Build-A-Song Part VII: The Emergence of the Versesby Mary Dawson
The Internet Writing Journal, July 2000
This is the seventh in a series of articles called Build-A-Song which present a step-by-step method for creating a song. By no means is this "the only" method for writing songs. In fact, the approaches to songwriting are as many as the writers themselves. But our Build-A-Song series will offer a sequential template for covering the basics of successful songwriting. I hope you will follow along, and perhaps even try this method as you create your own. If you missed the other articles in the series, you may find them in the archived issues.
Part VII -- The Emergence of the Verses
We've come a long way in the building of our song. The foundation and framework are up. The hook and hook statement have been carefully crafted. Our lyrical cadence has become the beginnings of a chorus melody and we are well on the way to finishing our next blockbuster hit!
Since most commercial songs today are written in the verse-chorus song form, we will focus in this article on some ways to set up that crucial hook by strategic development of the verses. As we learned in Part 3 of the Build-A-Song series, the Great Idea and the hook are the destination of the song. The verses, then, must set up the hook so that when it appears in the chorus, it is the inevitable conclusion to the information in the verses. The hook should be like the punch line of a joke -- the Aha Moment for the listener (See Build-A-Song, Part 2).
One songwriter put it this way: The verses of the song are like climbing up a mountain. The chorus is the view from the top. When you get to the top, the view better be worth the climb!
A verse can be defined as that section of the song in which the melody and harmony repeat, but the lyric changes. Most commercial verse-chorus songs today have two verses with at least two (possibly three) repetitions of the chorus. It's time now to plan what you want to say in both verses so that each of them inevitably arrives at the chorus -- both musically and lyrically.
Many hit songwriters actually outline the song at this point, just as you would outline a term paper. Verse one should contain an opening perspective to set the scene and engage the listener. It's the first "snapshot" with your songwriter's camera. Verse two should elaborate on the opening idea with another "snapshot" from a slightly different viewpoint.
Consider the following as you continue to compose:
Length of Verses and Chorus: Experienced songwriters usually determine the length of the song by instinct. They will have an intuitive sense of timing because almost all commercial songs should be 3-4 minutes long in order to receive radioplay consideration. A lot depends on the tempo of the song -- uptempo songs "go by" much faster than a slow ballad and the length of verses and chorus must be adjusted accordingly. A good "rule of thumb," however, is that a chorus should be identical to, half as long or twice as long as the verses. Aim to make your verses under one minute in length so as not to take too long to arrive at the payoff chorus. Remember the famous songwriter's couplet:
If you don't move quickly to the chorus
Chances are your song will bore us
Verse One: Next to the hook and hook statement, the most strategic point of the verse-chorus song is the first line of the first verse. That's the first contact the listeners have with both the words and music of the song and should reach out and literally "grab the them by the ears." Remember, the listener's mind is constantly being bombarded with incoming visual and audio data -- ambient sights and sounds of all kinds. The first line of your song should be so strong, both musically and lyrically, that it literally "cuts through" everything else that's going on and makes the listener turn up the volume.
Strong first lines usually contain some kind of visual image that stimulates the imagination. Vague or esoteric messages lose the listener before he/she ever arrives at that chorus you have worked so hard to create. Here are some "killer" first lines:
- Look at this face; I know the years are showing...
- Don't Know Much by Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil and Tom Snow
© EMI Blackwood Music Inc., Mann & Weil Songs, Snow Music, Braintree Music
- Sometimes the snow comes down in June -- sometimes the sun goes round the moon
- Save the Best for Last by John Lind, Wendy Waldman and Phil Gladston
© Big Mystique Music, EMI Longitude Music, EMI Virgin Songs, Moon and Stars Music
- I was standing at the counter...I was waiting for the change….when I heard that old familiar music start...
- The Song Remembers When by Hugh Prestwood
© Careers BMG Music Publishing I, Hugh Prestwood Music
Musically, also, first lines are extremely important. In fact, even before the first word of lyric is sung, the music of the introduction should immediately begin to create a feel for the song and start to hook the listener in. Introductions should not be too lengthy and should be followed by a very strong melody line as the lyric begins.
Not only are these suggestions important for corralling radio listeners, but if you intend to pitch your song to a publisher or producer, it is crucial that you engage their attention within the first ten seconds. Otherwise, I guarantee they will toss your song into the nearest "circular file" and go on to the next submission.
