Songwriting Part 4 - Keeping Your Songs on Track

by SaskMusic

July 30, 2009 in Songwriting & Copyright

Someone said that for every 100 songs you write, you get one good one. More fittingly, the first 100 represent your learning curve. Like any other skill, songwriting must be practiced sufficiently before you excel at it. After those first 100 or so, your rookie period has been served and your ratio of good:bad will improve…you’ve learnt the craft.

There are those songs that just seem to write themselves…and if you're anything like me, you don't like messing with them. So this article addresses the other 99% that are sweated out and need a little editing to reach their potential.

Think of your song as a train (a hokey metaphor, but bear with me). Your goal is to keep the train running smoothly on the track, all the way to the destination. The cars of the train are your verses, choruses and ideas. If you remove the connectors between two of the cars, all the cars that follow will grind to a halt. So the moral is: Forgetting one crucial detail can derail an entire song.

"Keeping your train on track" sounds simple enough, but you have to be very careful to keep your focus when writing. Often a great idea will pop into your head, that you then feel obligated to use even if it doesn’t belong in that particular song. Knowing what to include - and what to set aside for a different song - will keep your train together so it can carry your listeners' interest all the way to the end.


Your music should match the lyrics or vice versa. (This does not necessarily mean using a major key for a happy song - contrast can be beautiful!).
We each have a personal directory of songs that mean something special to us. A song that’s in the right place at the right time and empathizes with the way we feel will ALWAYS be one of our favourites. Writing from the heart is the surest way to convey emotion.

What are you really trying to say? Repeat key ideas, such as the title phrase in your chorus, but don’t re-use "words" throughout the song because you feel lazy (baby, maybe, crazy).

A song is a short story. You need to know your characters before you can write convincingly about them. What do they look like? What makes them tick? What are their hobbies? How do they dress? Would they really say that or react that way?

Don’t try to write one song from two separate ideas. Keep them where they belong - in two separate songs. A song is a compact story which can only provide a limited amount of information without confusing the listener.

(def'n: To take for granted, or without proof; to suppose as a fact.)

People don’t care about people they don’t know. Yet lyrics sometimes assume that the listener knows all about the characters who populate your head. When you come up with a song, people and situations are already real to you. Your tendency may be to describe the RESULT of the situation you've just invented - i.e., "He left her," instead of the situation itself. Your listeners, however, won't care about that result unless you've properly introduced them to the characters, and explained how they got into the mess they're in.

Ways to prevent listener confusion:

a) Proper Pronouns
Pay attention to point of view. Who is doing the talking and/or the listening? This is VERY IMPORTANT! Anytime you introduce a pronoun (them, us, you, he, them) you must explain whom it is referring to. Then, keep the pronouns consistent.

First and Second-Person

Most people write as they speak or think. First Person "personalizes" the song and is usually the most powerful way to deliver a message; listeners are able to identify with the person singing. ("Satisfaction" – The Rolling Stones, "All I Wanna Do is Have Some Fun" – Sheryl Crow, "She Ain’t Pretty" – The Northern Pikes)

When using First Person, however, you must be careful not to "mindread" for other characters in the song. For example, you have no way of knowing what your boyfriend is thinking, so stating "You will remember this kiss forever" is not valid unless you’re TELLING him that he will.

Second Person comes into play when you are
  • talking to someone specific, like a friend ("Tell Her About It" – Billy Joel, "Desperado" – The Eagles).
  • generally spouting wisdom to the listener ("Climb Every Mountain, until you find your dream").
When you’re talking directly to someone - another character in the song or the listener - the pronouns used are first and second person: You, I, Me, Us, We. Decide whether the person you’re talking to is in the room with you ("Why do you treat me so bad?") or whether you’re thinking to yourself ("I don’t know why you treat me so bad.")


Third Person makes you a storyteller rather than the subject of the song. ("Coward of the County" – Kenny Rogers).

Writing a song from the Third Person point of view can be a way of detaching the singer when the character is unsympathetic (or even a loser). Or the story might be better told by an outside person who "sees and hears all" ("She Works Hard for the Money" – Donna Summer, "She’s Leaving Home" – The Beatles).

Remember who you’re talking to. If your relationship is really over forever, the pronoun is third person (He or She). (If he’s really gone, you can’t have a conversation with him, but you can talk about him). ("All Out of Love" – Air Supply). Of course, there are exceptions to any rule.

Third Person pronouns (He, She, They) are also the outside influences that complement or come between. i.e. "I love you but they say that we can't make it."

When one of the characters in a He/She song has a conversation with someone within the song, the pronoun can switch to second-person (You). (In "She's Leaving Home," the parents say "We gave her all of our love.")

No Switching!

Problems often occur when the character is third-person (He or She) in the verse, but mysteriously switch to first or second person (You, I or Me) in the chorus, or vice versa.

Here’s an example of a good way to confuse your listener. It’s written in the third person for the verse, with the singer telling a story to the audience, but suddenly in the chorus the singer has jumped right into the story and is talking directly to the character from verse 1.

He sits in that chair every day
Never gives her a word of praise
Never offers a touch of forgiveness
He can’t forget that she strayed

But should she leave you for good
After all that she’s done
Do you want her to stay here like that?
Should she leave you for good
Or try to move on
You won’t have a choice after that (etc.)

Here's another song that doesn’t make sense ("Push" – Matchbox 20): If it’s third person in the verse, it should still be that later (I wanna push her around). Or change the introduction to "You said"

She said "I don't know if I've ever been good enough
I'm a little bit rusty, & I think my head is caving in
And I don't know if I've ever been really loved (etc) And I'm a little bit angry."
Well, this ain't over, no, not here,
Not while I still need you around.
You don't owe me, we might change,
Yeah, we just might feel good

A pronoun refers back to a noun, or takes the place of that noun. You have to use the correct pronoun so that listeners will understand which noun your pronoun is referring to.

