Songwriting Tips, News & More

Songwriting Tip: A Three-Stage Rocket to Lyric Writing

Posted by Jessica Brandon on Thu, May 01, 2014 @10:37 AM

A Three-Stage Rocket to Lyric Writing

When NASA blasted a rocket into orbit, they did it in stages: The big lift-off, a second stage to get the payload into orbit and a third to fine tune the direction. So, what’s this got to do with writing lyrics? You can think of the lyric writing process in three stages:

  •  1. Getting started. (Lift off)
  •  2. Developing your idea. (Getting into orbit)
  •  3. Rewriting (Fine tune it)

=> STAGE ONE: GETTING STARTED
Beginning the lyric writing process with a title can give you a central beacon that will keep your song lyric focused – very important if you want to keep listeners involved. Any short phrase you find emotionally intriguing – or simply an honest statement of how you feel – can work as a title. Make it something you want to write about.

Then make a list of questions the phrase suggests. These are the questions you’re going to answer in your song. Try questions like: What does this mean? Why do I need to say it? How does it feel? How did it happen?  What do I think the consequences will be? Every phrase suggests different questions. And every songwriter will find different ones to ask. 

OR… you can start writing the first line of your song and work from that. Let’s say you overhear a line in conversation that sounds interesting or a line occurs to you that triggers a whole string of thoughts. Write everything down, then go back and look it over. Do you know what this song is about? Can you put the lines in some kind of order that develops an overall idea? By the time you write the second line of your first verse, you should have an idea where your song is headed.

=> STAGE TWO: DEVELOP YOUR IDEA
Decide on your song structure. For most songs, it’s a good idea to write in a form that has a chorus section, such as…
VERSE / CHORUS
VERSE / CHORUS
BRIDGE / CHORUS. (Read more about song structure.)

Feature your title in your chorus section; make it the first line or last line, or use it in both places. It will provide an anchor for your listeners, a focal point, so a little repetition is a good thing.  Surround your title with lines that support it. For example, you might choose to answer the question you feel is the most important. Or describe the emotions that are going on.

Remember, the chorus sums up the heart of your song. Be sure to keep it focused on a peak emotional moment. Don’t try to explain too many specific ideas in the chorus. Save that for the verses.

Lay out your verses around the chorus. Choose at least one of the questions from your list to answer in each verse and the bridge. By laying out your song instead of just writing whatever comes to you, you’ll stay focused on a single idea in each verse and you won’t wonder what you’re going to write about when you get to the bridge!

FILM & TV SONG TIP: If you’re writing songs for the film & TV market, keep the focus solely on a peak emotional moment and try to avoid a specific storyline. The script will take care of the story details. Also, for film & TV, the VRS / VRS / BRIDGE / VRS song form can work well. Try using your title in the last line of each verse. If you repeat that last line each time the verse comes around, it will add weight and create a chorus-like feel.

Find out more about writing songs for Film and TV.

=> STAGE THREE: REWRITE AND POLISH
Fill in more lines around the ones you’ve written. Simple, conversational phrases are fine but you might want to mix these with images, comparisons, and physical expressions of emotion to make your listeners really feel it! Don’t just tell them what you experienced; make them experience it, too.

Replace a cliché with a fresh idea. If you’ve written a line that listeners have heard a thousand times, try adding a twist, end the phrase in a different way than we expect.

Punch up your language. If you wrote “I need…” try “I hunger…” or “I crave…” Make your action words work harder, too. Instead of “you walked away,” use “you slipped away” or “you  danced away.” These words tell us more about the emotions that accompanied the action.

Go through your lyric and make certain you’ve answered the important questions about the situation. Did you say something in your lyric that raised more questions or hinted at something else? You’ve got to deal with that—either answer the question or change that line. You don’t want to leave the listener feeling unfulfilled.

This is the time to “encourage” some rhymes. Don’t force them; never change the natural word order of speech to accommodate a rhyme – you’re likely to lose the  believability of the lyric. Look for a rhyme that feels easy and natural. if you use “vowel rhymes” you have a huge selection to choose from. Like the name implies “vowel rhymes” merely rhyme the vowel sound.  Fine/time, now/house, love/stuff are all vowel rhymes. Check out www.B-Rhymes.com for lists of near rhymes. (Read more about rhyming.)

ONE LAST THOUGHT…
At times during this process, there’s likely to be a strong line that “just occurs to you,” a line you reeeeally want to use. If you laid out your song as a rough sketch first, take a look to see where the line might belong and put it there. If it doesn’t seem to belong to any section, then it might provide the germ of a new song. Write it on a separate sheet of paper and put it to one side. You can come back to it later to see where it leads. In songwriting, no good line is wasted – you just have to find the right place for it.

by Robin Frederick

Robin Frederick has written more than 500 songs for television, records, theater, and audio products. She is a former Director of A&R for Rhino Records, Executive Producer of 60 albums, and the author of “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting” and “Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV” available at Amazon.com. Visit Robin's websites for more songwriting tips and inspiration: www.RobinFrederick.com  and www.MySongCoach.com.

