Whether you are a songwriter that writes very literal lyrics, or who favors more poetic lyrics or maybe you write music with no lyrics at all, your compositions will benefit from strong storytelling elements!
Storytelling is as old as human language. By telling stories we not only create a sense of community, but also shape our history as a human race. But more importantly we communicate in ways that people can relate to. Music, whether it applies words or not, is most relatable when following some basic storytelling rules.
Let´s take a look at those basics and how to apply them into songs.
A good opening line
To start a good story, you need to catch the listener´s attention right away. Creating interest is keys here. There are many tools you can use to create interest.
Posing a question is a great idea. By asking a question you are adressing the listener and kind of engaging them. Compare the following:
- a) First love seldom lasts…
- b) Why does first love never last?
See how the question makes you more alert?
To create interest, it is recommendable to adress a human emotion or if that is not your thing, adress something very specific that might even seem weird.
A sentence like: Blue t-shirts always make me cry….
Say something that requires more context to make sense. Use imagery to create a specific scene, that you can walk your audience through. Whatever your first line is, make sure it rocks!
Use your first two verses to eleborate further on the first line and make sure not to give everything away in that section of your song. You will want to leave your listener hungry for more. You do however want to give them a bit of a story so to get them hooked on the song early on. To give you a lyrical example: You might write about a lost love, but instead of speaking about someone leaving or breaking your heart, you will only give hints.
You might say…”I should have known this from the start, but when you´re young you wanna trust your heart”….Only hinting, that something might have gone wrong.
You might want to be specific as well and say something like “He always bought me yellow roses, but they are useless under skies as grey.” …or “He used to pull me close and say I love you; words run dry, but memories never fade”.
If you are writing instrumental music, play with call and response patterns but don´t answer every call! Play with pauses before resolving themes etc.
Do leave some room for imagination and keep creating suspense!
Adressing and emphasizing univesal human emotions
In your first chorus, there is room to release some of the emotions you have bottled up in the verses! Basic human emotions like love, friendship, hurt, loss, joy or sadness can be expressed here. You can emphazise these emotions by using longer notes, pauses and high pitches. Even if you are writing instrumental music, these high energy sections of your songs should make sure to linger with the audience a bit! Try either very long notes or very short, repetitive notes. They always work their magic!
If you write lyrics, do apply generalized “images” here, that most people can relate to! You can be very specific in your verses, but make your choruses work for all kinds of situations and constellations. Think of Joni Mitchell´s song “The River”. She paints a scene (Christmas spirit) in verse one, then gets specific and hints at a lost love and the guilt/regrets she feels as well. Then in her chorus she uses a very universal language to express a longing to run away, an escape that holds some hope!
“I wish I had a river so long,
I would teach my feet to fly
Oh I wish I had a river
I could skate away on”
“A river, to skate on” is a nice metaphor, that most of us will associate with some sort of (childhood) joy, but really she´s saying, “I wanna skate away”! That makes the chorus bittersweet! And bittersweet always works as humans are always twodimensional. Understanding human psychology is great when writing choruses! Playing with contrast is a great tool!
Make it stick
In storytelling, anything that you repeat tends to be interpreted as more relevant by our brain and usually sticks with us! That´s why in popular music we often repeat certain song sections! Verses always come with the same melodies and so do choruses. We might even repeat important words or motifs. Or play with aliteration and repeating certain syllables. Know what you want to emphazise within each section of the song and make sure to repeat these motifs.
Add more colour/depth to the picture
In verses 3 and 4, make use of details. Give your listeners more of the backstory! Enough with all the hints already! They will want you to serve them their meal now. Give them a lot to chew on! “Draw” them in. Be specific and use light and shadow. You will want them to fully understand where you are coming from!
Also make sure not just to repeat what you already said in verses 1 and 2. Add a different element to these verses. Be more precise, but also give more insights on the situation or the character you are trying to portrait in terms of developing the story further. Make sure these verses are highly relevant and not just nonchalant, useless information or you might risk losing the listener!
Going the opposite way is a great way of keeping the listener engaged! In the bridge, stray away! Go backwards, go sidewards, change your tone of voice, change your pitch, lower the energy then rise it again…Dance with the listener and make them question everything!
Break the patterns
Adding pauses is golden! Dare to stop and stare. Pause and create tension, before you go back into the last chorus. What you don´t play (or say) is as important as the notes you play.
Go big in the final chorus
Save the best for last! This definitely makes sense in songwriting!In your last chorus section, once again, draw the listeners in, and give them the goodies! Make them sing along! Make them scream “Yes! I feel you!” Bond with the audience and then leave without a word!
Like in a Hollywood movie you can either give your audience closure and make them “happy” or leave things “open” and make them hit play again;)
Remember! Storytelling is power! Use it!
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