Tech Tip:Writing Song Lyrics
By John Braheny
The first words from a singer's mouth are critical, particularly if they're the first words you've ever heard from that artist. It all goes into that evaluation you make as a listener about whether or not you I like the record. So with your writer's hat on, you need to think about how strongly you can interest the listener with that first line or lines. When a publisher or producer hears that first line, he's deciding whether to keep listening or turn it off, too. If it doesn't sell him, he's not optimistic about selling it to an artist.
Don't fall prey to the temptation to start with "I'm just sittin' here (a) writing this song (b) thinking about you, or (c) looking at the . . ." or "Woke up this mornin'. . ." (didn't we all?) or other equally uninteresting clichés. Though these might be penciled in to get your motor running, when you get down to a rewrite they should be the first things that get penciled out.
Your first line should set the tone for the whole song and make us want to hear what comes next.
You can set your first scene by asking several questions. The answers will contribute to what you want your lyric to accomplish.
Where is it taking place?
Is it important to the song?
What kind of a place is it?
Are there evocative features? If you allude to a particular country or city, the mountains, beach, etc., be careful of passive "picture postcard" openers that don't carry with them action, flavor, attitude, or emotional charge. "Ten miles west of Houston," "In a dirty downtown doorway," "At home in your love," "Halfway into Heaven" are all about places, either geographical or emotional.
- Can the hour, day, season, or year offer a flavor that enhances the emotional impact of your song? Think of the number of songs that use "morning" or "night" to evoke a mood.
- If the song is addressed to someone, is there something arresting you can say? If the song is about someone, can you say something that immediately gives a picture or a quick personality sketch.
Is there an active image you can use? If you're expressing an emotion, can you do it in a poetic or dramatic way? "I feel so out of place," for instance, just kind of lays there. Contrast that with George Gobel's old line, "The world's a tuxedo and I'm just a pair of brown shoes." Of course, that type of cleverness isn't always the answer—it depends on the tone you want to establish.
A listener should have the answers to the "who, what, when, and where" by the end of the first verse, as well as know the song's attitude and mood. But most importantly, the listener should be persuaded to keep listening, no matter how you accomplish it, with your lyric, your music, or better, by both.
Here are some examples of good opening lines:
My stupid mouth has got me in trouble
I said too much again to a date over dinner yesterday.
John Mayer - "My Stupid Mouth"
It's sitting by the overcoat
the second shelf, the note she wrote
that I can't bring myself to throw away
Rob Thomas (Matchbox 20) - "Long Day"
You said I'm gonna buy this place and burn it down
Coldplay - "A Rush of Blood To The Head"
I was standing in the grocery store line
The one they marked express
When this woman came though with about 25 things
And I said don't you know that more is less
Tom Douglas & Buzz Cason for Martina McBride - "Love's the Only House"
This excerpt is from John Braheny's book, The Craft and Business of Songwriting, 2nd Edition). It's available at Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. For info about John's critiquing and consulting services, go to johnbraheny.com.