This page is a collection of pages which I had on my old site:
- Components of a Song
- Counting Syllables
- Rhyming Dictionaries
- Perspective, Time And Tense
- Songwriting Links
Disclaimer: I don’t have any cuts or any songs recorded, these are just my views and my tips on the different aspects of Songwriting
Below are the basic components of a song (not musical components). You might see all the comonents in a song, or just a number of only verses make up a song. Understanding the Hook (which I might write another page on itself) is one of the key components to a song. Write a great hook and your song should get noticed and remembered!
Not all songs have an intro, however it can be a component of a song. As the name suggests which serves it’s an ‘Introduction’ to the song. Usually it will different from the verses, musically and by rhyme (if it was the same musically and rhyming as the verse it would be another verse!)and might only be a couple of lines. The intro can be used to set the scene for the rests of the song.
The verse is the driving force behind a song. It’s the parts of the song which tells the story (which is what most songs do). It usually has the same rhyme structure and syllable count between verses.
The Chorus is usually the repeated in whole (or similar incarnations of it) during the song. It drives the message home of what the song is about. I’ve heard some people describe it as the point you get up to and say ‘And that is why….’, and in answering that you can write the chorus and tell the audience the message you are wanting to get across in the song. Usually no new information is presented in the chorus. Most choruses have either the same amount of lines as the verse or are shorter. Most times the title of the song will appear in the chorus.
The Pre Chorus isn’t a ‘verse’ and isn’t a ‘chorus’. It is used as a lift or a step in to the Chorus, it can remain the same each time or be slightly different, representing the position or time line of the song. Like the intro, you don’t see this in every song, but it can be a powerful when used right.
Bridge / Middle 8
The bridge or the ‘middle 8’ as it has been called, can be used to add a twist or to ‘wrap up’ what you are trying to say in the song. It usually has a different chord progression and melody (and possibly rhyme structure) from the verses and chorus.
Solo / Interlude
Not a lyrical part of the song, however adding a solo can add emotion to the song (or just give the listener a break from singing). An interlude can be used to between different parts of songs or it has been used by some artists to make the song pass through time.
The ‘hook’ is another subject all to itself. Whist a songwriter/performer wants the listener to remember the entire song, they won’t. The hook is what you want to get stuck in the listeners head so they will want to listen to your song again (and again and again etc..). A hook can be musical or lyrical (I can’t think of any sound effects that have become hooks).
The first musical hook that came to my mind is the one from ‘Sweet Home Alabama’. When you hear the opening ‘guitar riff’ you KNOW what song it is. (It’s even been used in a Kid Rock song recently which had a line featuring the name of the song, and has indirectly become a hook in that song as well).
Lyrically, the hook can appear a number of times during the song (to enforce it), and by using repetition you can ensure that the audience remembers it. When thinking of an example of a lyrical hook the first one that came to mind was ‘Sha nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah la da ti da’… Brown Eyed Girl. Or more recently from the country duo Sugarland’s ‘All I want to do wo wo wo wo wo wo wo wo wo wo wo wo wooo’ (repeated twice in the chorus). Whilst some hooks can almost become annoying it can also etch itself in the listener’s brain.
Now if you are not 100% sure what I’m referring to in regards to syllables, check out this Wikipedia Article to find out what I’m talking about.
On a few websites I visit and on Twitter (most recently thanks to @RavenousRaven ) I’ve been reviewing the occasional song or lyric. One thing I’ve noticed with non published writers (like myself) is the lack of verse forms, both in rhyme and in syllables per line. Now this might not sound like much, but those two things CAN make a verse work much better.
From the performers point of view, trying to match syllables through a verse will mean that the melody will be the same between verses.
Look in a print music book or sheet of a song you love, 9 times out of 10 multiple verses will be printed under the same melody line. The melody between verses are the same.. (or very similar). THIS comes down to syllable count.
