Lyrics: show, then tell, then reflect

James Linderman, writing in the 2011/2012 issue of Songwriters Magazine, offers a helpful guideline for thinking about song structure:

  • verse lyrics show
  • chorus lyrics tell
  • bridge lyrics philosophize

It’s a helpful insight that can focus and hone the writing process.  The idea of showing something can involve all of the senses, so it need not be limited to visual images.  For example, evoking a sense of touch is powerful (“your breath in my ear”) and has an emotional draw that strictly visual elements might not convey as well.  Scent and sound of course are other important dimensions of our experience.  I’ve been working on a song that uses imagery from an amusement park to establish a context and mood for a story about two young lovers.  Some of that imagery was inspired by images I found on Flickr and posted previously.

The chorus is where the hook is typically found in a song, so summing up the key idea of the song is part of the “telling”.  The chorus can also be a place where word play is engaged and double-entendres can be employed to good effect.  In the amusement park song I stumbled on the phrase “carry on” as the hook for the chorus.  Because the song is about young lovers, the phrase works nicely in a dual sense.  It can mean rambunctious behaviour on the one hand and/or the idea of keeping it going on the other hand.  The lovers in the story are both having a blast at the amusement park (“carrying on”) and they both want their love to carry on forever.

Bridge lyrics can act as a pivot point and provide a moment of reflection in the song.  In “Carry On”, the bridge isn’t yet written but I want it to touch on the idea that the main character knows deep down that this moment of joy will pass and so he wants to take full advantage of it while he can.  With that, the bridge will also require a shift in mood that can be linked back to the chorus, returning to the celebration after the pause for reflection.

If the amusement park is imagined as part of a travelling carnival, then I might be able to draw on the idea of the empty lot that remains after the tents and rides are taken down and on their way to another city.

While we are in the midway and the swept up in the lights and sounds it seems like it can last forever.  But the next day we wake up to find an empty parking lot.  The spirit of the moment has moved on.

Now I just need to find the right words to express that sentiment.

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