Songwriter U: Lyrically Speaking, Set Great Expectations

I really wanted a puppy for Christmas. My folks knew it, I knew they knew it, and they knew I knew they knew it. My expectations ran high, but it was up to them: they could launch me to the heights of 10-year-old ecstasy, or dump me down the well of no-one-understands-me. They had all the power. What would I find under the tree Christmas morning…

You, as a songwriter, have that power too. The question is, how will you use it, and how well?

You create expectations all the time. In your chord progressions, your melodies, your number of phrases, phrase lengths, rhythms, and rhyme schemes. You use it to entice your listeners, to take them on a journey of expectation and resolution. This issue, I want to take a look at one of the uses of vowel sounds to create, and then resolve, expectation. It’s a technique I call sonic targeting. Look at this from Foy Vance’s “She Burns”:

Pre-chorus
I’ve frozen over my desires
Covered up in virgin snow
But when I stand beside her

Chorus
She burns, yeah, she burns
Like petrol soaked paper and fireworks
And I’m burning, I’m burning
I’m burning so deep that just breathing hurts
I’m melting and I can’t let go

The pre-chorus creates an aba sequence:

desires a
snow b
beside her a

You can feel snow waving its arms asking for a puppy, a companion to satisfy its need for a match. But the pre-chorus finishes without the long-o sound. Then look what happens in the second line of the chorus:

She burns, yeah, she burns
Like petrol soaked paper and fireworks

And I’m burning, I’m burning
I’m burning so deep that just breathing hurts
I’m melting and I can’t let go

The long-o of soaked gets a little boost, a little extra attention because it satisfies the expectation created by the aba of the pre-chorus. The long-o targets the word soaked, turning on extra spotlights. Targeting is a spotlighting technique. Note, too, the chorus ends with the same long-o sound.

Or this use by The Cars of an unstable pre-chorus targeting the long-i sound in the chorus:

oh baby just one more time to touch you 
just one more time to tell you 
you’re on my mind 
baby, why can’t I have you? 
you’re breakin’ my heart in two 
you know what I’m goin’ through 
oh baby, why can’t I have you? 

There are three techniques at work here: an odd number of lines asking for a resolving fourth line; a shorter third line asking for more length; and three long-i sounds (time/time/mind) asking for a fourth long-i sound. In combination, they target the long-i of Why and I in the first line of the chorus, turning on the spotlights and creating an extra level of focus and emotion.

You can be very intentional with the expectations this tool creates. Let’s play a bit with a John Legend pre-chorus from his lovely “One Life.”  Here’s the actual:

Oh, if you don’t mind
Closing your eyes
Just give me your time
‘Cause you’ve got all mine

We’ve got one life…

As it is, there’s really no targeting because the balanced pre-chorus doesn’t create an expectation either in number of lines or vowel sounds. But try it with a 3-line unstable pre-chorus:

Oh, if you don’t mind
Closing your eyes
Just give me your time

We’ve got one life

The 3-line sequence unbalances and  “We’ve got one life” balances both an even number of lines and an even number of long-i sounds.

You could also use the 3-line sequence to create an aba. And, because your chorus contains your most important words (and sounds), you could work backwards: what word do you want to target?  Let’s say, in the first chorus, you wanted to emphasize that we’ve got only ONE life. Then use the short-u sound in the b position:

Oh, if you don’t mind

Just for fun
Closing your eyes

We’ve got one life

The aba creates a desire for rhyme. Similarly, if you want to emphasize you and me – we, then use a long-e in the b position:

Oh, if you don’t mind
Don’t look at me
Close your eyes

We’ve got one life

The principle behind targeting is expectation: a sound that expects to be rhymed and isn’t:

O I don’t care
No I don’t mind
Look anywhere
We’ve got one life

As you can see, targeting is a terrific tool in the pre-chorus world we now inhabit. But it can also work, moving from verse to chorus using a 4-line deceptive cadence:

O I don’t care
No I don’t mind
Look anywhere
And I’ll be there 
We’ve got one life

Or 

O I don’t care
Just trust in me
Look anywhere
And I’ll be there
We’ve got one life

Or

O I don’t care
This means a lot
Look anywhere
And I’ll be there
We’ve got one life

For fun, here’s an exercise to try. Use the title

“I Slipped and Fell in Love”

Write an aba pre-chorus that targets the short-i vowel sound in slipped. Then, write a pre-chorus that targets fell. 

The more compositional you are with the sonic aspects of your writing, the better you will be at creating and managing expectations – and the better your songs will be. You never know what you’ll find under the Christmas tree.

Photo by Calum MacAulay on Unsplash

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