Songwriting: Lyrical Hooks and Clichés

I’m a fan of Genesis, but enjoyed the older incarnation of that group more than the one in the mid-80s. That’s not a criticism at all because I think Genesis wrote brilliant pop music. I just happen to like their older prog rock style.

Genesis wrote and recorded “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight” for their 1986 “Invisible Touch” album, and that song has stuck in my head ever since as an example of what I’ve thought of as the risky use of clichés in a lyric. And more specifically, what happens when a bunch of them get thrown together, all competing for attention.

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Clichés often form the basis of a good lyrical hook. As you hopefully know, clichés should be avoided, but can often work well as the basis of a chorus lyric — a lyrical hook.

Like a melodic hook, a lyrical hook tends to be short, intended to grab attention. Most lyrical hooks get repeated because they’re usually connected to chorus hooks. Michael Jackson’s “Bad”, Van Halen’s “Jump”, Calvin Harris’ “We Found Love” are all good examples of lyrical hooks.

And like a chorus hook, a lyrical hook is usually easy/fun to perform, and helps define the song.

If you look at the first few lines of “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight”, you’ll get a sense, I think, of what I mean by a jumble of clichés all competing for attention:

Lyrical hook

You can usually identify the existence of a cliché by asking, “Could I write a song called “[insert cliché word or phrase here]”. And most of those phrases in that Genesis lyric have appeared over the years as song titles, or parts of titles.

Clichés and lyrical hooks rise and fall in prominence over the years. The Bee Gees settled on ‘Stayin’ Alive'” as the title for one of their biggest disco hits even though the title “Saturday Night” had been suggested to them. For some reason, though, the phrase “Saturday night” was appearing in more 70s songs than one could count, and so they opted for “Stayin’ alive.”

Clichés have to be used carefully because a phrase rises to the status of cliché by being over-used. So using a cliché is an acknowledgment that you’re using a bit of lyric that’s been written into a previous song’s lyric, or in casual conversation, many times over.

Having said that, a cliché´has a way of summing up a state of mind or a circumstance very concisely, and as long as your usage of it (hopefully in a chorus) is, at least on some level, unique, a cliché can form the foundation of a good lyrical hook, and do so successfully.

So the advice for songwriters is this:

  • The occasional (infrequent) use of a cliché in your verse should be OK, as long as you feel that it best sums up what you’re trying to convey.
  • Clichés in a chorus, particularly as part of a lyrical hook, are less troublesome than clichés in a verse, but work best when the rest of the lyric is powerful, imaginative and/or clever.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

If you’re ready to study — to learn why a great song succeeds — and then to apply those discoveries to your own songs, you’re ready for “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle.”

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Songwriter - Guitarists

Listening to Your Musical Mind

If you involve yourself in any sort of physical activity, there is no doubt that you’re familiar with the phrase “listen to your body.”

It’s a phrase that is meant to caution you against overdoing it. If you’re a runner and you suddenly encounter some sort of injury, you’ll hear someone say, “Listen to your body. It’s trying to tell you to slow down and perhaps stop, at least for the moment.”

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It’s good advice. Exercising with an injury can worsen things, and the fear is that the injury, which might be minor, can become something much worse, perhaps chronic and permanent.

In the arts, you might also deal with the “listen to your body” scenario, although it’s not a muscle that causes problems — it’s your creative mind. As a songwriter, there are times when you just can’t seem to get anything sounding good.

So what do you do when your imagination just isn’t coming up with anything useful, and it’s been going on for a few days?

It might be time to take a page from an athlete’s book, and “listen to your creative mind.” It may be telling you that it simply needs a rest.

I’m a fan of working through a creative block. Just because you’ve struggled for an hour and come up with nothing does not mean that you’re in the throes of writer’s block.

But there are times when it does a lot of good to listen to your creative mind and take a break.

Athletes will often turn to a different sport, one that uses a different set of muscles, and as a musician you can do something similar: you can turn your attention to other musical activities, ones that don’t require you to write music.

