I have a confession to make. It really irritates me the way some people are glued to their smartphones. Recently, I was eating lunch with a classmate at my externship. We were sitting across the table from one another and I was trying to make small talk, but instead of carrying on a conversation with me, she just pulled out her iPhone and glued her eyes on it the entire time. Whether she was texting, surfing the internet, or just staring at her menu screen, she preferred doing that instead of talking to me. At first I was shocked that someone could be so rude, but unfortunately I’ve discovered these kinds of situations are becoming all too common. [This funny youtube video by Rhett and Link called “Get Off The Phone” encapsulates this problem well.]
These days, it’s getting harder for real-life relationships and conversations to compete with some people’s digital worlds. With the growing amount of available information, capturing someone’s attention is an increasingly difficult task.
This is especially a challenge for musicians. We have a limited window of opportunity to connect with an audience before they choose to skip to another song or click off our webpage. Having great lyrics is one of the key ways songwriters can grab the listener’s attention.
After reflecting on feedback from songwriting contests I recently entered, I’ve come to realize that in order to become a better lyricist I need to become a better storyteller. Amid all of the things vying for people’s attention, what stands out? As the Heath brothers pointed out in their bestselling book “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die,” stories do. (Specifically, ones that are simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, and/or emotional.)
Lyric writing is just one of many ways we tell stories, and the unique challenge it presents is the need to be concise. Unlike a novelist who can take a paragraph (or more) to describe a Hobbit’s foot, a lyricist must convey ideas through limited words. And one of the most important parts in telling a story is capturing the audience’s attention at the beginning.
How do you write lyrics that capture the audience’s attention?
Here are 3 things I’ve learned:
- Utilize the first-person point-of-view, which can be easier to follow and will immediately immerse the listener in the head of the character who is singing the song. “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding is a good example of this technique. The song starts out: “Sitting in the morning sun, I’ll be sitting when the evening come. Watching the ships roll in, then I’ll watch ‘em roll away again.”
- Make a catchy declaration that will be repeated throughout the song as a “hook.” Use the verses to explain and elaborate on the sentiment. “Cruise” by Florida Georgia Line is a great example of this. The song starts out declaring, “Baby, you a song—you make me wanna roll my windows down and cruise.”
- Ask a question as part of the singer’s dialogue to someone else, which propels the reader into the action of what the singer is doing. “Operator (That’s Not The Way It Feels)” by Jim Croce is a nice example of this strategy. He starts off singing, “Operator, could you help me place this call? See the number on the matchbook is old and faded.”
Do you think it’s getting harder to get people’s attention? What other ways can you capture the audience’s attention through lyrics? What techniques do some of your favorite songs use?