Writing in the Key of W
By Bill Pere - 04/27/2005 - 03:30 PM EDT
Songwriters often express that the most difficult part of songwriting for them is coming up with a really good lyric...one that says what they want in a new and memorable way and which reaches and touches a diversity of listeners. In several surveys over the last 10 years, lyrics were cited by 1 out of 3 songwriters as their #1 area needing improvement.
A large part of the difficulty is in finding the balance points between specificity vs. blandness, and imagery vs. vagueness. It is not easy to be very specific yet colorful, and to get a clear message across memorably in three minutes. Cleverness with words is important, but is not enough by itself. It takes more than that to provide the substance. There are some general principles which, if followed, can make you more aware of the clarity of your lyric. One key principle is “writing in the key of “W”. When you think you are done with a lyric, ask these things:
Who, What, When, Where, Why, hoW.... By the end of your lyric, have all of these things been conveyed clearly to a listener? Who is singing? To whom are they singing? Are any third parties being referred to? What is happening? What does each verb and each noun refer to? When is the action occurring (day/night/present/past/future/what century)? Where is this taking place (in a home, in a bar, in Cleveland, in my mind, underwater)? Why are the characters saying and doing what they do? Why do they feel as they do? Why are they motivated to take those actions? How did things get to be this way? How will they be resolved? How does each character feel?
If you do not know the answer to any of these questions, you may have to do some re-thinking about your lyric. It is perfectly reasonable to conclude that for a particular lyric, it doesn’t matter at all to know where it is happening or when it is happening. However, that is not the same as not knowing the answer. If you consciously conclude that some of the above are not critical to your message, then the answer is “any time” or “anywhere”. The thing to avoid at all costs is creating confusion by not being specific when it does matter, or by leading the listener to believe that it matters. When there is any doubt, err on the side of specificity rather than vagueness. (that why using "this" and "that" , where feasible, is preferable to the less specific "the" and the even less specific "a" )
As an exercise for yourself, look at some of your lyrics and see how many of the W’s can you answer in the first verse? Here’s an example from the first verse of a song about the great showman P.T. Barnum:
Town of Bridgeport, nineteenth century time (where and when)
Phineas T. Barnum was making the headlines (who and what)
With the voice of Jenny Lind, and General Tom Thumb (How he was making headlines)
He’d set up the events and watch the crowds of people come”
This is an example of straight expository writing... a series of facts. Very specific, but not necessarily colorful or exciting. However, this kind of writing has its place when you look at TV theme songs (Gilligan’s Island, Beverly Hillbillies, Brady Bunch ... all the facts about the premise of the show are there in less than two minutes). For writers aiming for film/TV placements, this is a valuable skill.
Let’s have a look at another example from Harry Chapin’s “Dance Band on the Titanic”
“Mama stood cryin’ by the dockside
She said ‘Please son, don’t take this trip’
I said ‘Momma, sweet Momma, don’t you worry none,
Even God couldn’t sink this ship’...”
What do we know from just these four lines? A mother is standing at the dock as her son is about to depart on a ship. She is worried. He loves her, and he is confident about the success of his upcoming trip. Thus we know who (mother and son, the latter of whom is the singer), where (dockside), when (departure time), and how they feel.
The effectiveness of lyrics like these come not only from the specificity of the W’s, but also because it employs another of the important principles of a good lyric... “Show it, don’t tell it!”
To say “He smiled” is specific, but not colorful. To say “The corners of his mouth were looking up” conveys the same information by showing an action.
“I’m lonely” can become “the bed’s too big without you”.
“I talk on the phone a lot” can become “This phone’s growing into my ear”.
The next lines of the above song instead of saying “the ship sailed” say
“the whistle blew, they turned the screws, it churned the water into foam...”
A great deal of information can be conveyed in the first few lines of a song, freeing up the rest of your valuable syllable-space for developing your ideas or painting your images. Consider this opening couplet:
“I slip out the back door in the dead heat of summer
The city streets swelter, the sweat turns to steam...”
