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Get This Write!

I’ve been listening to songs in a professional capacity for over
13 years, as a songwriter, An A&R executive, a manager, a producer and as an artist developer. Along the way, I’ve learned some simple
tests you can perform on your songs.  Using these tests as you're
writing will help you to craft songs that create more than a
passing interest from listeners.

Look at the first two lines of your lyric and only the first two
lines. Imagine yourself walking down the street and having a
perfect stranger come up to you and say those two lines.  How much
of the "who, what, where, why and how" of the story/message of your
song has been communicated?  If you don't know much from the first
two lines, i.e., if you don't know enough to care what's going to
happen to the protagonist, a record executive, producer or casual listener will most likely not be interested to listen further.

Dean Pitchford, who wrote "Flashdance," gave us this one. I know what you’re thinking, “Why is this jackass referring to ‘Flashdance”? It’s because even if you don’t like a particular song you can learn from those songs that for whatever reason touched A LOT of people.  Each
lyric line (and its accompanying melodic phrase) is like a present
tied up with a bow. Neat and complete.  That means, if you say that
line alone, it's completely understandable on its own.  It doesn't
need the next line to have it make sense. Look at each of your
lyric lines separately and make sure it presents a complete,
independent picture.

Type/print your lyric sheet flush left (all the lines starting on
the left margin) on a sheet of white paper.  (By the way, if your
lyric doesn't fit on one sheet, you're in trouble.) Can you draw a
rectangle around the lyrics of the verses?  In other words, are all
your lines exactly the same physical length?  How about your chorus
or bridge?  Can you draw a box around them?  Now, can you draw a
big box around your verses and chorus and have most or all of the
lines touch on the right side of your box?  If so, it's more than
likely that your song will sound monotonous because you do not have
enough variety in the lengths of lines and patterns of lyrics.
Look for a really ragged right edge as a sign that your lyrics are
conversational and interesting rhythmically.  Also, look for the
box around the chorus lines to be of significantly different size
than the box around the verses. It's an indicator of sufficient
variety between the chorus and the verses.

Part 1: Albert's right about that, but some of what counts can be
counted.  For instance, count the number of lines in each of your
verses. Now, count the lines in your chorus.  If they're exactly
the same, e.g., 4-line verse, 4-line chorus; or, 8-line verse,
8-line chorus, you probably haven't made enough contrast between
the two sections.

Part 2: This is one we see all the time!  Count the number of beats
in the lyric of verse 1, line 1.  Then, count the number of beats
in verse 2, line 1.  Do they match?  Sometimes, we need to insert a
little pick-up note for an extra syllable and it's OK because the
rest of the line falls naturally into the accents of the basic
pattern.  But, we often see 8 beats in verse 1, line 2 and 13 beats
in verse 2, line 2, for example.  No way those extra 5 beats are
going to fit comfortably on the melody you worked so hard to
establish in the first verse.  Count all the beats in all the lines
and make sure they match from verse to verse, so they can be sung
on the same melody with ease.

You may have heard of the saying, "Position is everything in life."
In the life of your song, the position of your title tells the
listener what your main point is.  There are certain power
positions in a song. What they are, depends on which structure you
choose when you write your song.  

Is it a verse/bridge structure (a.k.a. A, A, B, A)?  Then your
title will be in the verses.  It will be in the first line of the
verse or the last line of the verse.  These are the power positions
in that structure.  Example: "Yesterday" by The Beatles. (There are
exceptions, but they are rare and compensated for by strong melodic
emphasis when the title is not in the natural power position.)

In the verse/chorus structure, the power positions are at the top
of the chorus and the last line of the chorus.  Your title could be
in either one or both of those places, and repeated more often if
the repetition works. Example: "Yellow Submarine" by The Beatles.

Look at your lyric and see where the title is.  If it's buried in
the middle somewhere, your listener probably won't be able to
identify it, i.e., know what the song is about, how to ask for it
to be played on the radio, or find it at the store.

The word "ultimate" has several meanings. 1. last, 2. decisive, 3.
most desirable, 4. basic, etc.  This test encompasses all those
meanings.  It was taught us by two songwriters in Nashville, both
of whom claimed authorship!  Take your typed lyric sheet.  Write
(or imagine writing) your title after each and every line of lyric.
Say the line of lyric, then say the title.  If the two hang
together and make sense, then your song is about the title.  If you
go for lines and lines without the verse lyrics having much to do
with the title—meaning they don't make sense when you say them next
to each other—it's time to go back to the drawing board.  Your song
is not about your title.

Take an overview of your rhyme scheme.  If you've established an a,
b, a, b, c, c rhyme scheme in verse one, do you keep it up in verse
2?  In other words, do the lines rhyme with the same pattern (not
the same sound) in verse 1 and verse 2, and verse 3, if there is
one?  Now note the sounds of your rhymes.  Are they all a long o
sound?  That can get pretty dull.  We've seen songs where every
line ended in the long ee rhyme.  The ear gets tired of that very
quickly.  If you've inadvertently rhymed everything with the same
sound, you might consider going back and creating more variety in
your rhyming sounds.

This is the name for the confusion that results when, in mid-song,
someone who was a "she" becomes a "you." Or, all of a sudden, "he"
switches to "me." Or, there are three "I's" in a row, referring to
three different people and we're supposed to know which one is
which.  Or, someone starts to quote someone else, the pronoun
shifts, but there's no way to really tell a quotation has begun.

Scan your lyrics for pronouns.  If you've made one of the changes
we describe, it's probable your listeners will go straight to
pronoun hell.  There are always exceptions, but, for the most part,
it's best to have one person represented by one pronoun.  If a
quotation is part of your song, make sure you introduce it with a
clearly audible, "She said" or "He said" so your listeners can
understand when the "I" singing the song begins to be addressed as

Part 1: Sing your melody a cappella (with no instrumental
accompaniment) and without the lyrics.  Sing it into a tape if you
have trouble being objective about hearing what you're singing.  As
a stranger to your song, could you honestly tell where the title
would sit on your melody without ever hearing the lyrics?  If the
most outstanding part of your melody is where you did put your
title, give yourself a pat on the back.  If not, your title needs
to be moved or your melody changed.

Part 2: While you're singing your melody a cappella, does it have
emotional dynamics?  Is there a variety of lengths of notes and
intervals between the notes?  Or, does it sound like a sing-songy
nursery rhyme; the same rhythm pattern over and over?  If someone
heard just your melody, could they make a pretty good guess at the
emotions in the story of the song?  If your melody is not emoting,
you need to write it once more ? with feeling!

Your chords give shadings to your melody.  Each chord has an
emotional tone.  Minor chords tend to express doubt or sorrow.
Major chords have a happy, positive feeling. Adding 6ths, 7ths,
9ths, suspensions, and inversions, gives the basic chord still more
nuances of feeling.  Is your song down home country or uptown
sophisticated?  High-power rock or soft mellow jazz?  Appropriate
choice of chords will bring the message of your song into sharp
focus.  The frequency of chord changes and the style of playing the
chords are both important considerations. Style examples on the
piano: arpeggios, block chords. On the guitar: all the strings at
once, some of the strings, one string at a time. Listen to the
chord changes in your song.  Are they distracting because they are
too rapid and complex?  Are they boring because they don't change
enough or your strum is too repetitive? Do they work against the
emotional message of the song or support it?  Look at each chord
individually. Try an inversion for a different coloring.  Leave no
chord unturned in your search for the perfect setting for the
message of your song.

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