KEEP YOUR LISTENER BY YOUR SIDE
by Robin Frederick, author of “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting”
When I’m coaching songwriters, they often give me a lyric to read while I listen. This is useful because I like to make notes as the song goes along but I have to be careful to remember that the average listener won’t have that lyric page in front of them. Sometimes I grasp the meaning of a song only because I’m reading the lyric or because the songwriter has told me something about the song before playing it. But when that song is played on the radio, the writer won’t be there to say, “Here’s why I wrote this song…” or “Let me just explain what happened….”
Here are some ideas that will help your listeners understand what you’re saying and stay involved in your song.
BE CONSISTENT: Sometimes a songwriter knows what he or she meant to say but fails to make it clear because some of the lines are giving conflicting messages. For example, if the verse lyric says: “I’m leaving. I can’t live with your lies,” then the chorus states: “I’ll stay no matter what you do,” listeners will have to stop and figure out how both of those things can be true. While they’re thinking, your song has moved on and you’ve lost them.
MIX POETIC PHRASES WITH DIRECT STATEMENTS: If your lyric style leans toward evocative, poetic lines that suggest rather than tell, try adding a clear, direct statement every few lines. Rob Thomas does this very effectively in his huge hit, “Ever the Same.” (Lyrics are available on the Internet.) Notice how his opening four lines are filled with vivid, poetic images, which are then followed by the statement: “And I couldn’t tell you but I’m telling you now / Just let me hold you while you’re falling apart.” Suddenly, it’s crystal clear what this song is about and listeners aren’t left to figure it out.
LISTENERS NEED TIME: Give listeners time to register what your lyric is saying. It usually takes them a minimum of two lines to absorb an image or idea. So if you write a line that describes your love as being like a prison, try to follow that with another line that describes the prison or tells listeners what it feels like to be imprisoned by love. That will give them time to register the image, the feeling of a prison, and link it with the idea of love.
To test your lyric, play it for friends (and strangers) without giving them a lyric sheet. Don’t give them any explanation or introduction to the song. Afterwards, ask them to tell you their impression of the song. See if they picked up on the general situation and emotional message. It’s alright if they didn’t pick up on specific details or exact ideas, just so long as they felt the emotions and got involved in what was happening.
It’s easy to forget, when you’re focused intensely on a lyric, writing and reworking it, that listeners have to process a lot of information in a very short time. If you give them too much information or give it in a way that’s too hard to understand, they may lose interest. Try to keep them in mind while you’re writing. Anticipate their questions. See if you can hear them saying, “Hey, wait for me. I didn’t quite catch that!”
(c) 2009. Based on “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting: 126 Proven Techniques for Writing Songs That Sell” by Robin Frederick. Available at Amazon.com.