For more information on the 19th Annual USA Songwriting Competition, go to:http://www.songwriting.net

Tags: songwriter, song writer, song write, Song writing, Chorus, Songwriting, Polishing songs, Verse, compose, songwrite, lyric writing, Robin Frederick

Songwriting Tip: Polishing the Silver Bowl

Posted by Jessica Brandon on Thu, Jan 17, 2013 @02:56 PM

Polishing the Silver Bowl

By Pat Pattison

SilverBowl 

I found a silver punch bowl in my cellar. I vaguely remembered it being a gift (from one of my weddings). It was completely covered with tarnish (an interesting symbol), and, since I was Feng Shui-ing, the required move was to toss it. As I was about to, I was interrupted by the little Midwestern voice inside my head: “IT’S SILVER!! You can’t throw it away!”

I’ve gotten pretty good at ignoring that Midwestern voice, or at least sidestepping it. I tried, but as I was about to slip the bowl into the trash bag, it got louder, sounding a lot like my mom: “Nooooo! It’s SIIILVER!” “OK,” I bargained, “if I have any silver polish under the kitchen sink (where all that stuff languishes), I’ll shine up the bowl to see if it’s worth keeping.” Why would I have silver polish? I figured it was an easy escape from The Voice.

Who knew? To my surprise, I did have a jar of silver polish under the sink, (apparently another remnant from one of my weddings). Alas, let the cleaning begin.

I covered the bowl with the grey goop and, as per instruction, allowed it to dry. Wiping it off (with a clean cloth—another surprise under the sink), I discovered that, once the tarnish was rubbed away, the bowl was pretty snazzy. “I’m gonna keep this,” I said, as The Voice basked in the warm glow of its little victory.

Once I’d made the decision to keep it, I looked at the bowl more carefully, noticing the spots I’d missed. I applied more grey goop on the offending areas, waited, then rubbed it off—a bit harder this time. Ah, nice and shiny, both outside and in.

Um, except for the silver leafing all around the rim and on the four curved, leafed legs, still tarnished, with excess polish sticking in all those little crevasses. I tried rubbing with the cloth, but there was no way to get into all those places. I thought, “I’ll use my toothbrush. I can always rinse it off afterwards…”

More polish, and now the scrubbing took longer, not to mention the occasional spray from the toothbrush bristles, requiring goggles. (Silver polish stings the eyes.) The work was more localized and focused, taking longer to cover smaller areas. But finally, after rinsing with warm water, the rim and the legs were sparkling. “Good work,” I cooed to myself.

Oops. For the first time I noticed the thin etched lines swirling both on the interior and the exterior of the bowl. They were still tarnished, not an eyesore, but still not shining like they could. My impulse was to ignore them, but now The Voice reared up again. “Finish what you started. Quit being lazy.” Urrgh!

Q-tips. Again, the work was much more localized and painstaking. Following those swirls wasn’t easy, but after some close attention, a little bad language and a sore wrist, the silver bowl was finished. It glistened. Everything Midwestern in me shone with the glow of a job well done. I filled my gleaming silver bowl with apples and set it in the center of the coffee-table. Voilá!

The moral of this little tale?

It’s not like, when I found the bowl, I immediately saw that the leafing or the etchings were tarnished and needed work. I had plenty to do before I was able to notice those smaller details.

Move from bigger to smaller. Don’t sweat the small stuff until the big stuff is cleaned up.

Intent is the biggest: What’s your song about? Try to say it in one phrase.

Prosody is huge: Is this idea stable or unstable? All your decisions about structure will depend on how you answer this question.

Very, very big: The three questions every song must answer:

1. Who is talking?

2. To whom?

3. Why?

These three questions establish the Point of View of your song: 3rd Person Narrative (he, she, they), 1st Person Narrative (I, we, he, she, they), 2nd Person Narrative (you, he, she, it, they), or Direct Address (I, you). They also ask why you’re saying what you’re saying. What’s the point of the song?

Verse development is big: how can you develop your verse ideas so your chorus (or refrain, in an AABA form) gains more meaning, more emotional weight, each time we hear it.

Song form is middle-sized: Verse/Chorus or Verse/Refrain?

Deciding on things like rhyme scheme, line lengths, number of lines, is small.

Changing a line or a word is really small. Don’t spend too much time up front searching for the perfect word when you’re still working on the bigger decisions. Everything could change.

Don’t sweat the small stuff until the big stuff is cleaned up.

Gather tools. Obsessively. You’ll need them for all the different jobs you have to do. Keep them under your kitchen sink.

Happy polishing.

Pat Pattison, songwriting professor

Pat Pattison is a Professor at Berklee College of Music, where he teaches Lyric Writing and Poetry. In addition to his four books, Songwriting Without Boundaries, Writing Better Lyrics, The Essential Guide to Lyric Form and Structure, and The Essential Guide to Rhyming, Pat has developed three online lyric writing courses, one on poetry, and one on creative writing available through Berkleemusic.com. He has written over 50 articles for various magazines and blogs and has also filmed a free 6-week online songwriting course for coursera.org, available March 1st, 2012.  



Pat continues to present songwriting clinics across the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK. Several of his students have won Grammys, including John Mayer and Gillian Welch.

For more information on the 18th Annual USA Songwriting Competition, go to: http://www.songwriting.net

Tags: songwriter, song writer, song write, Song writing, Chorus, Songwriting, Prosody, Berklee, Polishing songs, Narrative, Verse, compose