did he know and when did he know it?" This key question from the Watergate era brought down a
President. It can also bring down
– or elevate – a song. Remember that
the presentation of a song by a writer to a listener is a social interaction –
a conversation of sorts.
Like any communication, if the songwriter cares about his/her message,
the goal of the interaction is to forge a connection between singer and
listener, so that both are on the same wavelength with common understanding.
between people is propelled forward through a flow of information – whether you
are telling a story, giving instruction, recounting your trip abroad, or describing your aches and pains, the listener stays engaged only as long
as information is flowing in.
As soon as this inflow ceases, the listener's attention goes
elsewhere. Would you continue to
read a book or watch a movie if it was not providing you with new information
that moved the story along and kept your attention?
principle applies in a song.
As long as information is flowing, the listener stays focused and
engaged, drinking in that information to stimulate images, feelings, ideas,
memories - all the things that songwriters' want their listeners to experience.
when a listener is hearing a song for the first time, you have about 30-45
seconds to 'hook' them and make a connection. Great songs work because they have a tremendous amount
of information flowing to the listener in the first few lines. By the end of the first verse, we
usually know a lot about who/what/where/when/why/how.
syllable in a lyric as a prime real estate lot, and your job as the developer is to get as much use out of
each lot as possible. For each
line and each phrase of your song, ask "What does the listener now know?" This is your key to a
successful song .
Songwriting great Gretchen Peters said in an interview that writing a song is "almost
like haiku, you have to really, really tear things down (to the essentials).
If a line
does not introduce new information, it is not moving the song forward, so why
is it there? If it is there
just to take up space, or just because you needed a rhyme, you are wasting
valuable real estate. Make each
line work for you, to keep a sense of forward motion. Listeners do not have long attention spans. You need to do all that you can to earn
their attention, and then reward them with a constant flow of interesting
some key pieces of information that are essential in any song. Whenever a character is introduced in a
lyric, whether by name or by "he/she/you/they", the listener quickly needs to know who
the person is, what their relationship is to the singer and/or other
characters, and why they are saying what they are saying (or why something is
being said about them) i.e. what is the current and/or past situation that led
to these words being said?
In short, why should the listener care about the character? Without those pieces of
information, any character in a song is a distant stranger with whom we don’t
see a reason to connect.
about when and where it's all happening may or may not be essential, but those
bits of detail usually provide a sensory anchor for the listener. Most great songs provide a sense of
when and where.
discuss this in workshops, this is usually the point where some says "You
can’t possibly fit all that information into the first few lines of a song…" Well, you can if you are a
great songwriter. Let's look
at some examples:
Here are the opening lines of "Harry and Joe" from the pen of multi-Emmy Award
winner A.J. Gundell:
Harry and Joe went South with their wives enjoying the golden
years of their lives
But life doesn’t always pay back what it owes and suddenly, there was just Harry and
In those few
words, there is a tremendous amount of information, which is shown, not told to us. At each phrase, ask yourself "What do I now
Harry and Joe went South with their wives
(There are 4 people, two married couples, who are traveling or
golden years of their lives
(They are happy and elderly, most likely moving to Florida)
But life doesn’t always pay back what it owes
unexpected and negative happened)
and suddenly, there was just Harry and Joe
(The two wives passed away)
The current situation and backstory of four strangers is conveyed to you in a
burst of information that has sensory and emotional impact. Now it makes perfect sense to get to
the chorus which says:
Harry and Joe, they lean to and fro
They lean on each other wherever they go
Two lonely fighters doing all that they know
To get through each day, Harry and Joe.
this gem of opening lines from "Skin", by Joe Henry and Doug Johnson:
is scared to death to hear what the doctor will say
been well since the day that she fell, and the bruise, it just won't go
What do we
know? A girl names SaraBeth
is at a medical facility awaiting a diagnosis.
You know she
is terrified. You know she
had a fall awhile ago and hasn’t been right since. And you know she probably has cancer (leukemia).
