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March, 2012

"Songwriting: Keep it Simple"

by Webmaster

From Ed Skibbe Ed Slibbe: Bands, Singers, Songwriters / Composers, Solo Performers, Sidemen, Instrumentalists, Performers, Entertainers, Musicians, Cowboy Poets:

Keep it simple. We are writing popular (we hope!) songs, not great American novels. When songs get too complex, especially lyrically, the listener finds it harder to relate to your song and understand what you are saying.

This is profoundly true if you are trying to write "hit" songs, but it also applies even to you "true artists." Simpler songs have more impact and a longer life than complicated songs. Whenever possible:

  1. Write in the first person and second person ("I" and "you").
  2. Focus on one central idea and ruthlessly weed out anything superfluous to that idea. Subplots, back stories, details, extensive character development? There is almost never time for it unless it is essential to telling your main story. If those secondary ideas are compelling, perhaps you can write additional songs.
  3. Limit the number of characters. (This relates to #1.) When you mention yourself, the person to whom you are speaking and one or two other he's and she's, the listener loses track of the cast of characters and the story line.
  4. You don't have to be a slave to formula, but keep your song structure simple. You rarely need one bridge. I've yet to hear a song that needs two. If you use a basic, conventional structure that supports your song, your listener will have a much easier time getting involved in what you are saying.
  5. Keep it brief. I enjoy a good Dylan ballad or "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" now and again, but you had better have something incredibly compelling to say and an engaging way to say it if you want anyone to listen to that third verse, much less the fourth or fifth. I don't recall hearing a song locally here that could not be improved by editing it down to no more than two verses.

From Chuck Cannon:

  • Learn to write simply.
  • When you are stuck, think to yourself, 'What is the emotion I want people to feel?'
  • Winnow away the stuff around the concept to get to the emotion.

From John McVey

  • Listeners, especially in the country genre, want to know what's going to happen next, a verse, a chorus, a bridge, but they also like to be surprised.
  • Economy counts in a song when you only have a short period of time to get across the emotion you want to convey.
  • From an inspiration point of view, a song is a moment.

From Steve Seskin:

  • Part of what you write in lyrics is what you don't write.
  • When we write a song or a poem, create a piece of art ... we don't really finish it.  The reader, the listener, the viewer finishes it.

"You never want to lose a word or a phrase, yet every one should count." — Ben Harper

"If a song’s good, don’t overdo it." — Chris Isaak

"I think the best pop music writers are the ones that can communicate complex emotional things in very simplistic terms, and in a very direct way, that gets across in the restricted format of a pop song. You don't have 86 words. You've got four words, and in those four words, every word has to count." — John Oates, quoted by Ken Sharp in "Soul Survivors Hall and Oates," American Songwriter, January/February 2009

"The melodies were melodies that anybody could sing or hum or whistle. And the words were just about that simple." — Don Helms, quoted by Michael Kosser in "And Some Steel Guitar! Don Helms and the Songwriting of Hank Williams," American Songwriter, January/February 2009

"Songs ... are only simple on the outside, typically verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus. Add a hook, which can be musical ... or lyrical.... But songs live or die on their ability to hit some deeper chord. Then they work, they're a lot more than pick-ups and whiskey; they're about the meaning of life.
"Like poems, the best country songs are short and powerful. When you've got so few words to deliver the emotional punch, each word must be laden with meaning." — Elaine Glusac

"Funny how song writers can squeeze a novel into a few verses. I suppose that's why poets are the ones who make us feel what we can't say." — Patrick Bone


A good song should tell a story in as few words as possible.  Self-editing includes the elimination of unnecessary words, lines, verses.  If you don't know how to do that, check out 'Not Quite What I Was Planning' a collection of 6-word memoirs by Smith Magazine, and Ridley Scott's global film making competition, 'Tell It Your Way,' which limits films to 3 minutes and 6 lines of dialog.

Thanks for visiting AcousticByLines.

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