First verses usually provide the broad strokes necessary to "set the stage" for the rest of the song and pave the way for the more specific second verse.
Verse Two: Just as in a novel's second chapter, the second verse of your song must continue the development of the hook and Great Idea and also inevitably "arrive" back at the chorus. If you have been successful in interesting your listeners with the first verse and chorus, you must keep up the momentum in the second verse so that they don't begin to get bored and drift away.
I find that the second verse is often the most challenging to write because not only must it keep the storyline of the song unfolding, but it must also match exactly with the cadence and rhyme scheme of the first verse. In other words, if there are four stressed syllables in line #1 of verse one, there must also be four stressed syllables in line #1 of verse two. And the rhymes must occur in exactly the same parallel places.
A sure kiss of death for a second verse is to make it repeat the information in the first verse. It's time to take your songwriter's camera to a new angle and focus on the hook from a different direction. Here are just a couple of suggestions for developing the second verse in relationship to the first:
Vignette Technique -- Paint a lyrical snapshot in each verse. You could make both verses about one story, or create an entirely different story in verse two. But remember, the chorus must logically and inevitably conclude both verses. In Build-A-Song (Part 4) I used one of my own songs called Sticks and Stones as an example for the development of the chorus. Since this song also makes use of the vignette technique, I will re-print it here as an example of two separate vignettes that "empty into" the same conclusion in the chorus.
Introduction and Development of a Character -- You might start verse one with a some general and intriguing information about the main character of the song. Then become more personal and specific in verse two. For example:
- Verse One:
- Her name was Jamie -- the kids called her "fat"
They didn't see any harm in that
But they didn't see the tears she shed
When she prayed at night beside her bed
They didn't hear it when Jamie said...
- Sticks and stones may break my bones
But words hurt me much deeper
More than you'll ever know
More than I'll ever show
Wounds from words cannot be cured
By medical procedure
They cut into the heart
And leave a deeper scar
Than sticks and stones
- Verse Two:
- Bill loved his Daddy -- there was no doubt
He loved to please him and make him proud
But it seemed the harder Billy tried
The more his Dad would criticize
Bill grew up tough but his heart still cried...
Sticks and Stones
Lyrics: Mary Dawson /Music: Bruce Greer
Copyright © 1992 / CQK Music
ASCAP / Admin. Music Services, Nashville /Used by Permission
Remember, the action of the story must keep moving forward in verse two and then very naturally and logically conclude with the chorus once more.
- Verse One:
- I am alive forever
And I wrote the very first song
I put the words and the melodies together
I am Music and I write the songs
I Write the Songs by Bruce Johnson
- Verse Two:
- My home lies deep within you
And I've got my own place in your soul
Now when I look out through your eyes
I'm young again, even though I'm very old
©BMG Songs Inc.
This is not easy stuff….but it is ever so important. Take your time in creating these all-important verses and remember what Bob Dylan once said: "It is the first line that gives the inspiration and then it's like riding a bull. Either you stick with it or you don't. If you believe that what you are doing is important, then you will stick with it no matter what."
Stick with it, bull-riders, and I'll meet you at the old Songwriter's Corral next month!!
**From her earliest childhood years writing simple songs and poems with her father, through her twelve years as an overseas missionary, to her present, multi-faceted career as an author, lyricist/songwriter and conference speaker, Mary has always been adept at using words to communicate her heart to others. She is the President of CQK Records & Music of Dallas, Texas, a company which creates and produces songs in a panorama of musical styles for a variety of audiences, She is also the host of "I Write the Songs," a nationally syndicated radio talk show, especially created to inspire and instruct the more than 25 million aspiring songwriters in the U.S. "I Write the Songs" is broadcast over the Internet and is the only on-air songwriting workshop either on radio or the Internet. Mary is a frequent public speaker and seminar lecturer on songwriting. She is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal ®, and is a regular columnist for Independent Songwriter Web Magazine. Mary's commitment to discovering and mentoring talented new songwriters has given her extensive experience in song analysis through adjudicating songwriting competitions and conducting songwriting workshops across the country and around the world. Because of her role as president of an independent music company, she is also well qualified to instruct aspiring songwriters on the various business aspects of the music industry. She is married and a mother of four. She resides in the Dallas area. You can reach Mary at: firstname.lastname@example.org