Again, in a
few phrases, we know the current situation and the backstory of the character. We are invited into the song to
accompany this person on the journey she is about to take.
this information out in the beginning allows the writer the luxury of using all
the rest of the song to develop the tale.
True to the
key songwriting principle of show, don't tell, the song never uses the word
'cancer'. In general, a song about
something specific like cancer, or
abuse, or divorce, or pollution,
or addiction etc, should never need to actually use the word. We should know by what we are
shown that this is what it's about.
the simple rule that any time something new mentioned ( a character, an
incident, a memory, an idea) the listener needs to know right away all the
relevant information about it . Don't delay it, don't omit it. Be especially wary of
words like "the truth" , or "the past" or "that
day" or worst of all, "It". Do not use "it" unless we clearly know what
"it" refers to.
this are often used in a lyric to encompass some major set of circumstances and
details that you
know about, but be mindful that your listener knows absolutely none of it. Once you use a word like that you
have to explain it right away.
Best to avoid it and just show the listener what you see in your mind's
eye. (show, don't tell).
another prime example from Rachel Proctor's poignant tale of "Me and
Emily"Floor boards filled with baby toys, empty coke bottles and coffee cups
Driving through the rain with no radio trying not to wake her up
Cell phone says low battery god what if I break down
Just looking for an exit with a lot of lights and a safe little Interstate town
Just a cheep hotel with a single bed and a cable TV is good enough for me and Emily
Within the first two lines we know the two people are an adult (the singer) and a sleeping baby. They have been driving for some time and it's raining. The next lines tell us that it's night, there is a sense of desperation, they are running from something, they don't have much money, the girl is Emily, and the singer is probably her mom trying to keep her safe from something. We know all this by what we are shown, not what we are directly told.
another information-rich opening verse from Neil Diamond's "Brother Love's
Traveling Salvation Show".
Hot August night, and the trees hanging down and the grass on
the ground smellin' sweet
the road to the outside of town and the sound of that good gospel beat"
Sits a ragged tent where there ain;t no trees
And that Gospel group telling you and me…..(to chorus)
Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show….
In these lines, (which also contain 6 rhymes, plus assonance and alliteration), we know When (August, night); Where (edge of the road leading out of the town); What is going on (gospel music); and How the air smells (sweet,
grassy); In the scene change:
"Move up the road to the outside of town" , as the visual camera moves,
the listener is brought along, and we hear a new sound, i.e. singing from a
ragged tent in a clearing.
In this lyric, the
information is focused on setting a scenario, providing detailed sights, sounds
and smells, so that "you
and me" are invited into the same vivid world.
This type of lyric writing is both journalistic and cinematic, like describing the world through movie
cameras where the lenses can zoom in and out and scenes can pan and cut between
locations and characters, providing all the relevant information. It is the art of using words to reach
the visual centers of the listener’s mind. And considering how many people go to movies, rent videos,
and watch TV and live events, it makes for effective lyric writing.
How about this amazing bit of writing from the first verse James
My grandfather was a sailor, he blew in off the water
My father was a farmer. and I, his only daughter
I took up with a no good
millworking man from Massachusetts
Who dies from too much whiskey and leaves me these three faces
In this brief opening to the song, we meet seven people across
four generations! We know their occupations and their
relationships to each other. We
know who is singing the song (the daughter), that she is widowed, how her
husband died, and her current situation. With all that rich information in the
opening lines of the song, the writer not only has the listener’s attention,
but now has the luxury of the entire rest of the song to use valuable syllable
real-estate for imagery and character development. This is song crafting at its finest.
these examples with some of the typical lyrics I get from aspiring singer-songwriters asking me if
I think their song will positively impact a listener:
Make yourself be
quiet, something has touched you
It wants to know you
hear the secret they whisper today
You’re pulled apart by
a vision that still haunts you
As you continue your
journey along that winding path
What do we know after
these four lines? How many people
are we introduced to?
There is the singer, the
"you", and a
people. What do we know
about any of them? NOTHING.
What other pieces of
information do we have? There is a
'secret', a 'vision' and a 'winding path'. Do we know anything about these? NO.
