Songwriting

Don’t Be Afraid to Commit!

Are you committed?  Should you be committed?

This morning I was at the piano, playing a song I had written some time ago.  This was a song I really enjoyed writing, and I felt that, by writing it, I had accomplished something special.  However, time reveals the cracks and the flaws, and I had a rare opportunity to step back and stare at this song from a distance.  What am I trying to say?  Who are these characters in the song, and what do they want?  As I realized that I had been far too soft on answering these questions consistently, a glaring truth stared back at me – I HAD FAILED TO COMMIT.

Does this situation sound familiar?  Can you actually hear those voices saying things like “leave it up to your listener to decide”, or maybe “it’s more universal this way”.  STOP LISTENING TO THOSE VOICES, AND DON’T YOU DARE LET THOSE WORDS PASS BY YOUR OWN LIPS!  This is our all-too-human tendency to resort to justification (“it’s good enough, because lots of songs are vague”), to confirmation bias (“see, I found someone who understands it”), to lazy songwriting!  (There, I said it.)

The consequence of leaving too much up to the listener’s guesswork is this – we can’t possibly evoke our desired emotional response in our listeners.  Sure, it’s possible that someone will “get it”, but that’s thanks to a lengthy introduction to the song (or a blog post about it) lending a helping hand to their understanding of the song.  Either way, their reaction isn’t going to be as strong as it could be.

So here’s what I did.  I took a look at my song, as a whole, and asked myself to COMMIT.  What do my characters want?  What do I need to know about them in order to respond properly to their situation?  Then, I looked at the storytelling throughout the song.

  • Am I telling enough story, for you to understand the characters? If not, or if I’m waiting too long to get to the point, I need to work on my verses.
  • Is it clear to the listener, what my characters are trying to achieve? Is it consistent?
    (Please, songwriters, avoid one verse saying “it’s over”, followed by a chorus that says “I want you back”.  PLEASE!!!)  My song must have a single, consistent goal.  Either I want to party with you, or I don’t, it’s time to make up my mind.
  • Here’s an easy one – does a word, or a line, in my lyric, mention unimportant details, or mention something that is CONTRARY to the point of the song? Those words/lines must go!
  • Have I used the best POV (point of view) to tell this story? Maybe I should switch from first person (I/me) to third person (he/she/they), or vice-versa.
  • Can I imagine introducing the song, on-stage, to prepare my audience for the song, without telling a single clue about the contents of the song? If the song needs me to tell the audience, in advance, anything about the characters or the story in the song, SOMETHING IS MISSING FROM MY SONG.

This exercise can become really uncomfortable for a songwriter, for a few reasons:

  • I might become vulnerable
  • I might get judged
  • I might get listeners challenging me, asking me WHY I made the choices I did

As for being vulnerable, there is absolutely no downside to this, as a songwriter.  As humans, our audience will only see this as an honest attempt to talk about something important.

As for being judged, well, here’s a newsflash: we’re already being judged, and the more we are judged, the more we have made an impact on somebody’s life, which is the best result we could have as songwriters.

As for listeners asking WHY we made the choices we did, I’ll again refer to my last point, and say that this is an indication that we’ve made a connection with the audience, and raised a response within them.  How can that be a bad thing?  Aren’t we confident in the reasons that compelled us to write a song?

When we’re writing and rewriting songs, we can choose one of two paths:  we can COMMIT, and gain a much better chance at having a deeper connection with our listener’s emotions, or we can keep it “universal”, and gain a much better chance at our audience looking at their watches while they wait for the song to be over.  THE CHOICE IS YOURS, AND MINE.  Let’s make our songs worth the time we spend writing them, and worth our listeners’ time.

Write On!

Songwriting

Does my song have to rhyme?

Rhyme is an essential ingredient to songwriting; there’s no doubt about it.  Rhyme is used to define the structure of your song, draw attention to key messages in your lyric, and provide pleasure to the brain in much the same way as a piece of candy on the tongue.  Because our brains understand rhyme innately, we as songwriters can use it in our pursuit of triggering an emotional response in a listener.

Rhyme and Structure

In our quest to lead a listener through our song, it is crucial to help them understand the roadmap of the song, as the song winds through verses, choruses, bridges, etc.  A truly effective way of using rhyme in this pursuit is to write different rhyme patterns (rhyme schemes) into each section of your song.  For example, if your first verse rhymes line 1 and 2, and then rhymes lines 3 and 4, it will be very useful to use a different rhyme scheme in your chorus – say rhyming lines 2 and 4, but having no rhymes involving lines 1 and 3.  It will then be most effective for you to use the same rhyme scheme in every verse, and use the same rhyme scheme in every chorus.  The listener’s brain will use these clues (among many other clues that you’ll employ) to distinguish the verse from the chorus.

Rhyme and “Spotlight” Positions

Once your listener understands the rhyme schemes, they will anticipate the rhyme resolutions as the song unfolds.  It is with great pleasure that a brain experiences an anticipated rhyme resolution, and this can be leveraged to spotlight important words and messages in your song.  It is because of this phenomenon that the lyric line which resolves a rhyme will naturally solicit greater attention from your listener’s brain – a strong place to write an important word or message for greater impact.

