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Understanding & Writing Lyrics: Part 2

Understanding & Writing Lyrics, Part 2: Modes

Whenever we hear or read song lyrics, we are hearing the voice of a person, whether that voice be the songwriter's own, exploring his or her own emotions and feelings, or someone else's. The second part of Sam Inglis' series explains how you can write for different voices to put across different messages. This is the second article in a five‑part series.

In last month's outline of a possible approach to lyric writing, I mentioned that at some stage you will be faced with the need to make certain general decisions about the words to each song. These decisions can be, and often are, made unknowingly or unconsciously, but they are still an essential part of the songwriting process. It's perfectly possible to write a brilliant pop lyric without ever being aware that you're making these decisions, but that doesn't mean they're any less important, nor that there's nothing to gain by making the effort to understand them.

Probably the most important of these general decisions is the choice of a mode in which your lyrics are written. Students of poetry use the term 'mode' to refer to different types of verse, and these distinctions are equally applicable to pop lyrics. A useful way of thinking about the mode of a verse, for our purposes, is as a description in general terms of its purpose — what that verse is meant to 'do'. We can think of every song as having a narrator (see the 'Narrators & Persons' box on page 140): after all, where there are words, there must be an implied person speaking those words, even if that person is merely a narrator describing events in which they have no involvement. The mode of a verse or lyric implies certain facts about the narrator, who he or she is talking to, and what effect their words are supposed to have on their audience.

Poetry theory describes a large number of modes and variations upon them, but for our purposes three will be adequate for the vast majority of all pop lyrics: the lyric mode, the dramatic mode, and the narrative mode. A poem or song lyric is in the lyric mode if its primary purpose is to express the emotions of the narrator, and to bring about a particular emotional response in the listener. Poems in lyric mode are often designed to be sung, so it is no accident that the word 'lyric' in pop music is derived directly from this mode. As we shall see, however, not all pop lyrics are written in the lyric mode and, of the other modes which are relevant to songwriting, by far the most important are the dramatic mode and the narrative mode. A verse belongs to the dramatic mode if it forms a speech or address by the narrator to someone or something in particular, while a narrative verse is one that tells a story.

Just as it's usual to stick with a particular narrator and time (see the 'Time & Tense' box on page 142) throughout a song, it's also normal to stay within a particular mode (although, as we'll see, jumping from one mode to another can be an effective device in some situations). The best songwriters are those who can use the range of different modes, times and voices effectively. It's quite common these days to hear artists whose individual song lyrics are alright if heard in isolation, but become narrow, repetitive and often grossly self‑centred or introspective when you hear an entire set or album. This is often because the songwriter works only in the lyric mode, and all their songs use the same first‑person narrator, only ever talking about their own feelings; it's like hearing a singer who has a great voice, but who only sings three notes. An understanding of the possibilities that each of the major modes presents is very useful in thinking about which direction to take your lyrics, so let's go into more detail about the three principal modes I've mentioned.

<h3>The Lyric Mode</h3>

The lyric mode is, unsurprisingly, a staple of all forms of pop music, and as I've already mentioned, some bands use it to the exclusion of all others. 'Complaint Rock' artists (Nirvana, Radiohead, Bush, Nine Inch Nails and so forth) tend to operate mainly in this mode. The Rolling Stones' '(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction' is an example of a song in the lyric mode expressing the feeling of frustration. Likewise, The Beatles' 'Yesterday' is a straightforward expression of sorrow at losing a lover. Other examples of songs in the lyric mode are legion: a representative sample might include Elvis Presley's 'All Shook Up', The Police's 'Walking On The Moon', James Brown's 'I Feel Good', XTC's 'Senses Working Overtime', Neil Young's 'Heart Of Gold', The Velvet Underground's 'Heroin', The Beach Boys' 'Good Vibrations' and Bacharach & David's 'I'll Never Fall In Love Again'.

The lyric mode always uses a first‑person narrator, and many of the songs mentioned above take the direct approach of simply describing, in the first person, the narrator's feelings or emotions. This can be a very effective way to communicate, but don't forget that there are other ways to write in the lyric mode. Rather than directly describing the narrator's emotions, you can describe other things about them or their circumstances which imply that they have particular emotions. For instance, the soul classic 'Dock Of The Bay' contains few direct references to emotions or feelings, but it is still a song in the lyric mode. For the most part, all that is actually said is that the narrator sits by the dock and watches the days go by, but the way this is described powerfully conveys the aimlessness and world‑weariness that have led him to this state. He knows that he is wasting time, but he has nothing better to do; he watches the activity going on in the world, but doesn't seem to have the energy to do anything himself; ships are coming and going, but he is stuck on the dock of the bay.

