Q: “I find that I have an easy time finding a first verse and chorus (or rather, it finds me) but I’ll have trouble coming up with two more verses or a verse and bridge. The lyrics tend to sound forced and I feel trapped. Is that just how it goes when you’re trying to stick to a form?”
A: For a lot of songwriters, this is how a song gets started. The first verse or chorus of a song may come to you full-blown, music and lyrics together. But what happens next? That rush of inspiration has exhausted itself and now you have to write more verse lyrics and, harder still, they have to fit your existing melody.
Songs have a limited amount of lyric “real estate.” In fact, you’ve only got a handful of lines in which to communicate a lot of information to your listeners. If you find you’re having trouble figuring out what to write, it’s probably because you’re not sure what you’re writing about.
Take a look at the inspired lines that launched your song. Write them out and across from them, in a couple of sentences, explain what these lines mean. This can be harder than it sounds! Once you have a clear explanation, make sure all the lines in your lyric work together to convey the meaning you intend. If you’ve got a line that sounds wonderful but doesn’t contribute to the message, try saving it for another song. Replace it with a line that supports your theme.
As you develop your lyric, keep your listeners in mind. Remember, they don’t have any idea what you’re talking about! They only know what you tell them in your lyric. What information do you have about the situation or relationship that you haven’t told your listeners yet? Here are a few questions that can lead you to a lyric that grows organically from your first verse:
- What has happened in the past that brought the singer to this point?
- What is likely to happen next?
- If the song is about a relationship, what has the other person said or done to make the singer feel this way?
- How have the singer’s feelings changed because of the situation?
Write down your answers to some of these questions. Then make a list of words, ideas, short phrases and images that are related to your answers. Don’t think about rhyming or polishing these lines – they’re just ideas, the raw material for the rest of your song.
If you keep these lines short, just a few words per phrase, you should be able to fit them into your verse melody then fill in around them. Play with the order of your phrases, drop them into the melody in different places. When you find something you like, lock it in and move onto other lines.
Once you have a rough idea for your second verse, repeat your chorus, then move on to the bridge. The bridge lyric frequently offers a peak emotional moment in a song. Use this spot to reveal the singer’s deepest desires, give us a fresh insight into the theme, or share the singer’s hopes for the future. The bridge melody can provide contrast that grabs the listener’s attention. For example, if your verse and chorus cover a wide note range and have a lot of melodic motion, try limiting the range of the notes in your bridge, use a lot of repetition and focus on the rhythm of the notes.
After the bridge, repeat your chorus. Now, you have a rough version of a song that grew organically from your inspired first verse and chorus. Record a rough version and give it a rest! Come back later with fresh ears and polish some of the melodic and lyric lines. Repeat this process until you feel the song effectively communicates the emotions and ideas that originally inspired it!
by Robin Frederick
This post is based on my books Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting and Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV. Each book includes over one hundred useful, real-world shortcuts that will show you how to write songs that work for today’s music market, plus dozens of hands-on exercises to get your creative ideas flowing.
Copyright 2013. All rights reserved. Reprints by permission.