Go Big, Then Go Small

Songwriting begins with nothing, then you have an idea and suddenly you have… something. It’s a really cool feeling, isn’t it?

But that idea doesn’t make for a whole song; you have to get to work and build something compelling. How to get there from here?

First, Go Big

Start by brainstorming. Think of as many ways as you can, to take your song idea and paint it, story-tell it, grocery-list it. Who might the characters be? Is it about you? Are there other characters needed? Does it have a past, and a future story?

This is a fun part of songwriting – imagining all the places you might go in your finished song. It’s free, it’s without constraints, and anything goes.

Before long, you can choose ideas to build into verses, you can pick the catchy wording to place your song idea into a chorus that comes around again in an oh, so satisfying way. And then you roll up your sleeves and write lines for the bridge of your song, to change the pressure after the first couple of choruses have played.

You keep mining for gold, and before you know it, you have… too many verses. Come on, admit it, you’ve been there. We all have. And no amount of justification will permit you to keep ALL of those verses and still deliver a song that keeps the listener engaged for all seven minutes of glory.

So now comes the hard part: saying “goodbye” to some of those verses.

Now, Get Smaller

Pat Pattison developed the lyric writing curriculum at Berklee College of Music. Read his books; they’re great. When Pat taught the curriculum, he would welcome his new students into the first week of class, and they would spend the first day or two listening to each student’s favourite original song. There would be applause, respect, admiration, and communal joy.

The first homework assignment? Every student was to take that terrific song that they had shared, and remove 25% of the lyrics. Cruelty at its finest.

A funny thing happens when we’re forced to remove a quantity of the lyrics in our songs: we find a level of focus that wasn’t there before. We discover a method of measuring which lines are really doing the work, and which lines are just along for the ride. We notice extra words that really don’t need to be there. And after we’ve mercilessly cut 25% of the lyrics from our song? We find that the song is better than it was before, because the best of the best lines are still there.

It’ll Be Alright

Have no fear, this exercise is not required for every song written. But please believe me, songwriters should try this exercise on all of their works in progress. Both the exercise of hunting for far more lyrics than we’ll need in the song, and the exercise of chiseling away the superfluous lines, will serve us well in our quest to write songs that pull our listeners in and keep them with us until the last chord.

So go BIG, and then once you have BIG, shrink it down to feature the best of what you’ve found.

Happy writing!

(Photo Credit: Pixabay,

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