Just to qualify what I’m about to say here: this applies to songwriters who are either performing or trying to pitch their songs, not necessarily to hobbyists!
After having listened to many, many songs, and critiquing lots of lyrics over the years, I can spot a “beginner” almost immediately! Don’t misunderstand, there is nothing BAD about beginner songwriters…we all have to start somewhere! As I’ve said before, it takes about 50 songs before you begin to find your songwriting “voice”, your individual style and content. But some songwriters take 100 songs to get there, and some never get there. Why? Well, it’s simple. It’s difficult to step outside of yourself and hear your song from another person’s point of view. And THAT is the whole key to writing songs that you want others to hear and love. Right?
What I’m going to discuss here ideally shouldn’t be implemented until AFTER your first draft…that’s because if you think too hard too soon, you’ll lose the connection with your creative self, and we can’t have that! So consider what I’m about to say once you’ve got the first version of your song in front of you.
The very first hurdle we have to overcome as writers is self-indulgence. Although “self” expression is probably why we started writing in the first place, it doesn’t have much weight when it comes to getting your material across to your listeners. Why do they want to hear all about you and your problems? You know what I mean? Self-indulgence happens when we get so enamoured with a chord, or a line, the sound of a note or a repetitive phrase, that we can’t let it go. This is “no-no” number one. The second no-no is when a song meanders on and on without any seeming purpose. It is NOT EASY spotting your own self-indulgence however! Here are some things to consider:
Repetition – I refer to this later in another article, but here is where I want you to understand the difference between “good” repetition, and “bad”. Popular music especially relies on a certain amount of repetition in order for the listener to remember! Rhyme helps too, but a “hook” or repeating line or musical phrase creates the memorable part of the song that brings a listener back for more. But how much do you repeat? Just enough and not too much 🙂 I once had a writer send me lyrics in which EVERY LINE ended with the same word! It’s not hard to see how this would create a yawn in no time! That is an extreme example, but I understood that he thought he was reinforcing his theme and how can you ever do too much of that? Well, you sure can.
Lyrically, I try to stick to the “three’s plenty” rule. If I want to use a word or phrase as a hook, if you will, I won’t repeat it more than three times in a chorus, for instance. If I had a four line chorus, the fourth line would be the “twist” or the surprise, or something different. But the shorter the lines, the less likely I’m going to repeat too soon!
(I want to make one destinction here…there is a difference between repeating a word that is IMPORTANT to the song [like the hook] and a word that is repeated in error! Sometimes I find that when I’m first writing, I use the same word twice in a verse or song without realizing it and when I get to the second draft or beyond, I’ll usually replace one of them.)
Musically I use the same rule. It is rare that I will repeat a musical phrase or melody more than three times within a verse or chorus. Here’s an exersize you can do to reinforce this idea. Sit down and sing the same short line four or more times. Try to pay attention to when it sounds cool, and when it gets tedious. Again, the length of the line has a lot to do with when that happens!
Meandering – this is almost the opposite of repetition! Some songs can go on and on and on and never get anywhere! Imagine listening to a long and boring monologue, no jokes, no purpose, just a continuous drone. I’ve heard many beginner songwriters write one like that, and I’ve written a few of those myself 🙂 This type of song is in DESPERATE need of repetition. You might be afraid to repeat too much and end up going in the opposite direction. Sit down with your song and plot out how long it takes you to repeat a musical phrase. So much of this is intinctual, so I can’t tell you you need to repeat every 10.5 seconds, but you HAVE to learn to listen to your own songs with some objectivity. If you have really long verses, think about repeating musical lines within that verse, don’t make the whole verse one long musical line. Does this make sense? If your verse is relatively short, there isn’t as much need for repetition, is there? Because you’re going to move on to the next verse more quickly! A repeated chorus can also satisfy this need for repetition somewhat. If your song doesn’t have a chorus, you still need SOMETHING that a listener can hang on to. A refrain will do that job…think about Bob Dylan’s song “The Times They Are A Changin'”. That line is the refrain…he doesn’t have a “chorus” in the song, just verses with that line at the end of each one.
Lyrically, meandering can be a little different. Sometimes a songwriter will send me a lyric that starts out with an idea in the first verse, and then moves onto another unrelated idea in the next verse, and another one…there is very little that ties these ideas all together. I find myself telling songwriters to “focus” a lot! Focus in on what your song’s lyrical purpose is. Plotting out a kind of storyline helps you to focus…write out a phrase that represents each verse and chorus, like this:
I just don’t want to see you anymore
What happened to the way things were?
There’s nothing left of us
So I’m plotting out where I’m going with this song without getting tangled up in rhymes and meter and all of that, stripping it down to it’s main purpose.
A listener is almost ALWAYS waiting for the repeated part. If you make them wait too long, you’ve lost them. If you never get there, you bore them. There are simple listeners and sophisticated ones…you won’t please all of them, but your job is to decide who you are writing for and figure out how to leave them wanting more!