually:
Drive down that lonesome highway
Promise to love them forever and always
Cry teardrops in the fallin’ rain
Okay, maybe you do, but so have millions of others before you, and it’s just not terribly interesting anymore. So I suggest you dig deeper and find your own unique way of expressing whatever it is you’ve experienced, so that we can more directly re-experience it when we hear your songs. I have no doubt that your day, your life, your first kiss, and your hometown were nothing like mine or anyone else’s. Can you brave the rigors of fully exploring your world and revealing it, in all its idiosyncratic glory?
“WHICH COMES FIRST: WORDS OR MUSIC?” (WHO CARES?!)
People ask songwriters this question all the time. Sure, some people have the answer: “I always write lyrics first,” “I always work from a melody,” or perhaps, “They both come to me at once.” Personally, I enjoy leaving it wide open. That way every spark of inspiration is an opportunity to play in a whole new way.
What if a title comes to you in the middle of the night? Will you ignore it because you “always start with the music?” Even if you don’t play piano, you might find yourself in a room with one, mess around, and come up with a brilliant melody line. And some day you might be hanging out with six other people, and spontaneously write a song together.
All of these possibilities and more are available if you keep an open mind about how you write songs. There is no one right way to write a song. However you do it that day is automatically right!
Next, you’ll find a few tips on how to type up a lyric sheet to make it look professional. Some variations on this style exist, but the basics like © symbols, writers’ names, proper spelling and contact info are essential.
LYRIC SHEET GUIDELINES
It may seem rudimentary, but here I’ll describe the typical form of a professional-looking lyric sheet. Know that business people will judge you harshly if your page features misspelled words, sloppy spacing, or mismatches between what is sung on the recording and what appears on the lyric sheet. After all, how can they tell which lines you intend them to pay attention to?
I find that using caps only for the title, and making the body of the lyric flush left (not centered) works best. Also, and perhaps this is a pet peeve of mine, don’t label the sections of your song (verse, chorus, etc.) This interrupts the flow of the lyric, and people with any level of professionalism will easily be able to identify which section is which.
If at all possible, fit your lyric onto a single page of a .DOC or PDF file. Most listeners will inwardly groan when presented with a two- or three-page lyric. Here are some other suggestions:
Set your title apart by putting it in caps, bold type, and/or centered on the page.
Always include © and the year, then your name(s). Many people leave out the year, so that down the road the song doesn’t seem outdated. An original song is, legally speaking, your intellectual property the moment you create it, regardless of whether or not you’ve registered with the Library of Congress. (For more on that subject, go to the link in the Appendix at the end of this book.)
Indicate each new section of the song by skipping a line or using an indent, to make it clear that the melody and/or form are shifting.
Some people put the chorus in bold type. Again, don’t write the word “chorus” —it should be clear from the form.
Always keep the attention span of listeners in mind. If something looks too long or wordy on the page, it probably is. Different sections can be edited down or expanded. You might shorten Verse 2 or lengthen Chorus 2, for example.
If you have a bridge section, create visual separation on your page using blank spaces or indents.
Always put your name and contact information on your lyric sheets.
WHICH LYRICAL DEVICES ARE THESE TITLES DEMONSTRATING?
Read over these titles that have appeared on the Billboard charts, and write down which lyrical device(s) you can detect. Here’s a list of the ones we have discussed: theme, hook, speaker/listener relationship, point of view, rhyme, meter, singability, repetition, tone/height of language, imagery, simile, metaphor, symbolism, allegory, onomatopoeia, alliteration, assonance, personification, coining phrases/invented language, irony, sarcasm, parallelisms, paradox, puns & twists of phrase, hyperbole, prosody, provocation.
“Freek-a-Leek” (Li’l John, Corey Evans, Moses Barrett, Craig Love, LaMarquis Jefferson)
“Whiskey Lullaby” (Bill Anderson, Jon Randall)
“Live Like You Were Dyin’” (Tim Nichols, Craig Wiseman)
“Firework” (Katy Perry, Mikkel S. Eriksen, Tor Erik Hermansen, Sandy Wilhelm, Ester Dean)
“Rough and Ready” (Blair Mackichan, Brian White, Craig Wiseman)
“You’re My Everything” (Norman Whitfield, Cornelius Grant, Roger Penzabene)
“Tougher Than Nails” (Phil O’Donnell, Kendall Marvel, Max T. Barnes)
“Ch-Check It Out” (Michael Diamond, Adam K. Horovitz, Adam Yauch)
“F**k You” (Christopher “Brody” Brown, Bruno Mars, Cee Lo Green, Philip Lawrence, Ari Levine)
“Awful, Beautiful Life” (Harley Allen, Darryl Worley)
“Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)” (Big Kenny, John Rich)
“Suds in the Bucket” (Billy Montana, Tammy Wagoner, Jenai)
“Moves Like Jagger” (Adam Levine, Benny Blanco, Ammar Malik, Shellback)
“Pon De Replay” (Vada Nobles, Carl Sturken, Evan Rogers)
“Gold Digger” (Kanye West, Ray Charles, Renald Richard)
“Don’t Phunk With My Heart” (William Adams, Stacy Ferguson, Printz Board, George Pajon Jr., Full Force, Anadi, Indewar)
“Pimpin’ All Over the World” (Christopher Bridges, Jamal Jones, Darnley Scantlebury)
“Stereo Hearts” (Travie McCoy, Adam Levine, Benjamin Levin, Brandon Lowry, Ammar Malik, Dan Omelio)
“It’s Hard to Kiss the Lips at Night That Chew Your A** Out All Day Long” (Vince Gill, Rodney Crowell)
GOING OVERBOARD WITH LYRICAL DEVICES
Take a “germ” of an idea, and sum it up in a line or two, or perhaps a title. Don’t be judgmental about whether it’s good enough to use; just grab one. Now go nuts free- associating on that idea, going way overboard with lyrical devices.
Refer to the descriptions above for different types of established devices, or make up some of your own. Think outside your usual box, experimenting with elements that may seem unfamiliar: symbols, hyperbole, extended metaphors, risky points of view or over-the-top imagery. For example, shift out of the usual “me-addressing-you” speaker/listener relationship. Or write from the point of view of the bad guy instead of the victim.
LYRICAL ELEMENTS OF A HIT
Download the lyrics of a hit song you know and love. (I usually just Google the title plus the word “lyrics.”) For each device you notice, put a note in the margin next to it, for example: imagery, alliteration, a provocation, or some form of repetition.
Next, circle rhyming words and draw arrows between them so that you can clearly see the rhyme scheme, labeling it vertically as “aabb,” etc. Add meter slashes to indicate the “heavy” stresses of the meter when they’re particularly noticeable.
Make notes as to the general tone of the language (slangy? formal? conversational? playful?) and the relationship between speaker and listener. Then play the song again, and see if you appreciate the artistry of the songwriters even more than you did before.
Personally, I do this exercise in my mind whenever I listen to pop music. Even if I’m not particularly fond of a song that I hear on the radio, I can learn a lot from the techniques the writers are using, and strive to pick out the elements that led to their material being chosen from the thousands of other available tracks.