Guitar, paper and pencil

Adding Focus to Your Lyrics With a Short Story

Most songs aren’t specifically “story songs”; they don’t use lyrics that say “first this happened, and then that happened.” It’s usually the case that listeners will infer the story by the various lines within the lyric.

It sounds complicated, but most song lyrics work this way. When we hear the lines of a lyric, our brains piece together a story that allows those lines to make sense.


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When I work with songwriters one-on-one and we’re dealing specifically with lyrics, the most common problem I encounter is that the lyrics sound like a jumble of emotions and reactions, and the story either seems to be similarly jumbled, or even nonexistent.

If this describes the problems you’re having with writing lyrics, here’s a simple way to avoid the problem: start the lyric-writing process by writing a short story that sums up what you want the lyric to be about.

If you were to take the lyric for Pharrell Williams’ “Happy”, you’ll see that the story isn’t at all a “first this happened, and then that happened” kind of story. It’s a story that we piece together by considering the emotions and circumstances of the lyric:

It might seem crazy what I am about to say
Sunshine she’s here, you can take a break
I’m a hot air balloon that could go to space
With the air, like I don’t care baby by the way…

Each individual line of the lyric isn’t what makes the lyric work, it’s more the emotions those lines generate. Each line leads logically into the next one. And behind it all, the all-important story.

The startling reality is that the story behind the lyrics — a story that we infer without directly hearing it — can be different for different people. The story behind “Happy” could be almost anything. It’s obviously about a man who is willing to look negativity in the face and determine to be happy no matter what the circumstances.

But the actual details of the story could be practically anything. A man who’s lost someone close to him, determining to look on the bright side. Or maybe someone who’s just gotten the big job he’s been looking for. Or… anything.

The details of the story aren’t important. That’s because when details are lacking, your listeners will fill in the blanks with their own story.

But to keep your song sounding organized and properly sequential, it’s often best to start the lyric-writing process by writing your own story — the events that would lead you to write the lyric you’ve written.

The benefit to writing the story is that it keeps things organized in your mind. The lyric will have a stronger sense of form, and it has a better chance of building stronger, more effective emotions.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter. Hooks & Riffs“Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” shows you how a good hook can make the difference between songwriting success and failure. With great examples from pop music history.Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook BundleThousands of songwriters have been using “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle, along with the Study Guide, to polish their songwriting skills and raise their level of excellence.

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Singer-Songwriter - Recording Studio

Placing Yourself Within Your Song’s Lyric

Do you find that your songs aren’t really making a personal or emotional connection to your listeners? If that’s the case, take a look at the point of view of your lyric, and at least some (perhaps most) of the time it should be placing you as the centre of activity.

In other words, writing in the first person (I, me) should be a default setting. If you don’t do that, then you’re mostly writing about things that are happening to others, without the ability to say specifically how those things are affecting you.


Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting ProcessAre you ready to have LYRICS take a much more important role in your songwriting process. You need to read “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process.” Right now, it’s FREE with your purchase of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle.”


This isn’t a rule, of course. It is possible to write a good song without placing yourself in the lyric. Story songs are often about an event or situation, perhaps historical, where you didn’t take part, and you’re simply relating the facts (“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” (Gordon Lightfoot) for example.)

But for songs where you are hoping that audiences feel love, nostalgia, loss, or any other similar emotions, it works very well if you are the one who is centre stage, and that the story of the lyric is being told in the first person.

So that means lots of “I” and “me”, but also consider the power of “you” rather than “he” or “she.” By making it sound like you’re having a conversation with someone about the circumstances described in the lyric, you make it a very personal thing.

When you write that way, audiences find it easy to put themselves in the middle of the story, and at that point it becomes a story about whoever is listening. And that’s your best shot at getting a listener to feel what you were feeling when you wrote it.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle includes “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression”. Discover the secrets of making the chords-first songwriting process work for you.

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The Weeknd

Creating Effective Song Hooks

Most of the time when you talk about the hook of a song, you’re talking about the main, distinctive part of the chorus. There are many different ways to hook a listener, but you could argue that the chorus hook is the most important one, as it gives listeners the most memorable part of the song, the part that keeps people coming back.


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A hook can usually be condensed down to one important musical phrase, and it’s usually the part where the lyric contains the title. In order for a musical fragment to rise to the level of being a hook, you typically find the following qualities:

  1. It’s a short, memorable fragment that repeats throughout the song (as choruses, of course, usually do.)
  2. Its melody will be mainly stepwise, with at least one distinctive melodic leap (usually upwards).
  3. The rhythm of the melody will feature something different from what’s come before it in the song.
  4. The chord progression that supports that hook will usually be simple but tonally strong.
  5. It’s fun to sing.

In the recent hit by The Weeknd/Ariana Grande, “Save Your Tears” (Abel Tesfaye, et al), we get to see all those characteristics. Its chorus (like most songs’ choruses) is made up of a short fragment that repeats.

