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The Songwriter's Corner

For more than a year I've been attending the Louisville Area Songwriters' Cooperative (LASC) critique sessions with the express purpose of improving my songwriting and meeting people with similar interests. I've learned a lot and hope that others have picked up a few things from me. This article is devoted to various aspects of lyric writing.

I've been writing songs, or at least music, since I was 14. One year, I think for Christmas, my mother bought a Magnus Chord Organ. It had a full 2 1/2 octave keyboard and a bank of accordion-style buttons for each major, minor and seventh chord. Inside (I took it apart) was a motor and fan that blew through a bank of reeds that sounded for all the world like a harmonica with a keyboard. I still remember how to play that first song — kind of a churchy sounding piece about two minutes long. My favorite thing was to play the top three notes together in beautiful discord and annoy the $#%& out of my brothers.

Come on baby drive my car ...

In the twenty-plus years since, I've borrowed, rented and bought dozens of keyboards, but only in the last year have I really realized that in songwriting, the music is the vehicle, the lyrics are the driver and the point is to take your listener somewhere. It can be somewhere new and exciting or somewhere familiar, but if at the end of your song your listeners don't feel what you wanted them to feel then the song still needs work.

Take the following lyrics as an example. Sometimes lyrics seem to be talking directly to you but are really telling someone else something you already know. For example:

How do you do?

That was my opening line.

I think I could love you

Tell me what's your sign?

Then I asked her to dance.

She says, You've gotta be joking boy

You know you ain't got a chance.

There are several things wrong with this lyric that make it sound unnatural. First, it tries to do two things at once: tell a story about a meeting and carry on a conversation at the same time. Second, it tells the story in the past — Then I asked her to dance — and carries the conversation on in the present — She says, You've gotta and ain't got a.

The first problem is one of Point of View.

You can easily tell the point of view by the use of pronouns.

First Person — I, We, Me, Us

The first person is the singer who employs I or We and who addresses You. The majority of popular songs are written from the point of view of the first person.

Second Person — You, Your

Second person is the one sung to, which can be the listening world as in follow your dream, or a specific person as in you break my heart.

Third Person — He, She, They

Third person uses the voice of the storyteller as in "The Gambler," recorded by Kenny Rogers. Third person is often the best way of handling subject matter that could put the singer in a bad light. Instead of confronting a lover who's been cheating, tell your listeners about someone who has "lyin' eyes" as in the Eagles song.

Although it is tempting to let the audience get the facts by eavesdropping on a conversation, you might end up with something as stilted as the little jewel above.

The other major problem with this lyric is the time frame. When did this happen? The second line, That was my opening line, seems to indicate some point in the past; however, I think I could love you seems to be happening in the present and is referring to some point in the future. The songwriter needs to choose a time frame — past, present, or future — and keep it consistent.

Let's revisit the passage above.

How do you do,

Was my opening line.

I thought I could love her

Said tell me what's your sign?

Then I asked her to dance.

She said, You gotta be joking.

Boy, you don't have a chance.

Maybe it's not Grammy material, but certainly more readable and ultimately more easily sung.

If you find a lyric you've written is just not working, try looking at it from a different point in time or changing the person. If the subject matter is about an event that really happened in your life and is very close to your heart, it may be a good candidate for a third-person point of view. Remember as you write a song, some singer other than yourself may be called upon to perform it.

To Be Continued

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  • Ray Yates