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Song lyrics usually do two things: they describe situations, and they describe emotional responses. It’s typical for verse lyrics to be where you tell a story, explain what’s going on, and basically set the stage, pulling the listener into your world. The chorus lyric is where you share your emotional response, and if you’ve set the stage properly, you’ll have listeners feeling the same way. That two-level construction of song text is standard in the business, and you’ve got to get the order right.
The verse lyric story may not be a coherent “story” as much as a “picture”. But it’s the chorus lyric, and the emotional response we see there, that gives us the entire picture and pulls us in.
Here’s a good example of this lyrical structure:
The Breath You Take (George Strait)
He looks up from second base
Dad’s up in the stands
He saw the hit, the run, the slide
There ain’t no bigger fan…
But life’s not the breath you take
The breathing in and out
That gets you through the day
Ain’t what its all about
You just might miss the point…
It’s really a great example, because he starts by telling a short story, one designed to pull the listener in. It’s not a profound one; we can all pretty much tell where this is going practically from the first line.
The chorus then gives us the singer’s emotional position. It’s a preachy song, of course. But think of it this way: what if the verse lyric was the chorus, with the singer describing a philosophical position that “life’s not the breath you take..” It would have far less impact. The true impact comes from the verse, and the story that sets it all up.
But this article is about “triple-level lyrics.” Because many songs have a third element, the bridge. What do you do with lyrics in a bridge?
Now that you’ve established an emotional response, you can keep pulling your listener in by describing different situations very quickly; the emotional impact will automatically follow:
Just like it took my breath when she was born
Just like it took my breath away when Dad took his last that morn
That second line of the bridge will hit the listener hard, and even though the musical energy dissipates at that point, the emotion of the lyric is at its height. And that’s usually the job of a bridge.
So you need to be sure you’ve got the order right:
- Verse: Set up a situation;
- Chorus: Give your emotional response;
- Bridge: Build lyrical energy by quickly describing several other situations.
In my experience, when song lyrics fail, it’s often because the writer spends too much time in the verse trying to elicit an emotion, or too much time describing how they feel, when they haven’t properly described the underlying situation. Get the order right, and you’ve got the makings of a good song lyric.
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