Songwriting Survival Guide
I created this web page to store notes about writing lyrics for songs.
Rhyming and Songwriting - see this web page
for information on the use of rhymes in your lyrics.
- The Goal of a writing a song.
- memorable (easy to remember) - use of repetition but yet not boring.
- Basic Components of a Song
- Lyrics - words used in the song.
- Melody - the notes you sing when singing the lyrics.
(Note: The melodic range should be at least 1 octave but not more than 1
octave and a third.)
- Music - the instruments & sounds behind the song. (ie: rythmn,
- Song Titles
- Titles can't be copyrighted.
- Stay away from titles that are so well known and unique that a
listener would expect to hear that song. (ie: Deck The Halls, Frosty
the Snow Man, etc...)
- See the Performing Rights Organizations (PROs) for titles of
- Make the Title Stand Out
- Use the contrast in your melody to help the title stand out.
- Use your lyrics to help the title stand out.
- Message in a Title
- Emotion - happy, sad, love, anger, reflecting, wishing,
- Fresh twist on old phrase
- Phrases that have multiple meanings
- Place, Person, Event
- Words in a Title
- Inner rhymes
- Unusual Placements of the Song Title
(Warning: Unless you are the artist or a famous writer you may
want to stray away from these examples.)
- Have I Told You Lately
That I Love You - Rod Stewart - just the first line of the first
- The Gambler - Kenny Rodgers - Verse 5 - The only place "The
Gambler" is used. The word "Gambler" is also used in 2 other
places (Verse 1 & Verse 4)
- The Greatest - mfb Kenny Rodgers - In each Verse, but the 3rd line
of each verse.
- The Rose - mfb Conway Twitty, songwriter: Amanda McBroom
- The song uses the V-V-V structure and only uses the title once as
the last 2 words in the song.
- Prosody - the marriage of music to your lyrics.
- Factors that emphasize a syllable or word: Melody
(Higher note, note held longer), rhythm/meter (using the strong beat,
etc...), Chords, etc...
- Word Warping - when the music (melody, meter, rhythm, etc...)
distracts in the communication of the lyrics to the listener. So try to
sing it the way you say it.
- Place emphases (stress) on the syllables of a word in a similar
way you would speak the word.
- Word Weighting - emphasize words in a sentence that are
important to your lyrics and maintain the meaning of your sentence.
Warning: Emphasizing different words in a sentence can indeed change the
meaning of the sentence.
- Phrasing Pauses - try to match the phrase pauses in your
melody to the natural lyric phrase pauses.
Warning: Placing pauses in the wrong place can change the meaning of the
- Musical Mood - Match the tempo, melody, and chords to the
mood of the lyrics. The music should convey the tone of the
- Minor chords feel more sad or somber. Slower tempos are more
reflective and somber.
- Creating Contrast in Your Songs
- Melody Contrast
- Starting the chorus/bridge on a different chord than the verses.
- Making the melody soar higher in the chorus/bridge than the
- Changing the rhythm of the words in chorus/bridge. (see Meter
- Rhyme Contrast
- Between song sections (verse, chorus, bridge) vary the rhyme
- Vary the rhyme sounds between adjacent rhyming lines.
- Meter (Lyrical Rhythm or Rhythmic)
- Varying (contrasting) the lyric rhythm (meter) between sections of a
song (verse, chorus, bridge, etc...) helps to keep the song interesting
to the listener. Remember that whatever lyric rhythm you use in a
section type (ie: a verse) must be used consistently in the other
sections of that type (ie: other verses).
- Varying the number of syllables in a lyric line helps to
change the lyric rhythm (meter). Contrast how many
syllables are pronounced in a measure (bar of music) between
sections of the song.
- The easiest way to notice meter change when looking at lyrics is
to notice that the length of the lines between sections are
noticeably different. A longer line means that the phrases
will be pronounced faster (short meter) and shorter lines means that
the phrases will be held out longer (longer meter).