What do we know? Where (city) and When (summer), we know it’s very hot, and that the singer (Who) is engaged in a secretive activity. Here’s another:
“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”
What do we know? In these Neil Diamond lines, (which also contain 6 rhymes, 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.
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 rent videos, go to movies, and watch TV, it makes for effective lyric writing.
Thinking of your songs visually is a powerful means of developing effective lyrics. Sometimes, you can “see” the whole song before you even have any words, and your lyrics can then be a matter of describing what you “see”. If you hear a song and can’t form a specific picture, go back and look at every noun in the lyric. How many of them are concrete things you can see and touch (moon, chair, table, book, beer), and how many are intangible (happiness, loneliness, truth, beauty). If there are no concrete references in your lyric, it will be difficult for you or a listener to form a picture, (let alone the same picture) and you cannot answer the W’s. I have seen lyrics presented at workshops that contain 20-30 nouns, but not one single concrete reference, and the typical audience feedback is that they are “confused”. Specificity takes practice, but can yield big rewards in the way you touch your listeners.
When you look at really well written songs, it is striking how much of the 6W information is contained in the first few lines of the song. Since a listener has to be "grabbed" typically within the first 30 seconds, quickly creating a sense of the characters, the time, and the place is a great way to bring the listener in. That would be the Who-Where-When approach. Alternatively, some songs focus on the What or Why first by setting up a situation, and then providing additional information in the chorus or throughout the song leading up to some major impact at the end. Either way works. When a lyric goes through an entire verse and chorus and we still have no sense of time, place, situation or characters, then the song is in danger of falling into the abyss of vagueness.
Here are some additional examples of opening lines which show good Writing in the Key of W.:
It was an early morning bar room, the place just opened up
A little man came in so fast and started at his cups
(Harry Chapin, "A better Place to Be")
This opening couplet gives you a quick sense of Where (barroom), When (morning) and Who (little man)
It was just after dark when the truck started down
the hill that leads into Scranton Pennsylvania
carrying 30,000 pounds of bananas (Harry Chapin, "30,000 Pounds of Bananas" )
This non-enjambed opening line gives you details about When (just after dark), Where, (a hill in Sranton PA) and What (a truck carrying bananas). The next line of the song provides the Who ("He was a young driver, just out on his second job").
Riding on the City of New Orleans, Illinois Central Monday morning rail
Sixteen cars, sixteen resless riders, Three conductors, twenty-five sacks of mail.
(Arlo Guthrie "The City of New Orleans")
That is a very detailed look at Where (on the train called the City of New Orleans"), When (Monday morning), Who (the singer is a rider, and there are also passengers and conductors)
Then there are those opening lines which not only over the Who, Where, and When, but also provide lots of information and insight about a past or present situation and/or the characters' feelings/motivations.
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 (A.J. Gundell, " Harry and Joe" )
These few line convey a tremendous amount of information - -there are four people, two men, two women. The men are Harry and Joe. They are two elderly couples, retired and moving south, probably to Florida. The two women die unexpectedly. This is excellent story telling.
My grandfather was a sailor, he blew in off the water
My father was a farmer, and I his only daughter
I married a mill working man from Massachusettes
Who died from too much whiskey and left me these three faces to feed
(James Taylor "Millworker")
In these four simple lines, time spans four generations, we meet seven people, learn something about them, know that we are probably in New England, and gain an understanding of the singer's current life situation. Not only do the lines convey all that information, but they are also very lyrical in that they have natural rhythm, a rhymed couplet, and they use extensive alliteration. Blending information and poetry is a hallmark of a consummate craftsperson.
