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TOP TEN SONGWRITING PRINCIPLES

Updated: Jan 15





TEN PRINCIPLES OF SONGWRITING TO AVOID PITFALLS

by Sheila Davis

  1. SIMPLICITY: Keep to one idea. Eliminate subplots. Shun fanciness. Keep your language simple. Plot summary: one sentence.

  2. CLARITY: Hold attention without jarring or confusing. Identify characters. Establish identity before using he or she. Detect "Itosis". Give every pronoun a clear antecedent. Link! If you use "This time", set it up first! Word confusion: grey day beaches or grade-A beaches? Say it out loud. Unfamiliar illusions: 501 blues? Make sure the listener knows the illusion. Multiple meanings: Eliminate a word or phrase that will force the listener to choose between two or more meanings. Ambiguity (undesirable vagueness) as opposed to layered meaning (successful puns). Avoid two denotations of a word.

  3. COMPRESSION: Aim to say a lot in a few words. The closer the effect is to the cause, the stronger the impact. Identify and delete meaningless modifiers: (quick) glance, (reason) why, (free) gift, (old) adage. Banish "ly" adverbs (slowly, softly) and limp adverbial phrases. Instead of saying 'walked slowly', say' ambled'. Instead of 'said in a low voice', say, 'he mumbled'. Limit the use of qualifiers: like, very, really, just, and alot. By qualifying the statement, you undercut the sincerity of the speaker. Don't say I'm really sincere/it's like the check is in the mail.

  4. EMPHASIS: Proper emphasis is central to successful writing. Cut worthless words and reduce the syllable count. Prefer active verbs and one-syllable words. The subway was overflowing with commuters returning home from work. Instead: Rush-hour crowds jammed the subway. Position your words in a strong place. Put words with sematic weight (verbs and nouns) at the end of the line. They gain emphasis and are remembered. Next best place? The beginning. KEEP WORDS IN THEIR NATURAL ORDER. Avoid exaggerations. New writers think exaggeration creates drama. LYRICS THUD WITH OVERSTATEMENT. Avoid pluralizing. Prefer the singular to the plural. Yankee t-shirt rather than all your old t-shirts. Avoid overblown cliches. WRITE THE WAY WE TALK. If you treat heavy subjects in an offhand manner rather than heavy-handed, you'll evoke a listener quicker. Try to choose first and second viewpoints over the third person, the talking voice over the thinking voice. Choose the present tense over the past and future tense. MATCH WORDS TO MUSIC. Match content words to stressed notes, those whose pitch rises, or those held for several beats. Natural emphasis on syllables, fit emphasis to emphasis.

  5. CONSISTENCY: Determine that your character is consistently drawn. Diction and tone. Sustain your character's language, style, and attitude (treating or entreating, etc.) throughout your lyric. Effective use of figurative language. Keep your lyrics fundamental image consistently either literal (real rain--as in rain) or figurative (hard times). DON'T SHUTTLE BETWEEN LITERAL AND FIGURATIVE MEANINGS OF THE THEME WORD. Get a fix on the VVTS (Viewpoint, Voice, Time Frame, Setting). In a 2nd person song addressed to an abstraction (Luck Be a Lady Tonight), or to an absent place (Galveston) or thing (Skylark) keep the lyric to only one "you". In Moon River, the river is the sole you that is consistently addressed. In 3rd person narrative, make sure you maintain your he, she, or they references, throughout. And to write a convincing talking lyric, make your singer's dialogue sound convincingly conversational.

  6. COHERENCE: Keep all elements of a lyric centered on the topic and put them in an easy-to-follow sequence. Your listeners can only deal with what they already know. Each line should SUPPORT and ELABORATE ON THE PRECEDING ONE and lead to the next one with clear connectives. Make an action precede a consequence. A PREMISE SHOULD PRECEDE A CONCLUSION. A cause should proceed with an effect. Giving listeners meaning, line by line. Eliminate the verb tic "Like" when possible. Qualifying a word diminishes it. Example: Like a heartache. Better: when a heartache comes. Don't make people interpret, let them experience. Give orderly statements of facts. Meaning is not retroactive! Watch where you put modifiers. Be careful with ONLY. No: It ain't only rainin' on you. Yes: It's raining only on you. Keep a meaningful sequence. To be coherent, maintain a logical chronology from line to line. Morning-noon-night. Put ideas in ascending emotional order. (old wood to burn / old wine to drink /old friends to cherish. If a lyric changes viewpoint, voice, timeframe, or setting, lead the listener with a clear transitional phrase.

