One of the things I’ve noticed in my corporate songwriting workshops for business teams is that the moment I start to break down songwriting into its component parts, everyone starts to relax. Up until that moment, songwriting seems like a magic trick but when I give intelligent people the guidelines, they’re pretty much off to the races. To that end, I thought I’d take a moment to offer a few tips for effective verse writing.
Remember That Verse Writing Is Storytelling
I’ll begin by simply stating that the verses of your song are designed to tell a story. And since songs are very short stories – like postcard short – you need to pack the maximum amount of meaning into the minimum amount of words.
Use Details & Imagery
The more you can use concrete details and imagery in your verse lyric, the greater the chance you’ll not only capture your listeners’ attention but also communicate your intended message. The expression “a picture is worth a thousand words” is never truer than when you’re writing the verses of a song. Another expression we use in songwriting is “show ‘em, don’t tell ‘em.” In other words, instead of telling someone about a situation, use imagery to do the same thing in a more impactful way. The example I was given when I was learning to write songs was instead of writing in your verse lyric that a woman is evil but still attractive (telling ‘em) you should simply write that she’s a “black heart in a green dress” (showing ‘em).
Distill Your Communication
Given how few lines you have to tell a story in your verses, you’ll want to be sure that each line of your verse provides new information. It’s a common mistake to write essentially the same thing from line to line just using different words. Make sure you’re moving your story forward at all times.
Write Like People Actually Speak
There is a tendency when writing lyrics to make them sound a little more poetic since it’s “writing” after all. However, your listeners will respond better if the lyric sounds (remember songs are sung) like people actually speak and not too stilted. In a similar vein, make sure that you emphasize the natural syllables in your chosen words. As I was taught early on in my career, don’t put the em – pha – sis on the wrong syl – la – ble.
In one of my workshops, I was helping a team of airline executives figure out how to coordinate their disparate teams across the country. We chose the metaphor of birds flying south for the winter to communicate that message and below is our verse.
Unless you’re the first bird flying south, the view won’t ever change
But heading away from the winter gray is more than just a game
It’s part of our survival, it’s what we’re meant to do
And you know you can count on me like I can count on you
As suggested in the tips above, we used images like birds, flying south and winter gray to tell the story in a visual way. We also made sure to move our story forward from line to line and took the time to be certain that it felt plainspoken enough to be natural sounding.
Stay tuned for the next blog post where I’ll provide a few tips on chorus writing.
Find out more about Cliff’s creativity & innovation workshops for business teams.