In most cases, turning your attention away like that will be all your imagination needs, and you’ll be back in the writing groove before you know it.

So concentrating on playing, producing for someone else, writing poetry, or attending concerts keeps your head in a musical space, and keeps things positive. In no time you’ll find your head filling up with ideas again, and you should be back to writing within days.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

If you’re ready to study — to learn why a great song succeeds — and then to apply those discoveries to your own songs, you’re ready for “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle.” Comes with a Study Guide.

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Songwriting Principles Are Often Clearer In Older Songs

Sometimes you’ll find that studying songs from a genre not your own is a really great way to expand on what you do. Songwriting principles usually apply across genres, and hearing a principle demonstrated in a different genre can act as a kind of metaphor for your own.

The same thing happens when you study songs from a completely different era. It’s amazing what you can learn from songs that are 60 years old or even older. In fact with older songs, some songwriting principles are clearer, more obvious, and uncluttered by today’s production techniques.

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When it comes to understanding, for example, the principles involved in how the rhythm of a melody can affect how people connect emotionally to it, you can hear it perfectly demonstrated in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from the musical “Carousel” from 1945.

The principle involved is this: when melodic rhythms slow down and simplify, we feel a deeper sense of emotion from the lyric. In “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” the main rhythmic motif is two shorter notes followed by a long note:

Rhythmic example 1

You also get that very simple motif reversed: a long note followed by two shorter ones:

Rhythmic Example 2

As you listen to this powerful melody, you become aware that there’s little else going on rhythmically; almost the entire melody is comprised of one or the other arrangement of short notes and long notes.

But you’ll notice that the closer the melody gets to those iconic words, “You’ll never walk alone”, the more the shorter notes disappear and we hear the long notes by themselves, propelling the melody higher and higher. (“Walk on, walk on with hope in your heart…).

Those longer notes have one simple effect: the building of emotional energy. The longer the singer dwells on those notes, the more power we pick up and feel. It’s a simple concept, very simply but effectively demonstrated.

That concept is not new. We hear it in Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” (“Messiah”, 1741) in the final “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” part of the piece. We hear it in the long, drawn out “Oh-oh-oh-oh” in “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” (Harbach/Kern) (1933).

We also hear it in the simplification of rhythm that happens toward the end of each verse of “It’s Only Make Believe”(Jack Nance, Conway Twitty) and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (Paul Simon).

And we notice its power in songs from practically every genre of every era.

In your own songs, you’ll want to think of this concept as you try to build a satisfying level of emotional energy and power. It really doesn’t matter if you’re writing country songs or metal, stretching out and simplifying rhythms will always help build passion and power.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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An Idea For Songs That Use the Same Chord Progression For Verse and Chorus

Songs that use the same progression for the verse and chorus aren’t unusual, but when you write that kind of song you need to think about other ways to create contrast between verse and chorus.

Most songs need that contrast, because it’s contrast that keeps audiences interested on a musical level. And chords often play an important role in that contrast. For songs where the verse and chorus chords differ, you more than likely will get one of the following scenarios:

  1. The verse progression wanders a bit, perhaps making the actual key a bit vague, before things become simpler and more obvious in the chorus; or
  2. The verse progression sits in and around a minor key, eventually transitioning to major for the chorus.

Those two kinds of progression partnerships are important ways of making listeners want to wait for the whole partnership to play out. For songs where the same progression keeps getting repeated over and over, through the verse and then through the chorus, composers make sure that contrast happens in other ways.

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Some of those other ways:

  1. Create a chorus melody that explores a higher range.
  2. Build production so that the chorus is fuller, louder, more instrumentally involved.
  3. Make the chorus lyric more strongly emotional than the verse.

Adele’s “Skyfall” (Adele, Paul Epworth) is a good example of this. Even though the verse and chorus progressions aren’t identical, they’re similar enough that it demonstrates what I’m talking about.

