The (Short) Alphabet of Simple Songwriting, Part 1

Deeann Mathews
Deeann D. Mathews is an African American author and musician living life in San Francisco, CA
Music

Aug 31,2018

In my two previous articles (“No Matter How You Feel — Write a Song About It” and “You Told Me to Write a Song — Now What?“) I have been discussing writing songs to express and communicate about the issues of the day in a positive way. Then, something amazing happened: you my readers started responding positively in sizable numbers (THANK YOU!), and I also realized there was more to share on this subject. So, here comes article 3 – the alphabet of simple songwriting, part 1!

Let’s say you just have four lines that rhyme. OR, let’s say that you have a single line – a favorite saying, a slogan, a campaign line. Either one of these, alone, we’ll call idea A. Then, you come up with another idea to go with what you started with – we’ll call that one idea B. Now there are two parts to both ideasthe lyrics are one part, the music is the other. This first article will deal with the lyrical part, and the musical part will come next week.

Back to ideas A and B; the two of them work well together! The simplest two lyrical forms to communicate a message through a song are either to have a single lyrical idea or just two – a good chorus, or a verse and a chorus. Now of course this is not always what we hear in commercially released music, nor is it what we hear in a lot of the formal music of our culture. As a Christian I belong to a hymn and Negro Spiritual tradition that uses all of the verses when time allows, and I have written my share of hymns and gospel music that follow the same pattern.

But then I thought about what I recommend that you think about. Think about your favorite “long songs” – how much do you remember? Can you get beyond the first verse and the chorus, or even the chorus? Professional songwriters spend time teaching their students about the “hook,” that portion of the song that gets people’s attention, because they know that a whole lot of a “long song” is not going to communicate well enough to get people to engage with the song.

Here’s a big hint: in commercial music, the lyrical “hook” is usually in the chorus. This suggests that the lyrics in the chorus are really idea A, hanging around with ideas B, C (two verses), and sometimes D (the bridge). When you fundamentally break any song down, there will rarely be more than two key ideas that the lyrics communicate. The rest just amplifies the main idea(s).

But we’re not talking about writing commercial music here: we’re talking about music with a message: . If we know that even the most popular commercial hits have a core of one central idea – our idea A – that would suggest that we should focus on the fundamentals: focus on developing a good chorus, and put a solid verse with it if necessary.

One more thing. People learn by repetition. This is why is it not a bad thing to sing that one chorus or verse and chorus a bunch of times. Generally speaking, the first time, listeners have to process the message; the second time they will receive the message or reject it, and the third time, they will start to learn how the message was delivered – they will learn the song, then!

The problem, of course, is that all that repetition can be boring – and suppose the message you want to deliver really does take more than a single verse and a chorus to get across? Have no fear – we will discuss ways to manage all of that next week, in the musical portion of the simple songwriting alphabet!

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