This week’s guest blogger is Bernice Lewis, a touring singer/songwriter for 30 years who records for Berkalin Records. She is the Artist Associate in Songwriting at Williams College in Williamstown, MA.
How hard could writing a song be? Maybe you want to surprise a loved one, or maybe there’s an idea that’s been burning in your mind for a long time. You get out the notebook, your guitar, strum a few chords, but where to start?
Here’s a few pointers for first-time songwriters. A song’s job is to communicate something. In order to do that, it’s good to pay attention to classic songwriting form. Each part of a song has evolved over time to function in a specific way that will help you get your point across. Maybe all you want to say is “I love you,” and let’s face it, there’s nothing like a well-written love song.
Most popular songs start with a verse. The first line of the first verse is important because it’s what draws us into the song. Remember those journalism classes you took in high school? Well, the first verse should answer the same questions you studied back then…who, where, how, what, and maybe even why. Characters should be introduced, and their importance should be made clear. One of my favorite first lines is from Carrie Underwood’s song “Before He Cheats,” written by Chris Tompkins and Josh Kear. (It’s important to note that many songs are not written by the performer!)
“Right now, he’s probably slow dancing with some bleached blond tramp and probably getting frisky “
Here we go…three characters! A piqued narrator, a “he,” and a bleach blond tramp. It’s all there!
After the first verse starts the story. It’s followed by the most important part of the song, the chorus. Did you know that chorus means “sing along” in Greek? For the most part, you want a chorus that repeats verbatim. This is a point that I have argued many times with beginning writers. They want to have more than one chorus, but that defeats the purpose. A chorus repeats so that it can be absorbed by the listener. A chorus makes a point and hosts the hook line, usually the title, often placed in the last line. There is nothing more satisfying than writing a strong, memorable chorus.
The second verse comes after the chorus. It is a continuation of the story set out in the first verse. If the first verse is about how much I love you, perhaps the second verse elaborates on why I love you.
The second verse is followed by the chorus. Again. No ifs, ands or buts. If you put something else there, you essentially negate the power of your chorus. Build a strong chorus and it will feel like home base.
At this point, there are some choices. You can write a third verse, or you can create a bridge, an optional section often found in contemporary songs. The bridge is a departure from both the verse and the chorus. It has different music. It has a different point of view. Maybe, as much as I love you, I just can’t get used to picking up your dirty socks. This might be a good place to point that out.
If you write a bridge, you now have the option of writing a third verse, or simply going out on another chorus. If you write a third verse, be sure you have something to say!
But most importantly, go out on another chorus. By now, your audience will be singing along!
© 2015 Bernice Lewis
Check out my other blog posts for songwriters:
There’s an interesting story behind the photo of Debbie De Steno. I went to Google images and searched “songwriter” and mostly what came up were guys. Pissed me off. I vented on my Facebook page and one of my FB friends, Debbie, said (I’m sure, jokingly), “Post a picture of me.” I replied, “Okay, give me one of you writing a song.” And this is the photo she sent.