As songwriters, you’re constantly trying to make your music a personal experience that others can feel – to which others can relate. You do this by singing about universal emotions and experiences (love, peace, friendship, etc.), and you use common, everyday words to convey your thoughts.
Today is Remembrance Day in Canada, and most of the music you hear will take on a sombre, solemn tone. If you’ve written songs about war and peace as befits this day, your own songs have probably adopted that same aura of solemnity. You do that usually by slowing tempos down, simplifying chord progressions, and creating melodies that are well-contoured and full of expression.
And of course, you think about what you are saying, and the words you choose to convey those thoughts.
Earlier today, I tweeted a 2007 article by Rupert Christiansen that gave a bit of the back story to one of the most enduring hymns of remembrance in the western world: “Abide With Me.” In that article, Christiansen makes mention of a tiny aspect of the hymn’s lyric that is responsible for the powerful affect it has on listeners: changing “us” to “me.”
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The biblical verse that served as the inspiration for the lyric is Luke 24:29 – “But they constrained him, saying, Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent. And he went in to tarry with them.”
When Henry Francis Lyte composed the lyric, he changed “us” to “me”, and suddenly the words take on a new and powerful poignancy. Using “us” might have resulted in a hymn that would still have been powerful, and approach being an anthem for the downtrodden.
But singing “Abide with me” rather than “Abide with us” turns the hymn inward, making it far more likely that the listener will feel the very personal pain of the words. It’s a brilliant lesson for songwriters of any genre.
That’s certainly not to say that a song must write in the first person to make an impact. In fact, Lennon & McCartney played with personal pronouns to great effect in their music. From The New York Times article, “I Me Mine: The Beatles and Their Pronouns” (Ben Zimmer):
“All our early songs,” Mr. McCartney said, “had always had this very personal thing,” pointing to “Please Please Me,” “From Me to You,” “P.S. I Love You,” and “Thank You Girl.” Then he said, “we hit on the idea of doing a kind of a reported conversation: ‘I saw her yesterday, she told me what to say, she said she loves you.’ It just gave us another little dimension really.”
But you can’t deny the power of the first person singular — “me”, “I”, or “my” — when it comes to touching the heart of the audience. People are very able and willing — even eager — to place themselves front and centre in a song’s story.
And writing in the first person is a great way to do that. Using a song’s lyric to tell others how you think and feel is often best done by making it your own personal experience.
If you find that your songs just aren’t making the connection to audiences that you wish they were, take a look at the point of view of the song. Rather than recounting a story as an observer, switch to telling it as a participant.
That may be all you need to do to have you song suddenly grab attention.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter