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Writing Lyrics

There are hundreds of books and thousands of articles on the art of song writing and I’ve read quite a few. Some go into exquisite detail, others just hit the high spots. This is my take on the subject:

It’s often said that songs are poetry set to music but I don’t believe this is strictly so. Although poetry often has a rhyme scheme and some structure, most poetry is meant to be read, each word mulled over, tasted, enjoyed. Songs go by quickly, there’s no time to savour the lyric to that extent.

Songs are more like short fiction set to music. A typical song of four verses might have a total of 100 words; that’s what we call flash fiction. You have to complete the story arc with those words – setting, body, conclusion or resolution. The chorus doesn’t help the word count, it’s a summary of the story so doesn’t actually add anything new.

Each verse is a short chapter, each chapter has to move the story forward, towards its conclusion. And, because we have so few words to work with, you can’t use two words where one will do.

Let’s get started. We want to write a song about a couple that have a fling on a beach in Zanzibar and afterwards the singer wonders what happened to his partner in that brief encounter years before. First, let’s establish the setting.

Verse 1
On a moonlit beach in Zanzibar
Strumming my old guitar
Our eyes met across a driftwood fire
Smouldering with desire

We don’t need to tell the listener how they got there, how they met, where they found the driftwood, how they lit it or how old they are – the listener’s own imagination will fill in all these details. We’ve provided enough information for the image to form in the listener’s mind. That’s what’s important here – the listener becomes involved, feels emotion.
We’ve also piqued interest – what happens next? A story is forming.
Verse 2
Beside the fire’s dying embers
That’s where we surrendered
On a blanket, under the stars
That night in Zanzibar

Once again, we’ve provided the stimuli to stir the listeners imagination.
We’ve moved the story along. We’ve resisted the temptation to dwell on the waves lapping on the beach, the moon’s pathway to heaven and all the other cliché’s we could have indulged ourselves with. We’ve used barely forty words and our couple have met and made love on a beach, beside a wood fire, after she’s been serenaded by our strumming Romeo.

Waiting in the wings at this point is the chorus, anxious to tell us what’s going on. As if we didn’t know. But the chorus also breaks the monotony by introducing a different rhyming scheme, a different cadence, even a different key should you so wish.
Chorus:
African rhythms, eastern spices
Sultry nights, a million stars
Exotic dishes, papaya slices
That’s the magic of Zanzibar

To underline the fact that this is a departure from the verses, the rhyme scheme and the syllable count has changed.
The chorus reinforces the idea that this is a romance fed by the exotic location. Now we can bring the story to its conclusion:

Verse 3
I wonder now if she remembers
That night beside the embers
Of a driftwood fire, under the stars
One night in Zanzibar?

We find the story was not a love story with a sweet happy ending but, in fact, a story of a love unfulfilled, at least by one of the participants. He wistfully recalls the past encounter. Maybe he’s old, dying, in an unhappy marriage. No need to elaborate, the listener gets it.
We bow out by repeating the chorus.

Now look at the construction of the verses. They each have the same number of syllables set on the same number of lines. This makes the song singable and more easily remembered, for the singer and the listener. (The syllable count is not something I slavishly adhere to; I’ll allow a syllable more or less to avoid making the line sound forced – the vocalist can take care of these small discrepancies).

There is also a rhyming pattern that is consistent throughout the verses.
In this case each verse is made up of two couplets, the first two lines rhyme and so do the last two. This is an a,a,b,b rhyme scheme.

The chorus has its own rhyme scheme, in this case a,b,a,b, and the syllable count is different to the verses. This is important, it identifies for the listener that a change has occurred. I see many songs where the writer uses what is really verse material, lyrically and structurally, in the chorus.
Realise that in the chorus you are expressing the general idea of the song but not providing additional story line. If you did, it would be an additional verse and should comply with that structure. Otherwise, the listener will become confused. So, the chorus has different content and a different structure. In most cases the chorus will be repeated without alteration; if the chorus changes whenever it appears you basically have two stories going on at the same time, creating further confusion in the listener’s mind.