When I write a song I usually count the syllables of each line (or if I’m using a program like Verse Perfect it counts for me). I will count the syllables on each line and write a the number in brackets on the right hand side of the page. Then I will try to match up the number of syllables (or in a worst case be 1 syllable different) between the same lines in different verses. When I first started to write songs I didn’t really take this in to consideration. In two songs I posted on my blog (both in first draft), “If Only” and “Summer Rain“, have a look at the syllable counts:
Verse 1: 5,8,9,8,9,8
Verse 2: 5,5,8,7,9,9
Chorus 1: 2,11,12,10,8,4,7
Chorus 2: 3,12,12,9,9,4,7
Verse 1: 13,10,8,14,8
Verse 2: 15,11,7,12,8
Verse 3: 15,11,9,13,8
Now I know ‘the numbers’ aren’t perfect and that is something I will work on in the next draft. But as you can see they are pretty close.
By having the same melody between verses, when the listener hears the second verse for the first time they have already heard the melody and chord progression so it will sound familiar. By also working a rhythmic beat in to your lyrics as well, this will make the lyrics even sound more familiar.
Now in saying all of this, rules/guidelines are made to be broken (especially in Songwriting!), that’s what can makes a song unique. One instance might be in a final verse which has a different syllable count for the final line leading in to the Chorus (or a bridge).
By practicing writing lyrics using a strict syllable count, your writing can improve. Why? Well I’ll ask a question… how many ways can you say “I love you”? (and each way would have a different number of syllables (from none to essays or novels).
If you have a line that requires you to show your affect to a person:
6 syllables “You’re everything to me”,
7 syllables “We were made for each other”
8 syllables “I can say love in many ways”
9 syllables “You and me, we have a connection”
10 syllables “There’s not body else I want to be with”
11 syllables “You’re the only one who makes me feel alive”
And yes that was an exercise for myself! Not only does each line above offer a different syllable count, each line also offers a different Rhyme. Subsequent I’ve got 6 lines to use in some songs.
Keep and eye on the syllable count between the same line numbers in your verses to help each verse sound familiar to the listener.
Whilst writing this post, Verse Perfect didn’t count the syllables 100% correct for me… words that were plurals were being classed as two syllables when they were in fact only one.
When you have run through all the possible rhymes that you can think of and you still can’t get something to fit, other than a rewrite of the other line, you should look at a Rhyming Dictionary. In printed form there are two types of Rhyming Dictionaries you can purchase.
Forward look up
To use these dictionaries you look up the full word, or if you can’t find the actual word, a similar sounding word. I have one of these called “Essential Songwriter’s Rhyming Dictionary” published by Alfred.
If I were to look up a rhyme for the word “Trombone”, that word isn’t in the dictionary. I would look up a similar sounding work, ‘bone’. The entry for ‘bone’ says ‘see known’. Looking up ‘known’ I get 45 different rhymes.
Reverse look up
This sort of dictionary as the name suggests is the reverse of the Forward look up being that you look at the end of the word. A prime example of this is Sammy Cahn’s ‘The Songwriter’s Rhyming Dictionary’. (Note, this book is worth it just for the introduction by Sammy, it’s a wonderful read!) Using the same example above, “Trombone”, in this sort of dictionary I would be looking at the last ‘sound’ .. an ‘o’ sound… or as it’s described in the book an ‘oh’ sound. I then get to the ‘oan’ sound. I find 1 syllable rhymes-24, 2 syllable-22, 3 syllable-15 (61 total). Some are alternate spellings of words, but you still get a number of usable rhymes.
Online Rhyming Dictionaries
These, even though you don’t see it, use both Forward and Reverse look ups of Rhymes to find Rhymes for you. If you have a look at the Rhyming Dictionary entry on Wikipedia, there are (at the time of wiring this) 6 links to online rhyming dictionaries. The online dictionaries usually provide a larger number of rhymes ordered by syllable count (see my other songwriting page on counting syllables).
Some writers will say why use a rhyming dictionary cause if you can’t think of a rhyme then it shouldn’t be there… or in some cases could be obscure and change the way you are writing. I on the other hand think they are a good little reference which can jog your memory. Either way, if you do choose to use a rhyming dictionary, lean how to use it so you can get to the rhyme you want to find as quick as possible (or put a blank in where you are writing and come back to it later with the dictionary).
Perspective, Time and Tense
Perspective and Time and Tense are three things to make sure you keep consistent through a song. Perspective is where you are ‘seeing’ the song from. Time is the logical flow of time through a song and tense is how you are referring to the event in a song.