One of the most important points about writing in the lyric mode is that songs in the lyric mode do not necessarily have to be true to the feelings of the author or singer: the first‑person narrator whose voice the lyric represents need not be you. He or she can, for instance, be another person or group of people, or even an animal. You can use the lyric mode to try to get inside the mind of and express the emotions felt by anyone, real or fictional. The key to avoiding coming across as self‑centred is to do just this — to ensure that the narrator in your songs is not always obviously you!

Many songs in the lyric mode are written in the present time, describing the singer's feelings now, but this mode can also be used in the past, to describe what your feelings were. You can even write in the future — this is perhaps most often used in a 'conditional' sense, describing how you'd feel if something in particular occurred.

<h3>The Dramatic Mode</h3>

Verse is described as being in the dramatic mode if it consists of a speech or address made to someone or something. This is not the same as being about a person or thing: a song can be in the lyric mode and yet be about another person, for instance. If a verse's main aim is to give voice to the narrator's feelings, then it is still in the lyric mode, even if the particular feelings in question are directed towards another person; good examples include The Beatles' 'Something', The Kinks' 'David Watts', and Guns & Roses' 'Sweet Child O' Mine'. Although these songs consist mainly of descriptions of the people they're about, the lyrics are not addressed to anyone in particular — they simply make clear the narrators' own feelings towards those people.

A verse in the dramatic mode, by contrast, takes the form of a message being delivered to a specific thing, person or group of people — it is a verse intended to tell someone something. Gloria Gaynor's disco classic 'I Will Survive' is a perfect example of a song in the dramatic mode: she is addressing her ex‑boyfriend and telling him to get out of her life. Dolly Parton's 'Jolene' is a message to another woman not to meddle with Dolly's man, and there are many similar country songs. A few other representative examples of songs in the dramatic mode might include Carly Simon's 'You're So Vain', The Beatles' 'Hey Jude', Rod Stewart's 'Maggie May', Alanis Morissette's 'You Oughta Know', ABC's 'Poison Arrow', The Spice Girls' 'Wannabe' and Elvis Presley's 'Hound Dog'.

The dramatic mode is probably most often used in this way, to deliver a message to someone important in the narrator's life. As with the lyric mode, however, it's possible to employ the dramatic mode in other ways. The message of the song can be directed not at any one person, but at a group of people, or even at everyone — as it is, for instance, in gospel songs such as Curtis Mayfield's 'People Get Ready'. Alternatively, it can be directed at an animal, or at a place, or at an inanimate object, as in songs like The Kinks' 'Lazy Old Sun' (from Something Else). Elton John's 'Candle In The Wind', in both its versions, is a special kind of dramatic verse called an 'apostrophe', in which the speech is directed at someone or something known to be either abstract, non‑existent or dead. While songs in the dramatic mode can employ descriptions of events that happened in the past, or will happen in the future, they are written as if addressing the subject now.

I mentioned that using different narrators in different songs can be the key to working in the lyric mode, and this is more common and even more important in the dramatic mode. Songs in the dramatic mode are often written in character, like Kate Bush's 'Wuthering Heights', in which she takes on the character of Cathy from the novel of the same name. Other examples include Suzanne Vega's 'Luka', in which the narrator is a battered wife talking to her downstairs neighbour, and the Rolling Stones' 'Lady Jane', in which Mick Jagger addresses a bevy of fictional upper‑class ladies. You can also write duets in the narrative mode, where two singers address each other — again, these are often done in character. The country classic 'Jackson' (recorded by Johnny Cash and June Carter, among others), for instance, sees the duetting singers take on the role of sparring husband and wife, and the Pogues' 'Fairytale Of New York' works along similar lines.

The Narrative Mode

Eric Clapton's 'Wonderful Tonight' is unusual in using the narrative mode for a love song.Eric Clapton's 'Wonderful Tonight' is unusual in using the narrative mode for a love song.Understanding & Writing Lyrics, Part 2: Modes

The narrative mode is probably the most straightforward of the common song forms — a verse is in the narrative mode if its main point is to tell a story. Although some of the songs I picked out as examples of the lyric and dramatic modes incorporate elements of narrative, such as the first verses of 'I Will Survive', 'Maggie May' and 'You're So Vain', these are secondary to the main aim of the song. Songs in the narrative mode just tell a story, rather than using stories to explain the narrator's feelings or to convey a message.

Narrative‑mode songs are common in all styles of pop music, but especially in folk and country, because a lot of traditional songs are story‑based. Tom Hall's country standard 'Harper Valley PTA' (recorded by Jeanne C Riley and Dolly Parton, among others) is essentially a story set to music, as are The Beatles' 'Maxwell's Silver Hammer', 'Ob‑La‑Di, Ob‑La‑Da' and 'Eleanor Rigby', Don McClean's 'American Pie', Squeeze's 'Up The Junction', Paul Simon's 'Still Crazy After All These Years', Craig David's 'Seven Days', Elvis Presley's 'Jailhouse Rock', and the traditional songs 'Whisky In The Jar' (recorded by Thin Lizzy, among others) and 'Matty Groves' (recorded by Fairport Convention and others).