Structure is useful as a frame upon which to hang the story, but you must clothe it with words, phrases, metaphors, and similes that evoke emotion in the reader. You have to provide the stimuli that trigger the listeners imagination. Some suggestions:

You have to show, not tell: “Don’t tell me it’s night, show me the glint of moonlight on broken glass” Anton Chekhov’s brother is supposed to have advised Anton in a letter.
Say “Through unwashed windows the sunlight streamed onto empty bottles and broken dreams” not “The bar had closed down and the owners had left town”.

You have to use strong verbs not weak verbs supported by adverbs: Don’t tell us “He ran quickly”, say “he sprinted”, you save a word and create a clearer picture.

You must never mangle the English language in order to make a rhyme work. Conventional sentence structure, conversational English, is the way to go.

Avoid clichés at all costs. Remember that every day more phrases that were once clever join the ranks of the cliché through over-use.

Don’t use the word love in a love song and if you do, never rhyme it with dove. Love is a word that always needs to be quantified – is this the love of your family or your new hair-do? Show us the love, don’t declare it.

I hope this has given you some ideas for how to approach your song writing. As I’ve said before, there are no rules, but structure will help hugely when it comes to coupling the lyrics to a melody. A basic plot will help you to concentrate on telling your story and not wander off somewhere irrelevant taking confused listeners with you.
Keep writing!

2021 ©John Schofield

Song structure (lyrics)

In an earlier post I addressed the opportunities for finding inspiration for a song. So, let’s say you’ve found a story you want to tell in a song, where do you go from here?

Songs consist of verses and choruses. Verses tell the story; the chorus stands in the wings and reminds us from time to time what’s going on. The difference lyrically is that each verse is unique whereas each chorus is a repetition of the previous chorus.

A chorus summarises the story, it says “listen, this is what’s going on, this is what these verses are telling you.” The chorus, typically, doesn’t change, it is slotted in between verses to remind you what the hell the song is about.

The verses set the scene, begin the story and carry it to a conclusion, a story arc. Typically, verses have the same structure as each other in terms of syllable count and rhyming scheme, but are different in lyrical content. They move the story along.

If the chorus is fitted between each verse of a 4-verse song you have: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse, chorus. Or, A, B, A, B, A, B, A, B. in songwriter lingo.

(Note that each different form is allocated a letter. In this case the verse is A, the chorus is B. If you added, say, a bridge, it would be C in this format. This causes confusion because people can’t understand why B isn’t for bridge and C isn’t for chorus. A numbering system may have served us better, but there you go).

A typical popular song would probably go two verses before the first chorus simply because in the first verse you haven’t said enough to summarise in a chorus, so the structure would be A, A, B, A, B, A, B. Such a structure gives you time to get the song underway before interrupting it with a chorus.

So, you’re going to tell a story in four chapters and you have to summarise it periodically – after two chapters and each subsequent chapter. You have a structure to work to, a skeleton upon which you can hang your words.

Here’s an example:

It’s Later Than You Think  

2020© John Schofield

Verse 1

On a restroom wall in Baltimore

Above a broken sink

Someone scratched this message:

It’s later than you think

Verse 2

I took this simple line to heart

I knew that it was true

I built myself a little boat

And sailed the ocean blue

So, this guy is telling you he’s seen a piece of graffiti on a restroom wall and it has inspired him to build a boat and head off on an adventure before it’s too late. The chorus sums up this concept – you’ll regret not having an adventure before you are too old and, perhaps, infirm, so go now. And he adds that you don’t need anyone’s permission to do it. Here it is:

Chorus:

You are the captain of your fate, your only master’s you

Don’t ever let yourself regret the things you didn’t do

He continues with his advice:

Verse 3

Go and see the Northern Lights

Or visit Timbuktu

But better do it now, my friend,

Time catches up with you.

