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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
2021 ©John Schofield