- Pronoun Contrast
- To bring contrast to your sections of a song you may want to use
"I" & "me" in one section and then switch to "you","she","he","we",
- Detail in Lyrics
- In one song section, try to paint a picture with words that
create images in the listeners head that express the feeling you
want to convey in the song. In the next song section you can
use common phrases (clichť's) that express those feelings.
Usually a verse has detail and the chorus has common phrases.
- Lyric words
- Avoid starting 2 adjacent lines with the same word.
Ex: Avoid the following:
Then he read me ...
Then asked me ...
- Double consonants - Unless your looking for a special effect,
avoid 2 one syllable words that begin with the same consonant - they
don't sing well.
Ex: Avoid the following:
- Minor chords - produces a more dramatic, mysterious feel.
- Country songs are normally not written in a Minor Key.
In Pop, AC, TV, Film almost anything goes.
- Music Arrangement (Production)
- Make contrasts between sections to keep the listener interested
in what comes next.
- Lyric Topics: Theme
- My Categories
- Love Have (Me, You, 3rd Party)
- Love Wanting (Me, You, 3rd Party) -
- Love Found (Me, You, 3rd Party)
- Love Lost (Me, You, 3rd Party)
- Description - physical attraction, pursuit of intimacy,
unconditional devotion, heartache and jealousy, friendship and
- Lyric Topics - Person (1st or 3rd)
- First-person - pronouns (I, me, you, us) - make the song more
conversational and personal.
- Country - ~ 3/4 of the #1 hit songs are in the First-person.
- Lyric Topics - Content
- Country Drive Time - somewhat innocent, like you would talk
around your in-laws. Chick songs.
- Country Drive Time (Friday Evening) - Party time.
- Country dance club/bar -
- Lyrics Techniques
- Tell your story through imagery (visualization).
- Paint a image of feeling instead of telling the listener about a
Instead of saying "I love you..." or "I'm leaving you" describe the
events, story and images that say the feeling or emotion.
- Describe a situation that gives the listener a picture of a
feeling or emotion.
- Be descriptive of nouns.
- Metaphor - a phrase or word (a noun) that normally means one
thing but is used to mean another thing thus making an interesting
comparison. (Ex: A <noun> is a <noun>)
Ex: A sea of comparisons, All the worldís a stage (William Shakespear)
Ex: Love is a flower, Love is a river
- Lyric Ideas that are metaphors:
Spicy Food to a Spicy Relationship
A Rose to Love
- Song Titles Examples:
Love is the Right Place - Celine Dion
Love is a Many Splendor Thing - Kenny Rogers
- Lyric Examples:
- Simile - A figure of speech in
which two essentially unlike things are compared, often in a phrase
introduced by like or as.
Like: "How like the winter hath my absence been" (Shakespeare).
So: "So are you to my thoughts as food to life" (Shakespeare).
she is like a rose
Her hair was like silk
- Phrase Repetition - repeating a phrases (lyric and melody)
that makes the song memorable.
- Set up your hook/title.
- Emphasize an emotion.
Why Lady Why mfb Alabama (repeats "Why Lady & I Try Lady)
Why Lady, Why, Canít I Leave You Alone
I Try Lady, Try, but the Feeling Is to Strong
Why Lady, Why, Canít I Get over You.
Why Lady, Why, it Was Easy Before
I Try Lady, Try, but it Ainít Easy No More
Why Lady, Why, Canít I Get over You.
- Questions - engages the listener to think about the answer
and apply the question to his own life.
- Song Titles -
Why Should I Fall In Love - mfb Aaron Neville
Why Lady Why - mfb Alabama
Why Oh Why - Celine Dion
Why Don't We Get Drunk - mfb Jimmy Buffett
How Do You Fall In Love - mfb Alabama
How Was I To Know - mfb John Michael Montgomery
How Am I Suppose To Live Without You - mfb Michael Bolton
How Can We Be Lovers - mfb Michael Bolton
- Other Ideas:
- Open or close a verse with a question.