  7. SPECIFICITY: Remember that your listener wants to hear, touch, smell and feel. Abstract words: kindness, sorrow, and memories are impersonal and shadowy. They leave no after-image. Turn shadow into substance whenever possible. (words that evoke color, texture, flavor, aroma). TRY TO BE SPECIFIC. (jewelry you wore to gold bangle bracelets) Specificity comes in degrees. USE KODAK WORDS. (Let's play some music/let's play some cds/let's play some Madonna.) (pour me some wine/ Pour my Pinot.) Bring in authenticity, atmosphere, and universal truths to your music through the specific truths of detail. WHAT THE MIND'S EYE CAN SEE MORE CLEARLY, THE HEART CAN FEEL MORE DEEPLY. Use specificity to show emotions rather than tell! (and you take sudden interest in your shoes) ANAPHORA (start of line echoes): A device that repeats a word (or like-sounding word) or a short phrase at the start of successive lines or verses, and therefore reinforces meaning as it echoes words. (What a pretty little picture, What a pretty little scene, What a pretty little dwelling...) In a teenager's bedroom in Pittsburgh, in a studio apartment in Manhattan, In a split-level house up in Larchmont. EPISTROPHE (End of Line echoes): A repeated word or phrase at the end of successive lines. (I had the chance/But I blew the chance), (every night I spend waiting for your call/ hoping for your call/ living for your call/ desperate for your call). WEED OUT FAULTY ECHOES. A haphazard repetition of a word that's already been used in a different sense. Make your repetition purposeful. BORROWING: A word or phrase from another place, a literary illusion. (recycled slogans, song titles, and fragments of poetry). Either borrow exactly or alter the phrase in some definite way to create a fresh twist; anything in between sounds inept. THE RETURN: the reappearance of a significant word, line, or entire verse. The RETURN by its nature is a repetitive device that helps unify your lyric with a ring of the familiar.

  8. REPITITION: Satisfy the listener's need to recognize the familiar. Repeat important words or lines for emphasis (especially the title) In verse/chorus: the repeated chorus AAA: the refrain AABA: The title ALLITERATION: features the repetition of accented consonant sounds in successive or neighboring words. This device creates phonic patterns by lightly linking words (ideas) you want to emphasize. ASSONANCE: Repeated vowel sound to lend cohesion and emphasis. Use inner sounds to connect ideas. PARALLELISM: Presents similar or contrasting ideas in a similar grammatical construction and lends both cohesion and polish to a lyric. Look for lyric lines you could tighten by putting a series of thoughts: in the same grammatical form (tasting wine from vineyards, testing truth from many shores, looking into funhouse mirrors, looking out of prison doors.) POLYPTOTON (word derivatives): Reinforces meaning by repeating the same word or root in different grammatical functions or forms. (The only thing to fear is fear itself, you overstayed your stay.)

  9. UNITY: Consistency and coherence contribute to clarity. Compression and repetition contribute to emphasis. They all contribute to the unity of your lyric. UNITY IS THE GOAL OF EVERY WORK OF ART. Unity requires a balanced relation of parts to one another and to the whole. Treat elements with a length that's appropriate to their importance and maintain a logical relationship between the verse and the climb, the climb and the chorus, and the chorus and the bridge. Say to yourself: AND THEN WHAT? AND THEN WHAT? AND THEN WHAT? THE OBJECTIVE: TO WEAVE THE ELEMENTS OF TIME, ACTION, AND PLACE INTO A HARMONIOUS WHOLE THAT PRODUCES A SINGLE, GENERAL EFFECT.

  10. GENUINE FEELING: CANNOT BE TAUGHT. The lyricist either writes with genuine feeling or doesn't. THERE IS NO SUBSTITUTE FOR SINCERITY. Write about characters, situations and emotions you understand. Most bad writing is the result of ignoring one's own experiences and contriving spurious emotions for spurious characters. TO MOVE AND CONVINCE OTHERS, YOU MUST FIRST BE MOVED AND CONVINCED. BE TRUE TO BE BELIEVED. #


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