Welcome to “Between The Rhymes,” a new Songwriter U column powered by SongTown and featured in American Songwriter every other print issue, and monthly on AmericanSongwriter.com.
This column will be helping you learn about words and communication. After all, the basis of a great lyric in ANY genre is communication. You want to paint a word picture that makes the audience FEEL whatever it is you want them to feel. And you want them to understand whatever it is you are trying to say.
I live in Nashville, and much of my success has been in country music, but when I teach lyric writing, I teach communication skills. Becoming a great communicator will help you write better songs in any genre in which you can authentically speak the language.
Country music uses language that often paints a picture of rural life in America. Rap and Pop Music tend to be much more urban and trendy in the words they use. Americana and Bluegrass use more Appalachian themes and often a “throwback” style of writing that talks about themes that were in practice many years ago as opposed to modern times.
But, at the heart of any great song in ANY genre, there was at least one solid communicator that turned a song IDEA into a SONG that connects with an audience.
I like to begin with the fundamentals when I teach and I always start with the idea that each part of a song has a job. Without a clear understanding of this idea, you’ll find your songs containing some very common mistakes. The biggest of those is the second verse that is just a re-written first verse. Go back and look at some of your older songs and you’ll likely find some with this problem. Your second verse is just the first verse idea with different words. It’s hard to make that kind of lyric interesting.
So, here we go! Here’s the way I look at the job of each section of a song.
The job of verse one is to establish characters, context and setting. Without this information, your listener will be lost. You don’t always have to fill in every blank for all three, but you need to give enough information on each for someone to understand your song. For instance, the opening line of “Everybody Wants To Go To Heaven”, which I wrote with Jim Collins and was a #1 for Kenny Chesney, says “Preacher told me last Sunday morning, ‘Son you better start living right’”. In that one line, we established the characters – the preacher and the singer, the setting – a church, and the context – the singer has been a little too wild for the preacher’s taste. Notice, we didn’t SAY that the setting was a church, but that’s where preachers are typically found on Sunday morning, so we didn’t have to spell it out.
In some songs, especially love songs, the setting doesn’t matter at all. The point is to make sure you connect enough of the dots for characters, context and setting so that your song is easy to follow. Think of this as “setting the stage” for the rest of the song.
The job of your chorus is to introduce the big idea or emotion of the song. This is where you really bring home what is MOST important in your song. Every now and then, you might end a verse with your title, but the chorus is still the place where you drive it home. Think of the chorus as the “tada” moment when the listener finds out what this song is about. The chorus is the piece of the song that people will sing along with, so it needs to contain the MOST important ideas and emotions in the song.
The job of verse two is to take the big idea farther. You’ve thrown out this big idea or emotion in your chorus, so verse two needs to take it to another level. My goal for verse two is to give my big idea momentum. I never want to back the listener up or re-hash what I’ve already said, so I work hard to take my big idea and see how much bigger verse two can make it.
If I have a bridge, my goal is always to make the big idea or emotion from my chorus even bigger than verse two did. If I can’t do that, I don’t write a bridge. My first publisher always said “Don’t build a bridge if there’s not a river to cross”. I never have a bridge just because songs are supposed to have a bridge. My bridge has to serve a purpose – making the big idea bigger.
There you have it! Go back to some of your old songs and see if you can improve them by keeping in mind the job each part of the song serves. And, when you write your next song, be conscious of the goal for each section you write. It will make a difference!
Marty Dodson is a seven-time, No. 1 hit songwriter who has had songs recorded in country, rock, pop, bluegrass, K-Pop, J-Pop and musical theatre. His greatest songwriting achievement is knocking Psy out of the #1 spot in South Korea with his song “Bounce”. He co-founded SongTown, the world’s leading songwriter education site, with fellow hit writer Clay Mills and is passionate about teaching people to write better songs. Visit SongTown.com for 10 free videos!