One of the most frustrating problems we experience as songwriters is difficulty finishing songs. We might get stuck at the chorus, or maybe after the first chorus. Perhaps versus leave us feeling we didn’t quite capture our point. Maybe our song feels too short or too long and we don’t know where to cut. Whatever the problem, in the back of our minds we’re wondering why we can’t finish songs. I find a more useful question than ‘why’ we get stuck is ‘where.’
Understanding at what section in the song we lose momentum helps to decode what our problem is. Maybe we’re stuck at the end of a single verse, not knowing where to take the story or feeling as if we’ve said everything we want to say. The solution in this case is to take smaller steps. Instead of using so much ‘telling’ language or generalizing language in that first verse, we need to involve more sensory language. That first verse may serve us better as a chorus instead of the verse. Try choosing a specific moment or situation that exemplifies the point you’re making in the first verse and consider this situation or moment your new verse.
If our trouble is we come to the chorus and we don’t know what to say, we might ask ourselves what we want our listener to walk away knowing. What is the big point you want to make? What’s really important here? If you could summarize the song in one phrase or short sentence, what would that be? Now write down or record the words coming out of your mouth. Use them as they are as your title or first lines of your chorus. Consider repeating them rather than writing additional material to complete the course section.
Sometimes our trouble is that we are too judgmental. Constantly assessing the value of each line we write puts an impossible standard on a lyric writing. For this problem, I suggest reading the lyrics of some of the songs from your favorite artist. These may not be their most legendary songs, but ones you’ve dug down to grab that exemplify a nice cross-section of the body of work they created. Notice how the very same language you criticize in your own writing is the language your favorite artists keep.
Sometimes we get to the end of the first chorus and don’t know where to go with the next verse. In this case, consider that perhaps your first verse says too much, generalizing too much. Try moving your first verse into the second verse position and writing a new verse, generated by a specific instance that shows the truth of the statement you’re making in the chorus.
If you find that many of your songs are too short, try to use more sensory language, more storyline in your verses. It may be that there is a lot more to say on each statement or idea you introduce.
If your songs are too long, you may have trouble getting to the point. Examine how much of the lyric you can cut and boldly cross those lines out. Aim to use more repetition of single important ideas.
Finally, Challenge yourself to take 20 minutes to finish the song. Set a timer and when the timer goes off, put your pencil down. What you have written is the song. Record it, and listen again a week later and just feel the song. You may find that there our gems within that you hadn’t recognized before.
Berklee College online courses such as Lyric Writing: Tools and Strategies, and Commercial Songwriting Techniques present these tools and many more in daily and weekly bite-sized formats. I look forward to having you in class and working with you directly to apply these tools to your writing.