The melody is mainly stepwise, but featuring a leap upward on the word “tears”. The rhythm of the verse is primarily repeating eighth notes and quarter notes. The chorus hook, however, begins with two notes (“Save your…”) of longer value (half notes), setting the chorus hook apart from the rest of the song.

The chords that support the hook for this song are tonally strong, based mainly on the circle of fifths: I – vi – iii – V (C – Am – Em – G)

Practicing Writing Song Hooks

You’ll notice that while the verse and chorus for a song have a similar sound and feel, most of the time the similarities come from the fact that the instrumentation is the same (or close to the same), as well as the key, tempo, and other production-level elements.

What that means is that most of the time you can spend some time practicing the writing of hooks, and even use them in a song for which you’ve already got some verse ideas, but no chorus hook to bring it all home.

In practicing the writing of a hook, you can use the same processes that you’d use if you were writing a complete song. For example, you can start the writing of a hook by coming up with a short, strong progression (the “chords-first” method), or you might think up a short melodic idea (the “melody first” process.)

In everything you do, you simply need to make sure that your hook idea is displaying the five important characteristics listed above. Make sure there’s something distinctive about the rhythm, that the melody features some sort of leap, that the chords are simple, and of course that it’s fun to sing.

One of the best ways to improve, as with practically everything in music, is to listen to good songs, ones that have become hits, and focus your attention on the chorus hook. Ask yourself, “What do I like about this? Why does it work?”

Once you’ve got several hook ideas and you’re ready to create a verse that works with it, improvise verse ideas by starting lower in your voice, and using a chord progression that is either the same or at least similar to your chorus hook idea.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary EwerFollow Gary on Twitter

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook BundleThousands of songwriters are using “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” ebook bundle to improve their songwriting technique. If you’re looking for excellence and consistency, get the bundle today. Comes with a FREE COPY of “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process.”

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Songwriter

Choose a Good Topic, But Concentrate on the Quality of the Lyric

Believe it or not, the specific topic of a song isn’t all that crucial to its success. “Hotel California” is a hugely popular song from the 70s, and there were considerable debates at the time of its release as to what it was actually about. The confusion of listeners didn’t damage the listeners’ ability to enjoy the song, and may have even enhanced it.

There are many other songs where the actual topic is hard to identify, where that difficulty didn’t get in the way of audience enjoyment – “I Am the Walrus” (Lennon & McCartney), for example.


Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting ProcessAre you ready to have LYRICS take a much more important role in your songwriting process. You need to read “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process.” Right now, it’s FREE with your purchase of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle.”


The lyric may be a jumble of words, making the topic hard to discern, but if every once in a while there’s a phrase that makes an emotional connection to the audience, that’s what really matters.

An example, from “The Gates of Delirium” (Yes):

Wars that shout in screams of anguish
Power spent passion bespoils our soul receiver, surely we know
In glory we rise to offer
Create our freedom, a word we utter
A word

That’s a very poetic lyric, and if you’re into understanding your songs on one or two listens, this kind of lyric may frustrate you. But if you look through that excerpt of lyric, you’ll find bits that seem lucid and meaningful, even if they only give a very faint glimpse of the actual larger meaning: “screams of anguish”, “surely we know”, “we rise”, “freedom”, etc. The meaning of those fragments will outweigh the meaning of the entire lyric.

Song topics, though, are important, because people generally like to feel a connection to whatever the song’s about. “I Am the Walrus” is a rare example of a song with apparently no obvious topic, but maybe that’s its charm. And I’m not sure the rest of us could get away with it.

In your own lyric writing, my advice would be:

  1. Choose a topic that you think has a good chance of expressing something in the likely experience of your listeners. That’s why so many songs are about friendship, love, parties, relationships, etc.
  2. Focus more on word choice in your lyrics rather than obsessing over your song’s topic. Sometimes a topic may seem simplistic (“She dumped me at the party”), but it’s the words you choose, the imagery, the succinct expression of emotion, that make the real impact, and can make for a successful song.
  3. In successive songs, try to find topics that allow for different emotions to come forward. It’s a problem if every song you write is about your love life, especially if they are all basically saying the same thing. Dig down into a vague topic (she dumped me at the party) to find something more interesting, more in-depth… a different angle perhaps.

Another solution: If you find all of your songs are based on a similar song topic with similar kinds of lyrics, don’t just focus on changing the topic. Try changing other bits about the song as well: the tempo, key (major or minor), and instrumentation.

All of those kinds of changes can make two songs with very similar topics and lyrics sound very different from each other, and that of course is a good thing.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook BundleThousands of songwriters are using “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle to polish their songwriting technique. Every aspect of how to make a song better is covered. Stop wasting time — take your songwriting technique to a new level TODAY. Ten eBooks, plus a free one: $37 USD (Immediate download).