In “Skyfall”, Adele and Epworth handle contrast a little differently, and it’s worth experimenting with this in your own songs: change the length of time the chorus chords are held. Specifically, play each verse chord for two beats, and then switch to holding chords for four beats (mostly, anyway) in the chorus.

The intro and verse progression starts with a moving piano bass line and what’s known as a double inverted pedal point, two notes, Eb and C which play over and over while that bass line moves.

It’s not until halfway through the verse, and in verse 2, that we hear the complete chord progression: Cm-Ab-F7-Fm-Cm

But the main difference between verse and chorus that’s noticeable is that the chorus chords are doubled in length:

Skyfall verse and chorus

Why does this work? What benefit comes from lengthen the amount of time you dwell on chords in a chorus?

The main reason is that it tends to heighten emotional value. The longer rhythms, partnered with the lush orchestration underneath, build the passionate character of the chorus, and achieves whatever you might have gained by coming up with a more intense progression.

This is similar to the principle that applies to chorus melodies: the simpler the vocal rhythms, the more the emotional content of the lyric comes forward. Elongating and simplifying rhythms appears to apply equally to both chords and melody.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

If you’re ready to study — to learn why a great song succeeds — and then to apply those discoveries to your own songs, you’re ready for “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle”

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Bruce Springsteen

The Story Within the Song – It Needs to Be Compelling

If you find that the lyrics you write lack whatever it takes to grab and keep an audience, there are several possible reasons that you need to think about:

  1. The song lacks a good story.
  2. The words you choose don’t connect or resonate in any important way to your audience.
  3. The words (and/or the opinions you express) don’t ring true.

That first one might surprise you, because you’d think that the story is probably going to be the first and most important step to writing something compelling. But it might surprise you, when you pull your songs apart to find out why they aren’t working, how often you’re looking at a song that just doesn’t really have a great story.

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What We Mean By the Story

Some songs are obvious story songs, and it’s not hard to figure out the sequence of events within that story. Listen to Springsteen’s “Born to Run“, read the lyrics, and the images just flow, even if the story is not strictly a “first-this-happened-then-that-happened” song.

The story is whatever the audience creates in their mind while they’re hearing the lyrics. For situational songs — songs that are more about a state of mind than anything else — there still needs to be some sort of story.

If all you’re singing is, “Oooh, I love you so much”, there’s really no story there, and audiences will find it hard to relate to what you’re singing. The emotional words will be hollow and more-or-less meaningless. To give those words meaning, you need to place important images in the minds of the listeners.

When your own words seem a bit meaningless even to you, the cause is simple, even if the solution is a bit more elusive: you didn’t have a cogent story in mind when you wrote the lyrics.

Finding the Story

Let’s say that you’ve written a song where at least some of the lyrics are powerful, evocative and imaginative, but you still feel that they’re disorganized and not really capable of creating a story within the minds of the listeners. What do you do?

The best thing you can do is to write a real story about what you think your song is trying to convey. It doesn’t need to be a long story, just long enough to make the background story obvious.

Writing that story can be one of the most important parts of your songwriting process because it gives you a sequence of events that, like a thread, connects all your thoughts. It puts things in the right order, making the story and your eventual lyric logical and powerful.

And when you then put the magnifying glass on your lyric, you’ll know when and often why a particular line isn’t working: you’ve got the story right in front of you. You may find that what you’ve written is good, but now needs to be put in a different order.

You can use that story to fix lyrics, but you can also use a story to start the lyric-writing process, by letting that story help you create word lists.

So even for songs where the story is obvious, but particularly when the story is elusive or complex, the best thing you can do to get a great lyric is to start the process by writing a short story that gets everything in the right order, and right in front of you.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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I’m Gary Ewer. This blog has been my labour of love since 2008. You’ll find the five most recent songwriting articles right here on this page, and if you want to browse through the more than 1500 posts in the archive, scroll to the bottom of the 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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