- Open or close a chorus with a question.
- Ask a series of questions the give the answer.
- The Answer Is Blowing In The Wind - mfb Bob Dylan - This
is a V-V-V song. Each verse has a list of questions
with the last 2 lines being the answer:
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind,
The answer is blowin' in the wind.
- Ask questions but don't give an answer.
- Why Lady Why - mfb Alabama
This is a V-V-V song.
The song is about: Why can't I get Over you.
The song never answers the question.
Each verse starts with:
Why Lady, Why, ...
I Try Lady, Try, ...
3rd Line of each verse makes a statement.
Each verse ends with: Why Lady, Why, Canít I Get over You
It's a very simple song that has had great success.
- Third Person
- Lyric View
- You can tell a story from a fresh angle.
- It's easier to tell a story about a tuff, to personal, or
weird subject - a subject that would normally make the singer
look bad if it was in first person. (subjects: domestic
violence, suicide, race, poverty, rich people, etc...)
- A 3rd person song can be song my a male or female artist
because it is not gender specific.
- Tuff Subjects
- Concrete Angel - mfb Martina McBride - child abuse
- Goodbye Earl - mfb Dixie Chicks - wife kills her abusive
- Whiskey Lullaby- Brad Pasley - a US service man returns
from a tour and finds his wife in bed with another man.
He can live with the hurt so he commits suicide. She
can't live the guilt so she commits suicide.
- Alyssa Lies - mfb - mfb Jason Michael Carroll - A
daughter tells the singer (a dad) about a little girl
at school who lies about her bruises. Several days
later Alyssa quits coming to school because she now lies
under the ground and the dad has to explain to his daughter
- He Stopped Loving Her Today - mfb George Jones - a
story about a man and woman who separated yet the man kept
loving the woman. Years later the singer saw the man again
at his funeral all dress up to go away (he died). The
singer saw the woman who had not seen the deceased in years.
That day, he stopped loving her.
- He Walked On Water - mfb Randy Travis -
Verse 1: a young grand son's view of his grandfather.
Verse 2: grand son reflects on who the grandfather was when he
was is dad's dad.
Chorus: grand son remembers how he seemed to be a good man, who
walked on water.
Verse 3: grand son remembers days with his grandfather, then
grandfather dies when he was 90.
- The Greatest - mfb Kenny Rogers - about a little boy
who says he is the greatest baseball player of all time.
He even strikes his self out at the end of the song with strike
- Lyrics - Types of
- The List - a list of things. The list helps support the
main message of the song and can be the main message.
The whole song can be a list or for contrast, place lists in the verses
but not the chorus/bridge or place the list in the bridge and/or chorus
- List of things: to do ..., you like ..., you dislike ..., you
want ..., you found ..., etc...
- List of things from a perspective: child, teen, adult etc...
- List of things someone is .... (ex: I am ...., I am ....,
I am ...., I am ....)
- Hit Examples
- "In Pictures" recorded by Alabama - Chorus has a list of
things he missed as his daughter grew up.
- "Remember When" recorded by Alan Jackson
- "The Secret Of Life" recorded
by Faith Hill
- "My Next Thirty Years" recorded
by Tim McGraw - list of things he will do in his next 30 years.
- Recorded by Shania Twain -
- "Any Man Of Mine" - things
her man should be/do,
- "I'm Gonna Getcha Good" -
how she is gonn get her man,
- "Honey I'm Home" - verse1 &
2 all the things that went wrong, chorus - things she will
do when she get's home, verse3 - more bad things that
- "Because You Loved Me" recorded by Celine Dion, written by
Verses 1(list): For (all, every, etc...) ....; Lift (Your ....)
Chorus (list): You were ..., etc...
Verse 2 (list): You ...; Lift (I ...)
Bridge (list): You were ..., You built ...