And summarises again:

Chorus:

You are the captain of your fate, your only master’s you

Don’t ever let yourself regret the things you didn’t do

Originally this song didn’t have a fourth verse and it probably didn’t need it, but if it did it would probably go like this:

Verse 4

I won’t forget that simple line

Scratched above a broken sink

That changed my life forever

It’s later than you think

Neatly completing the story, then finishing off with the chorus:

Chorus:

You are the captain of your fate, your only master’s you

Don’t ever let yourself regret the things you didn’t do

It is so much easier to write lyrics when you have a plan to work to. You know you need to write four verses that form a story arc and you need a summarising chorus to interrupt the verses now and then. If you don’t need four verses to tell your tale, then make a three-verse song, if you have more to tell, go to five verses.

This song won the lyrics section of the UK Songwriting Contest 2020 and one judge noted it was “structurally perfect.” Much as I appreciate the award, I think you could probably pick holes in it, technically.

First of all, the song title, “It’s Later Than You Think”, is also the hook (the ear worm), but doesn’t appear in the chorus and, in fact, only once anywhere in the original lyrics. Really successful pop songs repeat the hook as many times as possible, usually ending each chorus with it. (Think Yesterday by The Beatles). If you can work the title into the chorus, do it, it’s what producers want.

Next, the song could become tedious, repetitive, in the four-verse version. This is where a bridge might help. A bridge is a different lyrical and musical idea introduced purely to break the monotony and introduce a new thought. A little surprise. Something like:

You don’t have to scale a mountain or swim across a sea

But the world is full of magic things for you to do and see.

The bridge in this song would most likely have come after the third verse, before the chorus, and the structure would have become: verse, verse, chorus, verse, bridge, chorus, verse, chorus, or A, A, B, A, C, B, A, B. And, again, note that B is the chorus, C is the bridge.

Further elaborations are possible – intro, pre-chorus, refrain, outro – you will learn these in time but they are beyond the scope of this little treatise on song structure.

The verses, chorus and bridge will have their own unique internal structure and rhyming scheme. I’ll cover that in another post.

I hope this has been of interest to some of you.

Being realistic

For the vast majority of us, producing songs (writing, composing, recording) is a hobby. Time consuming, sometimes expensive, sometimes frustrating but always hugely rewarding on a personal level. Anyone doing it to make money is already a star, or doomed to disappointment.

And this is true of most artistic endeavours.

Climate protest song, alternative verse three.

The third verse of my climate protest song “You Can’t Eat Money” uses an expletive which some people may not wish to sing. I’ve changed the verse and shown the original as an alternative. The new verse rhymes better and doesn’t use the word shit, but I think it loses some impact. Up to you which you use.

(Scary picture by Chris LeBoutillier)

Chesapeake Bay

I kept a boat on Chesapeake Bay for five years or so and sailed most weekends. When I set off cruising further a field I liked to return to Chesapeake Bay in the autumn, when the best sailing was to be had. I wrote a song about it, the lyrics are on the Lyrics 3 page.

Grind your corn

I gathered a list of archaic euphemisms for having sex and used them in a song about a couples passionate adventure in the fields. I found such wonderful expressions as “put the quarters on the spit” and “play the blanket hornpipe” and the titular “we ground our corn”.

I wrote it as an English style folk song but I’m sure it can be used in almost any genre. The full lyrics are on the Lyrics page.

Near miss!

But delighted anyway.

For the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations next year a new Commonwealth Song is being composed. The finished song will be sung by choirs in the 54 commonwealth countries as beacons are lit around the globe.

I participated in the lyrics contest, open to amateurs and professionals from all the Commonwealth nations. The winning lyrics will now go to composers who will compete to find the best finished song. After that a choir will be selected from each nation, to sing the song on the big day.

I would have been over the moon had my lyrics won, but I’m delighted with having made the top ten, and that my name will appear in the special book to be presented to Her Majesty after the celebrations.

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