Therefore, pronouns should:
Agree in number (singular/plural)
***The words: everybody, anybody, anyone, each, neither, nobody, someone, a person, etc. are singular, not plural.
Agree in Person
If you are writing in the first person (I), don't confuse your reader by switching to the second person (you) or third person (he, she, they, it, etc.). If you are using the second person, don't switch to first or third.
Refer clearly to a specific noun. Don't be vague. e.g. If you put this chip on your shoulder, it won't fall off. (Is "it" the chip or the shoulder?)

b) Grammar

Active and Passive:
Verbs in the active voice show the subject doing something. Verbs in the passive voice show something being done TO the subject. The active voice is considered to be stronger.

ACTIVE: He kissed her.
PASSIVE: She was kissed by him.

When you express a wish or something that is not actually true, use were rather than was. (e.g. I wish he were here; If I were you)

c) Same Style

Use the same form of language and attitude throughout the song.

If you’re using a metaphor - like prison - it must mean the same throughout (it can’t mean love in one verse, and an actual prison in the next).
Make sure your character doesn’t change brains midway through. The song’s diction (poetic or streetwise) must be consistent with the character. If she’s a poor uneducated girl, she won’t realistically use words like "expenditures".
Watch the tone you convey – is it serious or playful? Keep it consistent.

d) Progression

Is your first verse really your first verse?
Songs need a beginning, a middle and an end. Sometimes we write the first verse where the action starts - which might be midway into your story - instead of providing a good setup.

Explain the who, where, why, when, what, and how. "Flashbacks" rarely work - you can go back and explain who the characters are in the third verse, but by then no one will care.
Edit out anything that does not further your point or the plot. The same goes for lengthy phrases that can be shortened to better fit the cadence of the melody.
A good way to check your progression is to ask before each phrase, "And then what?"
"Second verse hell." If you've completed your first verse and chorus, and have nowhere else to go because you've said everything you wanted to say, make the first verse your second verse and write a new first verse (setup).

What time is it?

When you sit down to write, make sure you know what time the song is set. Is it morning, evening, the day after a one-night stand? Use past tense to narrate events which have happened ("Crocodile Rock" – Elton John). Use present tense to state facts and to give current ideas. ("Save Tonight" – Eagle Eye Cherry). (You can narrate a previous event in present tense for more drama). Use future tense to express hopes and dreams ("Somewhere Over the Rainbow"). Be clear about what time it is. Some songs make it explicitly clear by simply stating the time ("Piano Man" – Billy Joel, "Closing Time" - Semisonic)

Control Shifts in Tense:

A shift in tense may be necessary to convey your meaning, but an inappropriate shift will confuse. Don’t shift tenses if the time of each action stays the same.
e.g. He held me close as he kisses my lips. (huh?)
But you can use shift in tense to inform the listener of a time change.
e.g. We built this house where love lives. (we built it earlier, but love lives in it currently)
An effective example of time shifting is "Cat’s in the Cradle".


Your structure (verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, etc.): Is there any change in the melody, is there a high point emotionally, does the chorus need to be heard again?


Don’t be restricted by length, but be aware of it. Very few songs can hold a listener’s attention for more than 4 minutes. If yours is clocking in at 6 minutes, it might be a good indication that you’re rambling. And if you’re shooting for radio, you’ll be doing yourself a favour by keeping your tunes to around 3 ý minutes.


Is it a male or female viewpoint? Men generally don't like to come across as "weak" and women still can't sing about having a ton of lovers (the exception being in rap!).


Put your hook/title line where it will be noticed. Using "active" instead of "passive" verbs. Use rhyme, alliteration and other techniques to call attention to key phrases.


What’s the point you want to convey? Lead the listener to the moral, which often is the hook or title of the song.
You should be able to paraphrase your song in one sentence - even if your song is simply about an emotion. e.g. The whole point of the song "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" can be paraphrased as "I’ve loved you from first sight."

To make sure your song is on track, read or play the song and ask your co-writer or a listener, "What is this song really about?" If they’re not sure – or are not getting the point you want them to – REWRITE!


Brainstorming Exercise 1
Think of an emotional discussion you had with someone: when you broke up with your boyfriend or girlfriend; telling someone you love them for the first time; etc. Fill a page with phrases spoken during this exchange. You might be inspired to write a whole song during this scenario - or maybe a great title/hook line will jump out.

Creative Writing Exercise 1
Your mission: to write an entire song about an inanimate object. First make notes about all the characteristics of the object: shiny, round, hard, movable or immovable, where is it, etc. Detail sensory descriptions. Then do one of the following:
  • Use personification to imagine yourself as that object. What do you see - (the metaphorical "fly on the wall"), hear, how does this affect you or the characters in the story?
  • Write about this object’s role in your life. An obvious example would be a wedding ring - its significance when you got engaged, through the marriage ceremony, during a life together, raising kids, divorce, whatever.
Brainstorming Exercise 2
Choose an "action" situation that you’ve been involved in, i.e. a cross country trip with your best friend. Write down every single detail you can remember about it: the time of day; how you felt; who was there; what they looked like; what you were wearing; what the circumstances were; where you were; why was it happening; etc. Try to describe events using emotion instead of dialogue. Cover the who, where, what, when, why and how of the story. Describe all your senses. Don’t stop writing until you have at least two pages full of descriptors. Then highlight the best ones, and attempt to write a song incorporating these.

By Lorena Kelly for SaskMusic. Originally published June 1999.

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