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Minor chord progressions for songwriters

Making Standard Chord Progressions More Interesting: Try These Five Ideas

Chord progressions are responsible for much of the mood that we pick up in a song. Chords don’t do it on their own of course, but we get a clearer picture of the mood from the way the chords change more than from pretty much any other single element.

Simple, standard progressions work just fine in most songs. For any given key there is a mixture of major and minor chords to choose from, and those choices are usually enough to pull our feelings in one direction to another.


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It’s easy to understand why songwriters spend time looking for unique chord progressions, ones that stray from the norm. It’s because they want to create a unique emotional experience for their fans, and the thought is that a unique, more complex progression will do it.

In that regard, you might be pleased to know that there are ways to manipulate those standard progressions, making them more interesting. The advantage of manipulating a standard progression (rather than trying to create something more complex) is that we know that standard progressions work. All you need are ways to make small changes to a standard progression that leaves all of the benefits in place.

So try some of these ideas if you’ve got a chord progression that works, but just lacks a bit of freshness or imaginative flair:

1. Invert some of the chords.

Normally, when you play a chord, the letter name of the chord is the lowest-sounding note. So for example, when you play A7, your bass player will be playing A. That’s called root position. A chord inversion is one where the root of the chord is not the bass note.

So try some experimenting: place a note other than the root in the bass (or left hand of the keyboard). You probably know these as slash chords, because that’s how they’re notated: the letter before the slash is the chord, and the note after the slash is the bass note: C/E means play a C chord, but play E as your lowest note.

So here’s a standard progression you might see a lot: C  F  G7  Am

If you assume that you’re going to strum each of those chords for four beats, you could insert some inverted chords, strumming each one for two beats: C  C/E  F  F/A  G7  G7/B  C

Read more about chord inversions.

2. Use chord suspensions.

Every chord has a root, third and fifth (a C chord is C-E-G…1-3-5). Certain chords can sound more interesting if you lift the third of the chord so that it’s actually playing a 4th above the root. It’s shown with a small ‘sus4’ after the chord.

A Csus4 would move the E of the chord upward, so that you get these three notes: C-F-G. You then usually need to resolve that suspension to its normal triad (C-E-G) before moving on.

So that standard C-F-G7-C progression can sound a bit more interesting if you create a suspension on the G7: C  F  G7sus4  G7  C. (G7sus4 uses the notes G-C-D-F).

Read more about suspensions.

3. Use a modal mixture (or ‘borrowed’) chord.

A modal mixture simply means that, if your song is in a major key, you’re using a chord that borrows the form normally found in the equivalent minor key.

You often see modal mixtures on the IV-chord (the ‘F’ chord in our example progression). And it’s typical (though not absolutely necessary) that you would play the IV-chord first, then the modal mixture minor-iv chord), before moving on, like this:  C  F  Fm  G7  C.

There are other interesting modal mixtures. In C major, try Ddim instead of Dm, Ab instead of Am, and Gm instead of G.

Read more about modal mixtures.

4. Try a bass pedal point.

This is an easy change, but you’ll love what it does for your chords. Play through the sample progression, but keep the bass note of the first chord (in our sample, the C chord) in the bass for all the chords.

That’s called a “tonic pedal”, because the C chord is the tonic chord (the one that represents the key of the progression.) Tonic pedals are most common, but you can also get good use out of a “dominant pedal”, which keeps the bass note of the V7 chord (the G7 in this case) in the bass.

It’s up to you how much to use a bass pedal point. You could keep it for part of the progresion (C  F/C  G7  C), or for the entire progression (C  F/C  G7/C  C).

Read more about bass pedal point.

5. Use a deceptive cadence.

In music the cadence refers to the end of a phrase. In a short progression like our sample one, the cadence is the end of it (G7 moving to C).

A deceptive cadence is one that, instead of giving us the chord we expect at the end, gives us something different. For example, instead of ending the progression G7-C, a common “deception” is to end it on Am, so you get: C  F  G7  Am.

But really, it’s completely up to you what you choose as your deceptive cadence. You could try ending on a IV-chord (C  F  G7  F), or even try a flat-VI (C  F  G7  Ab). Whichever chord you choose, the likelihood is that you’ll want to then continue the progression, and so for that reason, deceptive cadences are a good way to make your progression longer, and perhaps take your song into a new key area.

Read more about deceptive cadences.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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Gary Ewer

I’m Gary Ewer. For years I’ve been helping songwriters understand the basic fundamentals of good songwriting. I do that mainly through the free articles on this blog, and also through my 10-eBook bundle. If you lack consistency in your songwriting, and you want to take your abilities to the next level, everything you need to know is in that bundle package, so please take a look at those ebooks. And if you want to browse through the more than 2300 posts in the blog archive, scroll to the bottom of this page.

Please feel free to leave a comment at the end of any article. I love reading what others are thinking about music.

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