Songwriting Part 18 - Sometimes, Shorter is Better

by SaskMusic

July 31, 2009 in Songwriting & Copyright

"Unlike the poet, who by her very nature strives to be inventive and ground breaking, you, the songwriter, have to get in and get out in under four minutes, tell a story that is recognizable over the din, make everything rhyme and scan, and steal the listener's heart."
- David Schindler

What ís one of the most common (and lethal) mistakes a songwriter can make? Overstaying your welcome.

How ís this for spend all this time waiting for inspiration to hit, and when it does, you find the words just flow out. And out. And out. However, just because the words are coming freely, doesn't mean they all belong in your song.

There ís a reason most hit songs are approximately 3.5 minutes long. Listeners have come to expect this as the normal period it takes for a good songwriter to set the mood and groove, tell the story, present a memorable hook and get the heck out. Thatís not to say that a seven-minute song cannot be absolutely wonderful ñ many are. They are able to maintain interest because they move the listener through different phases, whether through lyric or music.

The problem lies with songs that have done the above, and then continue on, even though they have nothing new to say, either lyrically or melodically.

Iím not just talking about editing epics. Perhaps youíve written a song that clocks in at 4 minutes. Perfectly acceptable. But if youíve written three verses that basically state the same thing (verses 2 and 3 donít move the plot along), youíll need to do some rewriting, and/or scrap a verse.

"But it ís important!" Maintaining objectivity while you edit your own song is very difficult, but itís necessary if you want your song to be the best it can. Thatís where having a trustworthy "songwriting buddy" or co-writer becomes useful. You may think itís essential that you mention your dog Buddy in the second verse, but if thereís really no reason for him to be there, out he goes.

Letís say your objective collaborator points out the futility of Buddy. You protest "But, heís the reason I trip and break my leg in verse three!" A-ha! We have discovered the reason for Buddyís existence ñ you probably thought you explained it sufficiently, when you really didnít. Now all you need to do is edit the lyric to properly explain the connection, and you will save your listeners from confusion.

Some of us wonít be getting played on the radio anytime soon, and/or donít particularly care about writing "hit songs." So, you ask, why bother trying to keep it to a radio standard of 3.5? The reason is that length works across the board. The audience has a little more patience at a concert where the rush of live music is working in your favour, but you still have to be careful not to bore them by wanking off an 8-minute solo.

Tips for Editing

1. Look at your lyrics, cross out unnecessary "joiners" like that, but, or, which, 'cause, and, then, baby, because (etc.) Often they're just filler, and can be removed without drastically altering the phrasing of the line. (Or, by removing them, you'll leave some space, or be forced to phrase the lyric differently, which might actually improve it.)

2. Check any lines that end in rhymes, looking for words that you threw in just to make a rhyme. Circle any you find with plans for finding the perfect word later. Keep in mind that your song doesn't have to rhyme. The exception to this is that once youíve established a rhyme scheme, itís a good idea to continue the rhyme scheme for subsequent sections.

3. Next, go through the song section by section and for each, write a summary sentence telling what itís about. Each verse, in particular, should further the story of the song. Even if itís not a "story song" (e.g. The Gambler by Kenny Rogers), each section should impart new information. Are you trying to write a song from two different ideas? Sometimes youíll just have a lot to say about something. Perhaps this can be broken into two separate songs, and youíll have two focused, interesting songs instead of one rambling and confused one.

A song should have a consistent flow of thoughts and time passage. Do you know someone who you dread running into, because they insist on telling stories that go on and on and on and never seem to have any point to them? Thatís what happens in some songs. Thereís no order to the information. Always keep your storyline in mind when considering the structure. It may not be as obvious as "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back," but there should be a plausible order of events. The structure of your song is one of the most important things to get right. Say too much and bore the listener, say too little and leave them confused.

Your chorus, if you have one, should sum up the emotion and central idea of the song. If you try to introduce a new concept in the chorus, it may feel disjointed.

If your song is monotonous, aside from an obvious rewrite like a new chord progression, a bridge might be the solution. Your bridge is where you can introduce a new idea, flow briefly into another key or subtly different mood, and make the return back to the chorus "extra rewarding."

Donít be a slave to your usual format. If your verse melody is engaging, has a natural climax, and wants to lead into another verse, maybe you donít need a chorus. Maybe a bridge, with a perfect little instrumental break between verses, is all it needs to be complete.
- from "Honing Through Rewriting", August 1999 Session

Here ís an example.