Do we know where we are, when we are, or why any of
this is being said ? NO.
This puts us in a
situation where after a complete verse (usually 30-45 seconds) we have zero
information and lots of unanswered questions. Now, this is not yet hopeless – if we immediately get
into a chorus that answers all of those questions, we can move on. But if we do not provide
satisfactory information here and now, the listener realizes that the writer
has all the relevant details locked in his/her head, and is not sharing them
The impact on the listener is one of confusion and being kept on the outside.
Another example of words
with no connection:
I sit in our place
thinking of then
Now is now and I know
I should have seen
what they tried to say
But it was what it was
What do we know? Nothing. Lots of references – three people, a
place, a time, a situation, but
these references only raise questions without providing answers. Wasted real estate, with the blight of "it" in
There are many great
songs which delay the big impact , i.e., the 'payoff', until the end or unfold the tale
a bit at a time. That is a great
way to craft a classic song.
However, just because the payoff comes at the end, you still have to get
the listener hooked from the beginning and get them to stay with you through
the whole song. . The
specifics of the situation that lead to the payoff have to be presented right
up front, and each line has to move the song forward, constantly releasing new
bits of information. This how the eight-to-eleven minute
masterpieces of writers like Harry Chapin and Dan Fogelberg keep the listener
rapt for that whole time. Great
examples of the payoff-at-the-end technique are Gretchen Peters'
by Rob Crosby and Stephanie Bentley, or the above-mentioned songs "Skin" and "Me and
At this point in a live
workshop, I usually hear someone ask:
"So what about all the popular songs out there that really don’t
have a high information content?"
Remember that popularity
and good songwriting are two separate parameters (discussed in detail in Songcrafters'
Coloring Book). There are many reasons other than
good songwriting as to why a song can become popular: (a) popularity of the artist; (b) major promotion by a record company; (c) tapping into a current fad, trend, or
event; (d) visual enhancement (a
music video, live performance, or
movie placement); (e) smart
internet marketing; (f) music business connections/relationships; (g) a great production/arrangement.
Average or even mediocre
songs become big hits through all of these factors. Popularity does not make them well-written songs. Just think, that if a not-so-well-written
song is popular and making money, how much more would it make, how much longer
life would it have, and how much more respect would it get if it were actually
As an independent artist,
you are competing with a huge number of other artists who are trying to do
exactly what you are doing.
You don’t have an unlimited corporate budget or inside connections to
turn average songs into hits, so you have just one means of beating the
competition – be a great songwriter.
There are many great musicians, many great performers, many great
producers – but a great songwriter is much more rare, and rarity means value.
View your songs as a
conversation with someone whose interest you want to hold.
Bring your listeners into
your world by putting yourself in their shoes and experiencing your songs from
their perspective. As you look at
what you have written, go line by line and ask "What do we know, and
when do we know it?"
is a Grammy-winning songwrier and was named one of the "Top 50 Innovators, Groundbreakers and Guiding Lights
of the Music Industry" by
Music Connection Magazine. With
more than 30 years in the music business, as a recording artist, songwriter, performer, and educator Bill is well known for his superbly crafted lyrics, with lasting impact. Bill has released 16 CD's , and
is President of the Connecticut Songwriters Association. Bill is an Official Connecticut State
Troubadour, and is the Founder and Executive Director of the LUNCH Ensemble.
Twice named Connecticut Songwriter of the Year, Bill is a qualified MBTI
practitioner, trained by the Association for Psychological Type. He is a member of CMEA and MENC, and as Director of the Connecticut Songwriting Academy,
he helps develop young talent in
songwriting, performing, and learning
about the music business. Bill's
are among the best in the industry.
Bill has a graduate degree in Molecular Biology, an ARC Science teaching
certification, and he has received two awards for Outstanding contribution to
Music Education. The New York
Times calls Bill "the link between science and music".
© Copyright 2012 Bill Pere. All Rights Reserved.
This article may not be reproduced in any way with out permission of the
author. For workshops,
consultation, performances, or
other songwriter services, contact
Bill via his web sites, at http://www.billpere.com,