Going back to my old English classes I can remember when writing stories (and yes this applies to lyrics) it is recommended that you have to tell the one story from the same perspective throughout. You could try and confuse the listener (or reader of the lyric) by swapping perspective through a song. If you refer to yourself as ‘I’ in one line then in the second line make a statement as if you are looking at yourself from someone else’s perspective, ‘He’, it would confuse the listener and they might not understand what you are trying to portray in the song. That is why it’s best to keep the same perspective.
The two types of perspective:
In this perspective, the writer/performer is telling the story through their eyes. Describing what they see and they are doing, for example “I work up this morning and got out of bed”.
This perspective, the writer/performer is telling the story by standing on the outside and looking at the situation as if you are observing someone else and telling the listener about them. For example, “He woke up this morning and got out of bed”
It would be possible to write the same song in a ‘First Person’ and ‘Third Person’ perspective and get the same message across. It might just sound better in one perspective than the other. But try and keep the same perspective through the song.
As with all guide lines / rules (as some call them) in songwriting they are meant to be broken. For example in the “Long Road Out of Eden” track off the last Eagles album with the same name, the perspective of the song changes 1/2 way through. All the verses are in Third person with the bridge of the piece being in first person perspective. What this does is set’s up and draws the situation for the listener so they know where they are at. The first person perspective in the bridge then let the listener see through the eyes of one of the soldiers who is on the battle line and the pain he’s going through. Also note, in being the bridge of the song, there is a musical interlude before and a solo after it, giving it its own section of the song.
Another way the rules could be broken would be with a duet, for example
“I work up this morning and I got out of bed” – myself
“He didn’t know it but he woke me up” – duet partner (in this situation would be my wife 😉 ).
What do you do when you get out of bed? One possible scenario:
- Make a cup of coffee and cook and butter up some toast.
- Have a shower and get dressed for work
- Head out of the house and down the road to catch a bus to work.
- Get to work and start the working day.
Now if we tell that out of order:
- I had a shower this morning.
- Oh before it I ate some toast and a coffee which I made
- Then I headed to work…. after I got dressed of course
- Then I got to work and started the working day.
Now between the two examples the first one tells the events of my morning in a chronological order, the second is all over the place. Which was easier to understand from start to finish? The first one? That was just a morning with pretty simple events. What if you were writing a song and each verse was about a year of your life. What if you got them out of order? The first verse you are single, the second verse you have a child and the third verse you meet the love of your life who you are going to have kids with (no granted that is possible, but let’s play a non ‘soap opera’ yet ‘perfect’ world). That is why keeping the correct time line in songs is important.
I saw the video for an Alanis Morissette song ‘Hands Clean’ once about 6 years ago. I looked up the name of the song for this article by googling its’ hook which I had remembered, which turns out to be a great way to step through time in a song. The verses tell the story of a specific time and then you are propelled forward through the chorus with the line “We’ll fast forward to a few years later”.
Another good example of time in song would be ‘100 Years’ by Five for Fighting. For the first few verses it starts out “I’m <insert progressive age> for a moment”. A great way to tell the listener at what time you are referring to, in this case the age of a person in their entire life of 100 years.
Tense is linked to time by the way you are referring to events, whether they be in past, present or future tense. There is a wikipedia page which delves much more deeply in to the ‘perfect’ tenses as such. But I’ll just talk about the basics.
Let’s take a famous quote from Julius Caesar, “I came, I saw, I conquered.” (Veni, vidi, vici.) It is in past tense as it has already happened. Present tense might change that quote to “I’m here, I’m seeing this, and I am taking over”. Future tense would make it “I’m coming, I’ll check it out, and I will conquer it”.
From the above examples you can write an entire song in the past tense and rewrite it in the present tense and rewrite it once again in future tense. Again, some might sound better than the other. It can also change during a song. Just make sure like with time you have it in the correct order, you don’t want to be there (present tense) and then in the next verse be talking about travelling there (past).
Granted this guideline/rule is begging to be broken!
Here is an updated list of sites I’ve found along the way.
Ralph Murphy – definately check out his laws!!