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What Did We Know and When Did We Know It?
By Bill Pere - 11/06/2011 - 06:37 PM EST

"What 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.

Communication 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? 

The same 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.

In general, 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.

Consider each 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 information. 

There are 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.

Information 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.

When I 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 Joe

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 know?"

Harry and Joe went South with their wives

(There are 4 people, two married couples, who are traveling or relocating)

 enjoying the 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

(Something 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.

How about this gem of opening lines from "Skin", by Joe Henry and Doug Johnson:

SaraBeth is scared to death to hear what the doctor will say

She hasn't been well since the day that she fell, and the bruise, it just won't go away…"

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.

Getting all 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.

Just follow 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.

Words like 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).

Here's 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.

Here's 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

Move up 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)

It's 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 Taylor’s "Millworker":

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 to feed.

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.

Contrast 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 "they".  Three 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. No connection.

Another example of words with no connection:

I sit in our place thinking of then

Now is now and I know the truth

I should have seen what they tried to say

But it was what it was that day

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 line 4.

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' "Independence Day",    "Concrete Angel"  by Rob Crosby and Stephanie Bentley, or the above-mentioned songs  "Skin" and "Me and Emily".

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 well-written too?

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?"

Bill Pere 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 song analyses and critiques 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,, and

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