You’ll often hear that the verse is where you tell the story in your song. Most of the time, however, a song verse tells its story in a roundabout sort of way. There are the songs we call story songs – the ones that give a specific account of events in a sequence we’re used to when we read books. “Hotel California” is a kind of story song, as is “A Boy Named Sue” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”.
But most of the time, a story in a song is one that listeners pull together based on the lyric. They aren’t “first this happened, and then that happened” kind of songs.
“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.
Here’s an example of what I mean:
Now and then I think of when we were together
Like when you said you felt so happy you could die
Told myself that you were right for me
But felt so lonely in your company
But that was love and it’s an ache I still remember
As you can see, the lyric (“Somebody That I Used To Know” – Gotye) is very clear regarding the writer’s point of view. We know the writer’s general mood and disposition. He was in a relationship with someone, and it should have been working out, but he felt lonely.
This is a common kind of verse lyric in pop songwriting. It tells a story, to be sure. But it does so in a way that allows us to fill in the blanks. There is not a traditional story, at least not the kind that you might see in the typical novel or story song. In a sense, the listener creates the story out of the bits and pieces that are offered in the lyric.
And that’s the biggest problem that songwriters deal with in writing verse lyrics. Telling a story in a “first this happened, and then that happened” kind of way is easier, in the sense that you can tell right away if anything important has been left out.
When it’s done well, a song verse will do the following:
- Present an interesting situation or person to which the audience can relate. George Harrison’s “Something” is a great example of a song that allows the listener to fill in the details of a powerful love story.
- Use simple, everyday words that the typical listener would use in casual conversation.
- Limit the use of highly-emotive words. (Save those for the chorus).
- Describe enough of a story, but leaves enough “blanks” that it allows different users to finish it in their own way.
- Provides a sense of focus, so that every line of lyric makes sense as a follower to the previous line.
That last point can be a tricky one, and can often mean the difference between success and failure of a song lyric. Because most non-story songs offer the bits and pieces of a story or situation, it can be hard to get things in the right order, or to say things in a way that makes listeners want to keep listening.
To help in this regard, try this: read through your lyric aloud, and say it as if you’re having a conversation with someone. Does it work? Or does it sound like aimless wandering? By treating your lyric as if it’s a conversation, you may suddenly realize that you’ve left important gaps in your verse descriptions.
But reading your lyric aloud, you get to hear its effect clearly and simply. Most lyric problems can at least be identified with that one important tip.
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