Non-Rhymes

Does this mean that rhyming is mandatory?  Of course not, but it does mean that your choice of how and when to rhyme, as well as when to avoid rhyming, will have an impact on the way your listener responds to your song.  A song (or section of a song) with no rhymes at all will have a markedly different impact on your listener than one with a pattern of rhymes.  And that might be exactly the impact you want it to have, to match the intention of your song.

Rhyme Frequency

Your choice of rhyme scheme will also have an impact on whether or not your song feels like it moves quickly or slowly.  Too many rhymed resolutions in a section will make that section feel as if it moves slowly, and runs the risk of losing the listener’s attention.  Short lines with rhymed endings can be used for the opposite effect – accelerating the song towards an important moment.

Rhyme Strength

This is where the game gets tricky.  The strength of your rhyme resolution has a huge impact on its effect on your listener.  A Perfect Rhyme, matching both the ending vowel and consonant sounds in your paired words, has a different impact than a Near Rhyme (or Family Rhyme), where the vowel sounds are the same but the consonant sounds are close but not matching, and the rhyme strength is even weaker when the consonant sounds match but the vowel sounds do not (Consonant Rhyme).  The strength of your rhyme is directly related to how “satisfied” your listener’s brain will feel about the rhyme.  A Perfect Rhyme will leave your listener feeling settled and satisfied.  A non-rhyme (as imperfect as rhymes come) will leave your listener feeling unsettled and unsatisfied.  Suddenly a songwriting tool emerges – we can use rhyme schemes and rhyme strength to support the emotional response that we’re trying to trigger in our listener!  If I want the listener to feel an emotion that is more “settled”, “satisfied”, “feel-good”, then I’ll have a better chance of evoking that response if I use rhymes that support that feeling.  Conversely, if I’m interested in making my listener feel an emotion that is more “unsettled” or “unresolved”, I’ll have a better chance of evoking that response with fewer and weaker rhyme resolutions, or no rhymes at all.

Wait A Minute…

This is NOT to say that rhymes hold all the power in songwriting.  There are many other tools at our disposal when writing a song – melodic range and rhythm, harmonic shape, groove, tempo, and many other properties of the lyrics themselves – and each of them has the potential to help us or prevent us from evoking the intended response in our listeners.

Keep it Fresh

Now that we have a sense of the power of rhyming in our songwriting, it’s crucial to do everything we can to AVOID getting cliché with our rhymes (forget EVER rhyming Moon and June in your songs unless you write a TRULY clever lyric which surprises us).  Expand your search for rhyming words to include Near Rhymes, and you’ll likely find a fresh way to say what you want.  NEVER write for the rhyme itself – choosing a crappy word that doesn’t help your song, just for the sake of the rhyme, is lazy songwriting and will hurt your song’s ability to reach your listener.

Now Forget About Everything I Said Above

The last thing I want to do is paralyze your songwriting muscles by telling you that you must engineer your song for optimal rhyming.  It’s a fun exercise to think about these things upfront (and the seasoned writers will do this instinctively), but more likely you’ll want to use these ideas as you EDIT and REWRITE your songs – because you do edit and rewrite your songs, right?  Right?  Just say “yes”.  The ideas above are meant to help you examine your songs to make sure that you’re getting the most out of your rhymes.

Write On!

Songwriting

A Song Is Like A Movie Monologue

Songwriting has much in common with script writing:  the impact of dialect, the pacing of story evolution, the search for relatable story and character elements, the desired emotional responses from the audience.  The difference – songwriters distill only a single moment into a song.

Consider a scene from your favourite movie in which one character bursts into monologue, expressing him/herself to another, finally saying how they feel after keeping it inside for too long.  This character could be expressing undying love, fiery anger, blinding confusion, unbearable sadness, or one of a multitude of other emotions.  Take a close look at the wording of that monologue.  It will describe a list of observations – events/experiences that have led to this moment – that contribute to a single emotional response from the speaker.  And although the monologue will eventually describe the emotion which has overcome the speaker, it probably doesn’t even need to do so, because as a member of the audience, you’re very likely already feeling that same emotion.  It doesn’t matter whether or not you agree with the character’s “right” to feel the way they do; what matters is that you understand the emotion.

That moment, that emotional response to a series of events, is the reason we choose to write a song, and we could learn a lot by approaching the song in the exact way we might write that movie monologue:

  • We want to communicate how we feel to another human being, in a convincing argument
  • In order to do that, we must list the important reasons for feeling this way
  • We want to keep entirely within this one emotion
  • We want the audience to relate to us, to feel the emotion from their own experience

Keep these ideas in mind when you write your next song.  Use observations that will resonate with your audience.  Tell a story of how this moment came into existence.  Seek a single, describable, emotional response from your audience.  When you’re done, examine your song to see if it delivers in the same way as your favourite movie monologue.

I’ll bring the popcorn!