- "Don't Ask Me How I Know" by Bobby Pinson (list for verse,
chorus & bridge)- list of things not to do.
- The Changing Chorus - the chorus changes slightly each time.
The hook (title) always the same.
- Less is best - make a small change to the chorus (like 1 line
changes each time). If you change to much the chorus may sound
like a verse and/or will be less memorable.
- Move the story line - a small change in the chorus could move
the story line.
- Time Travel - the song travels in time.
- Song Form - V,C,V,C,V,C or V,C,V,C,B,C - in this song form you
can let the verses move the time along and let the Chorus be the
common thread. Each verse needs to lead back to the Chorus.
- Use phrases that suggest time change: years ago, when I
was 10, 10 years later, etc... Make sure that the listener is
- Hit Examples:
- "Unanswered Prayers" recorded by Garth Brooks - the other
night he and his wife meet an old flame that years ago he
wanted, now she's not quite the angle that he remembered and now
he's glad he meet his current wife.
- "Remember When" recorded by Alan Jackson - just married,
later years broke each others hearts, children's years, 30's is
just a stepping stone, children have their on families.
- "Drive" recorded by Alan Jackson - child hood with an old
wood boat, his first fixer up car, grown up with 3 daughters,
- "Don't Take The Girl" recorded by Tim McGraw, writers L.
Johnson & C. Martin
- "Where've You Been" recored by Kathy Mattea, written by Don
Henry and Jon Vezner
- Lyrics - Creativity
Creating an fresh approach to an old story.
- Point of View - choose a point of view for the lyrics.
Who is the singer and the other characters.
- Theme (show vs tell)- pick a specific theme that many
can relate too. The give specific details of imagery around that
them. Show your theme instead of telling your theme.
Ex Theme: The love you felt as a child.
Show: Mom hugged my teddy bear with me
Ex Theme: I love you.
Show: Let me put my finger through your jet black hair.
- Theme Comparison - for creativity you may want to compare a
feeling with a thing or activity.
Ex: Love that is falling apart with an old car that is falling
Ex: Finding Love at a dance.
- Hooks - something in a song that makes it memorable. Try to
- Lyric hook - a lyric that is memorable.
- Rhythmic hook - a rhythmic patter that is memorable
- Melodic hook - a melody that is memorable
- Instrumental hook - an instrumental lick that is memorable.
- Song length & form
- Song Length
- Country - aim for 3:00 - 3:30 with out any instrumentals.
Min of 2:30 and Max of 4:30 (maybe 5:00).
- Song Forms (3rd & 4th - most popular)
- Elements in a Song Form
- Melody is identical for all Verses
- The lyrics change for each Verse and should take the
listener on a journey lyrically.
- 8 measures - most common ( 4 lines of 2 measures)
- The Melody is identical for all Choruses.
- Normally the lyrics are identical, however, may change
- The Melody is different from the Chorus/Verses.
- In a V/C structure the Bridge may be called a "Release".
- Lift (aka: climb, pre-chorus, pre-hook, setup, etc...)
- Helps take the melody of a verse up to the chorus.
- Adds additional lyric
- Placement in the song
- Usually considered part of the verse.
- Added to the end of each verse to help build up to a
soaring chorus. If you have 2 verses before the
chorus, then you just have 1 lift before the chorus.
- Sometimes there is another lift after a chorus
leading to the last chorus.
- Sometimes the lyrics are the same or may change
- VVV - Verse-Verse-Verse (aka AAA)
- Hook (song title) is normally located on the 1st line
and/or last line of each Verse.
- There is only one musical section - the Verses.
- Pros & Cons
- Harder to keep the listener interested. The
lyrics & melody must be so engaging that it keeps the
- Not a common structure.
