Lyrically Speaking: Putting “Nothing” Together

Last issue we looked at how Bruno Major, in his song “Nothing,” created his characters by using specific, sense-bound images. In this issue, I want to take a look at how he put “Nothing” together. Specifically, his use of rhyme scheme and line length, which, though they appear repetitive and straightforward, conspire to pack a real emotional punch as the song evolves.

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Here’s the first section, with rhyme scheme (rs), and line lengths (ll), counted in stressed syllables:

*I’ve notated the last 2 lines with b rather than a because that’s how he treats those lines throughout the song.

“Nothing” transfers from the verse to the pre-chorus + refrain by moving from the four-stress (tetrameter) lines (Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe) to Common Meter (Mary had a Little Lamb) – both in triple meter since the song is in ¾ time. (Check out chapters 14 through 17 in Writing Better Lyrics.)

Equal length lines balance and create stability. Unequal length lines make you move. The first line of the pre-chorus is four stresses, the second shortens to three stresses, suggesting our old friend, Common Meter, which would require a four-stress line next. Then we get our first surprise: a shorter, three-stress refrain:

But there’s nóthing like doing nóthing with yóu b 3

The section ends the 16-bar sequence (in ¾ time) with three bars of rest. It feels a bit like it’s out there floating, expecting a fourth stress … 

Verse 2, same game:

Again, two 16-bar sequences, the same rhyme scheme, and line lengths.

Next comes what sounds like a bridge, which, surprisingly, has the same line length and rhyme scheme as the verses. The musical lift makes it feel bridge-like, but the lyric structure continues to drive home the consecutive rhymes and line lengths we’ve seen before:

And at last, the final verse:

After three sections that rhyme all four lines, roof breaks the pattern. It feels unrhymed and, since we expected an eel rhyme, leaves us hanging. It’s also a stress short. But watch it resolve. It has targeted the refrain, rhyming with you:

Another little surprise, this time musical: Though the first two lines duplicate the verse chords and melody, line three, 

But tonight your apartment had so much appeal e 4

is musically the first line of the refrain, a surprising move, again, disturbing our expectations and creating movement. It works as a pivot line: Its length and rhyme attachment to the first two lines say it’s a part of a four-line, four-stress rhymed structure, something we’ve seen four times already, so expectations are high. But the chords and melody say it’s beginning the pre-chorus. The next line,

Who needs stárs? We’ve gót a róof b 3

is the three-stress line of Common Meter, confirming the modulation into the pre-chorus. Pretty nifty.

There’s another lovely wrinkle here:

Who needs stárs? We’ve gót a róof b 3

completes the 16-bar cycle that encloses each of the song’s sections (go ahead and count; I’ll wait …), leaving the refrain,

And there’s nóthing like doing nóthing with yóu b 3

hanging eight bars over. It actually needs a repetition to bring us to the satisfying 16-bar conclusion. With the final repetition, we exhale and smile.

Expectation then surprise always creates spotlights. In “Nothing,” what seems like a simple and predictable pattern ends up creating a strong and emotional conclusion. I don’t usually recommend continuous repetition of rhyme scheme and line length, but here it works well. It feels calm and stable, and it’s kinda like doing nothing—until it surprises us at just the right time.

Remember, motion creates e-motion.  How you make your lyric structure move, all by itself, creates feeling. Pay attention, and write fearlessly. 

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