My head leaves the pillow, she knows I'm awake
She calls from the kitchen as I smell the cake
She knows I'll be leaving, she knows I can't stay
But I'm thirty years old Mom, today
(Randy Edelman "Thirty Years Old, Mom")
We have the Who (a mother and her son, who is the singer), When (morning, the singer's 30th birthday), Where, (in the bedroom of the singer's home), and What (an adult needs to leave a doting mother)
Now it's seven past midnight on this back street, West L.A.
Seems like the end of the road, got my yearbook today.
(Bill Pere "MostLikely to Succeeed")
When (12:07 am, near the end of a school year), Where (a back street in west Los Angeles) Who (the singer is a student) and What (something is nearing an end). The rest of the verse further develops the What.
It's nine o'clock on a Saturday, the regular crowd shuffles in
There's an old man sittin' next to me makin' love to his tonic and gin
(Billy Joel "Piano Man")
The When is as specific as can be, the Where is a bar, the Who is a bunch of folks in the bar including the singer, but we don't yet know he is the piano player - that tidbit leads off the chorus. This is a good example of giving lots of good information up front, but saving some for later to keep the interest up. Through the rest of the song, other characters are introduced. A similar use of unfolding information can be seen in John Mellencamp's "Jack and Diane" -- we get Who and What early on, and by the end of the song, all the other elements are filled in, with lots of concrete detail.
Sometimes a writer might feel 'boxed in' by the need to address the W's. There is actually a great deal of flexibility in how to do this. Think of all the different techniques that are used in writing stories or presenting movies. It is not always necessary to establish the singer's currenttime, place, situation, etc. The singer can be an unknown person in an unknown place and time singing ABOUT something concrete -- see the examples below. Remember, all the listener needs is SOME means of concretely anchoring people and places and situations. There are many ways to do that. The thing to avoid is the complete absence of any concrete anchors.
In the opening couplet below from Suzanne Vega, note how "Where" is treated -- we actually don't know where the characters are during the song, but we get a sense of place because they are talking about a specific place. Thus, it is not necessary that any of the W's refer to the current scenario -- the song can provide that anchoring sense of time/place by having the characters refer to a specific time or place different from where they might be at the moment.
My name is Luka, I live on the second floor
I live upstairs from you, yes I think you've seen me before
(Suzanne Vega, "Luka" )
Who (Luka who is the singer, and someone who lives in the same building, on a floor below), Where (probably an apartment building of some type -- note that the conversation may not be occurring there, but that is where they are speaking about, which gives us a concrete reference)
Or this example:
First line first verse: " I was a car-hop you worked at the bee-bop "
First line chorus " Sixty-five love affiar "
(Paul Davis "Sixty-Five Love Affair" )
Here, we don’t know what the current time is or where the singer currently is, but they are singing about a specific time/place/situation. sometime in their past.
As a writing exercise, take some songs you consider to be well written and look at the Who, What Where, When, Why and How of the first few lines. See how much information is conveyed. If it is not presented up front, then how does it unfold in the song and what techniques are used to keep the listener interested ? Look at songs which you find confusing and do the same. You'll probably see a striking difference. The Who, Where, and When pieces lend themselved to straightforward concrete description, and the Why, What, and How deal with the abstract elements (motivations relationships, and events) which may have to be conveyed through "show, don't tell", and/or use of metaphors. If any of the 6 W's are absent, is it okay to have that piece missing ? Asking the right questions of yourself about the 6 W's will help your song be a Winner !
Bill Pere, President of the Connecticut Songwriters Association is a recording artist, award winning songwriter, performer, and educator well known for his superbly crafted lyrics, with lasting impact. Bill has released 14 CD's , and teaches songwriting workshops . Bill is an Official Connecticut State Troubadour, the 2003 IMC Indie Artist of the Year, and is the Founder and Executive Director of the LUNCH Ensemble (www.lunchensemble.com). Twice named Connecticut Songwriter of the Year, Bill is MBTI qualified, a member of CMEA and MENC, and helps develop young talent in songwriting, performing, and learning about the music business.
©2005 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 www.billpere.com.
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