Songwriter U: Expectation, Surprise & Inevitability

The second principle underlying effective narrative development in songwriting is Expectation, Surprise & Inevitability.

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Controlling these parameters can be very useful for focusing attention, sustaining interest, and amplifying emotion. It’s not just the lyric that can do this!

The idea is to set up an expectation, and later fulfill that expectation with an outcome that is both surprising and inevitable; inevitable in the sense that there were no other right choices for that moment.

An expectation of what?

Expectation of a certain type of rhyme:

Somewhere over the rainbow bluebirds fly,
Birds fly over the rainbow, why, oh, why can’t I?

We expect the lyric to (perfect) rhyme; what it rhymes with is a surprise (it’s not about bluebirds or flying, but about stepping out).The thought is inevitable; in context there seems to be no other choice! 

How it rhymes can also be a surprise:

Now’s the time for living life unfettered,
For soon enough a man is old and Cardigan-sweater’d!

A result can be inevitable but not surprising (cliché):

There’s no safer place to land, falling in love together
So baby, take my hand, I want to hold you forever

Expectation of a particular chord change, melodic phrasing or cadence:

Using a chord substitution (6m for 1, 4m for 5, etc.) in place of an expected one introduced earlier can create surprise. Modulation (changing key center) is another way to create surprise, focus attention, and sustain interest.

Melodic syncopation, elongated or shortened phrase length, and uncommon melodic resolution (ending a melodic phrase on the 9th or M7 of the scale, etc.) can produce these effects, as well.

Expectation of conventional song form:

In Nashville, over the past 5+ years or so, the appearance of the Post-Chorus from Pop songwriting is an example of an unconventional song form that can be unexpected and surprising. 

The above changes do not need not be dramatic in order to have an effect. The important thing is that they all seem inevitable.

Keep in mind the unexpected is not to be confused with the surprising. Surprise is most intense where no expectation exists. So you have to be careful with the big “surprise ending” type of song narrative. The “big reveal” can’t be too outside the realm of probability; “What? The whole time it was just a dream? Boo!” These types of songs can lose something after the first time you hear them, like hearing the same joke again. The real art is in the telling.

It always is.

Steve Leslie is a professional songwriter and publisher in Nashville, Tennessee. He teaches songwriting at 

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