I Would've Loved You Anyway
Written by Mary Danna/Troy Verges, released by Trisha Yearwood
(c) 2001 dannasongs/Ensign Music Corporation/Songs of Universal, Inc.-BMI

If I'd've known the way that this would end
If I'd've read the last page first
If I'd've had the strength to walk away
If I'd've known the way that this would hurt

I would've loved you anyway
I'd do it all the same
Not a second I would change
Not a touch that I would trade
Had I known my heart would break
I would've loved you anyway

It ís bittersweet to look back now
At memories withered on the vine
Just to hold you close to me
For a moment in time


And even if I'd seen it coming
You'd still've seen me running
Straight into your arms


Verse 1: Setting up the chorus in a list format. Things she ís considering in hindsight. Note the rhyme on lines 2 and 4. Imagine how awkward the lines wouldíve been if the lyric was "If I would have..."
Chorus: The payoff! Despite everything, she wouldnít have changed her actions.
Verse 2: More looking back, but new ideas. Still rhyming lines 2 and 4.
(Chorus repeats)
Bridge: Reinforcing the chorus statement. Also answers the "ifs" of verse 1.
(Chorus repeats)

4. Circle any words that you've repeated within the song. (i.e. Youíve said "confused" in verse 1, and again in verse 3.) One of them should be changed. If youíve used "confused" in two different verses, this is also a good indication that youíre repeating your thoughts, and should rewrite that part anyway. (Of course, the exceptions would be if youíre writing a "list" song, or are deliberately repeating a word for emphasis.)

5. Cross out any lines that donít further the plot. If you really like the way youíve written them, put them aside...maybe you can use them in a future song, where they will further the plot. The exception: you can get away with lines that donít go anywhere if you have a particularly beautiful or interesting melody line (but even this may not hold the listenerís attention if it remains stagnant from verse to verse).

Here ís an example of a very "descriptive" song. Thereís a lot of imagery in this piece. Sometimes songs with a lot of descriptive words are pretty, but the descriptors donít further the song. Here, each line reveals a little more about the character ñ the woman with Bette Davis eyes. The song is essentially a character study.

Bette Davis Eyes
Written by Donna Weiss/ Jackie DeShannon, released by Kim Carnes
Plain and Simple Music (ASCAP)/Donna Weiss Music (BMI)

Her hair is Harlow gold, her lips sweet surprise
Her hands are never cold
She's got Bette Davis eyes
She'll turn her music on - you won't have to think twice
She's pure as New York snow
She's got Bette Davis eyes

And she'll tease you; sheíll unease you
All the better just to please you
She's precocious
And she knows just what it takes to make a pro blush
She got Greta Garbo stand off sighs, she's got Bette Davis eyes

She'll let you take her home; it whets her appetite
She'll lay you on her throne
She got Bette Davis eyes
She'll take a tumble on you - roll you like you were dice
Until you come out blue
She's got Bette Davis eyes

She'll expose you when she snows you
Off your feet with the crumbs she throws you
She's ferocious
And she knows just what it takes to make a pro blush
All the boys think she's a spy, sheís got Bette Davis eyes

And she'll tease you; she'll unease you
All the better just to please you
She's precocious
And she knows just what it takes to make a pro blush
All the boys think sheís a spy, sheís got Bette Davis eyes

Also note in the second section, they seem to have rhymed "you" with "you". This works because they've internally rhymed "tease", "unease" and "please".

6. How long is the intro? Short and sweet is always better. Introduce the hook, or a "teaser" of the hook. The "30 second rule" still applies. For example, a sampling of recent "hit songs" shows an intro length of 10-30 seconds (averaging around 15), with the chorus hitting at somewhere between 40 seconds-1:10. Generally, the hook is introduced fully or partially within this time.

7. Is there a bridge or solo? Does it serve a purpose? A bridge generally acts to present new information or a plot twist, or to cause a musical diversion to break the monotony of the verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure. A solo also should increase the intensity or momentum of the song. Donít just throw them in because you think you should.

8. What ís the title? If youíre having trouble deciding, this is a good indication of lack of focus. If youíre coming up with a title (or hook line) that doesnít match the overall theme of the song, you may have some rewriting to do!

9. Know when the song is finished. Some songs come to a natural conclusion, and then for some reason the writer feels they must double the chorus, throw on a solo and another chorus, or repeat the first verse...Take a good look at your reasoning for this. If itís because you feel you need to repeat the hook, you probably havenít established it well enough in the first three minutes. The end of a song is NOT the place to introduce a hook ñ itís the place to reinforce it.

10. Always leave them wanting more. Hopefully when your song is done, theyíll want to hear it again. And again.

Have you ever gone to a movie that just seemed to go on and on? Maybe it only ran for 90 minutes, but you were bored at the forty minute mark. The plot was not giving you enough new information to pique your interest. Even with beautiful cinematography and other tricks, it comes down to the meat of the plot.

So next time you have a song thatís "just not working", donít throw it away ñ edit it! Figure out the point of your song, and focus on that. If you are having trouble editing your own stuff objectively, find a co-writing partner. There ís always ways to improve!

By Lorena Kelly for SaskMusic. Originally published December 2001/January 2002..

These archive versions of The Session Feature Articles are posted as initially published. Deadlines, contacts and links have not been updated. Please keep this in mind when using this resource. In some cases, updates can be found in a more recent editions of The Session.