- VVBV - Verse-Verse-Bridge-Verse-Optional Bridge-Optional
Verse (aka AABA)
- Hook (song title) is normally located on the 1st line
and/or last line of each Verse. Normally the hook is
not in the Bridge but could be placed there to re-emphasize
the hook. I would leave the hook out of the Bridge
because sometimes this is a negative if critiqued.
- There is 2 musical sections - the Verses & the Bridge.
- Usually the same length as the Verses.
- Tag - sometimes the hook is repeated in a line or lines
at the end of the song.
AABABA - "To Make You Feel My Love" - Garth Brooks, Bob
- Pros & Cons
- Many hit songs have this form.
- Can be good for story line songs.
- VCVC - Verse-(Verse Optional)-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Instrumental-Chorus
- VCVCBC - Verse-(Verse
- VCVCBVC -
- VLCVLC - Verse-Lift-Chorus-Verse-Lift-Chorus-(Bridge
- CVCBC - Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Instrumental-Bridge-Chorus
VL-C-VL-C-Instr-C - Let's Make Love Faith - Hill & Tim
McGraw (Hook is bookend)
V-C-V-C-B-C-T - It's Your Love - Tim McGraw
V-V-C-V-C-V-C-T - Long Black Train - Josh Turner
V-C1-V-C2-V-C3-T - Don't Take the Girl - Tim McGraw - Lyrics
of each chorus change slightly.
- Hook is located in the Chorus.
- First & Last Line - this is called: bookend or
- Last line - Commonly the hook is only on the last
line. In this case, sometimes the last line of the
verses my have the hook but could be looked down on in a
- First line - this is lest common because it is
harder to make memorable.
- Hook is not located in the Verses or the Bridge.
- Remember, there is always exceptions.
- Having 1 verse before the chorus is the most common
- Sometimes a song will use 2 verses to lyrically
setup the first chorus.
- Is usually half the length of the chorus.
- The melody is different than the Verse or Chorus.
- The bridge could be just instrumental or could have
- The lyrics in the bridge should take the listener to
another place in the song and led them back to the
chorus. Sometimes the bridge may go to another
Song (Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Ending)
- V,C,V,C - (verse, chorus, verse, chorus)
- V,C,V,C,B,C - (verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus)
- V,V,B,V - (verse, verse, bridge, verse)
- V,V,C,B,C - (verse, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus)
- Bridge - a portion of the song which is completely different from
the rest of the tune.
Song Length (in Minutes)
This is what I've noticed.
- Goal - 2:30 to 3:30
- Acceptable Min & Max - seems to be 2:30 to 4:30
- Absolute Min & Max - seems to be 2:00 to 5:00.
- Competitions - Some have a max of 4:00
- 1 to 6 Words
- Compile a list of song titles. A song will generally come from a
- Good titles set the mood, the story, paint a picture, create drama, and
hooks you to want to hear more.
- Visual writing - develop this skill by reading a news paper or
magazine and circle all the words that are visual. Where ever you go,
notice the things around you and describe them visually to yourself.
Experience your surroundings visually.
- Remember the 5 senses: sight, smell, taste, hearing, and touch.
Write lyrics that engage them.
- Adult Contemporary
- Album Oriented Rock (AOR)
- AC - Adult Contemporary
- AR - Album Oriented Rock (AOR)
- AL - Alternative Music
- CL - Classical Music
- CC - Contemporary Christian Music
- CT - Country Music
- GP - Gospel Music
- HH - Hip Hop
- JZ - Jazz Music
- LN - Latin
- NA - New Age
- PP - Pop Music
- RP - Rap Music
- RK - Rock Music
- RB - Rhythm And Blues
- OT - Other
- Pitching Songs
- Male vs Female Vocals - you should pitch a male vocal demo to a Male
artist and a female vocal demo to a female.
Note: Sometimes a female can hear a male vocal demo and picture them
singing the song.
- Genre - make a separate demo for each genre you want to pitch to
using a vocal and instrumentation suitable for each genre.
- Guitar Vocals by pros could be pitched for a Ballad song.