If you can’t express or sum up the main concept of your song — what the song’s all about — in one sentence or less, you’re going to have trouble connecting to your audience. Lyrics may take the listener on a journey, but there needs to be one concise way of describing that journey.
It’s like taking a trip. Your plan may be to visit the Eiffel Tower, see St. Peter’s Basilica, take a gondola ride in Venice, and finish up with a trip to London, but you’re likely going to tell your friends, “I’m going to Europe!”
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Take a good look at any song that’s hit the top of the charts, and you’ll see that every one of them can be summed up with an overarching expression that categorizes the entire experience. That overarching expression more often than not is the very title of the song:
- “You’re So Vain” (Carly Simon)
- “It’s Still Rock & Roll to Me” (Billy Joel)
- “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You” (Doug James/Michael Bolton)
- “He Wasn’t Man Enough” (Rodney Jerkins, Fred Jerkins III, LaShawn Daniels, Harvey Mason, Jr., recorded by Toni Braxton)
- “Happy” (Pharrell Williams)
And even if the title doesn’t describe everything the song is about, it usually only takes one listen to catch the title’s significance:
- “Dear Prudence” (Lennon & McCartney)
- “Magic” (John Farrar, recorded by Olivia Newton-John)
- “Poison” (Bell Biv DeVoe)
- “Smooth” (Santana feat. Rob Thomas)
- “Roar” (Katy Perry, Lukasz Gottwald, Max Martin, Bonnie McKee, & Henry Walter)
Why is the ability to sum up a song’s meaning with one simple expression so important? It has to do with emotion. Your song may pull the listener in several directions as a story unfolds, but the emotion the listener feels needs to be much simpler, much more basic. Everything points to that one emotion.
That simple, basic emotion gives listeners an uncomplicated musical experience that offers one important benefit: they’re more likely to remember that emotional experience, and want to re-experience it.
If you find it difficult to sum up your song with one phrase, your audience will have the same difficulty, and you’ll be losing an opportunity to make a necessary connection. It may require you to go back through your lyric and see if you can rework it. Here are some tips:
- First, make sure the chorus lyric is a simple expression of the song’s emotional experience. Reword things if necessary to be sure that there’s a single emotional focus to what you’ve written.
- Next, look at the verse. Make sure the verse lyric, even if it moves through several related events or descriptions, addresses (or sets up) the emotional experience of the chorus.
- Finally, look at any other section (pre-chorus, bridge, etc.), and again, make sure that they can be reduced to a simple emotion.
As you can see, it’s the song’s emotional content that you’re addressing, not the various events described in the song. A song can take the listener on a complex journey, but like the European trip, it all needs to be able to be expressed in a simple phrase that describes its very heart and purpose.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
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