Perhaps because the narrative mode has no purpose outside telling a story — it does not set out to say anything about the singer's feelings, or to make a point to someone in particular — it's important that lyrics written in this style develop through the song. Verses in the lyric or dramatic modes can simply consist of lists of unrelated or loosely related points, but a song in the narrative mode needs to have the attributes of a good story. It needs to describe interesting events and people and, like exciting stories, good narrative songs often also have an engaging beginning and a satisfying resolution at the end. However, this doesn't necessarily mean you have to describe events in chronological order. You can jump into the middle of a story at a particularly exciting point, to grab the listener's attention straight away (this technique is known as 'in medias res'), and use later verses to fill in any gaps. You don't have to restrict yourself to telling just one story, either: in Lou Reed's 'Walk On The Wild Side', for instance, every verse tells the story of a different character.

Narrative‑based songs are often written in the past tense, but there is no reason why they have to be. The Beatles' narrative songs mentioned above all tell their stories in the present tense, for instance, and it helps to add a sense of immediacy to the story if the events are described as happening now. It would even be perfectly possible to write a narrative lyric in the future tense, describing what you or someone else will do.

Songs in the lyric and dramatic mode always use a first‑person narrator, describing his or her feelings in the first person, or giving a personal message to the listener. In the narrative mode, however, you have a choice between using a first‑person narrator, describing events as though happening to him or her, and a third‑person or 'omniscient' narrator. The omniscient narrator knows about the events described, and talks about them in the third person, but is not himself involved in those events.

Shifting from third‑person to first‑person narrative can be an effective trick if done well. This gives the initial impression that the narrator is merely a voice with no involvement in events, before either revealing that they are in fact involved, or starting to tell the story from the point of view of someone else who is. This is nicely done in 'Harper Valley PTA'. The song tells the story of a divorced single mother whose daughter brings home from school a note from the PTA, complaining about the mother's behaviour. Incensed, the mother storms off to a meeting of the PTA and exposes them for the 'Harper Valley hypocrites' they are — and at the very end, the song shifts to the first person, with the last verse narrated by the daughter.

Combining Modes

Complaint Rock' bands, such as Radiohead and Nirvana, often heavily favour the lyric mode.Complaint Rock' bands, such as Radiohead and Nirvana, often heavily favour the lyric mode.

Poets tend to see themselves as working within traditions, and therefore tend to stick closely to whatever conventions are characteristic of their chosen mode. Any lyrical traditions there are in pop songwriting, however, are much less rigid, and so writers often blur or cross over between what poets would consider firm genre boundaries.

Moving between poetic modes can produce very powerful song lyrics, if it's done well. Take, for instance, Pulp's 'Common People'. It begins as a simple first‑person narrative, describing Jarvis Cocker's meeting with a girl. As the song progresses, however, Jarvis's indignation at her ignorance and prejudice becomes more and more apparent, and he begins to switch into the dramatic mode, addressing her directly as 'you': 'You'll never live like common people.' The progression from telling a story to the listener to addressing its subject personally works perfectly: the opening verses hook the listener in with an interesting narrative, while the later ones bring home the point that the girl in question is a real person, and that the behaviour and beliefs described in the narrative are repugnant.

Another common way of moving between modes is to write verses in one mode and choruses or middle eights in another. The Beatles' 'She's Leaving Home', uses a particularly elegant version of this mode‑switching trick, wherein the lyrics given to the lead and backing vocals function in different modes. The song describes a young woman sneaking out of her house early in the morning to run away from her loving but puritanical parents, and the part sung as the lead vocal is written as a third‑person narrative, offering a nicely plain and understated description of events which is much more effective than the maudlin sentimentality a more heavy‑handed approach to the subject would produce. Rather than telling us how the characters must feel, for the most part Paul McCartney simply allows us to infer it from lines such as 'Leaving the note that she hoped would say more.' When the backing vocals come in during the chorus, however, they are written in the first‑person plural and in the lyric mode, narrated by the parents ('We gave her everything money could buy...'). This sudden switch from omniscient narration to direct, personal description brings home the parents' feelings of sadness and incomprehension with a real wrench.

Moving Modes

ABC's 'Poison Arrow' (from The Lexicon Of Love) is a good example of a song in the dramatic mode.ABC's 'Poison Arrow' (from The Lexicon Of Love) is a good example of a song in the dramatic mode.

If you're ever stuck when writing lyrics, or you feel that you've got into a rut, it can be useful to look back over the words to your songs and work out what makes them tick. You may find that you've always written in the lyric mode, or that the narrator in all of your songs is the same, and it can be an interesting exercise to deliberately set out to write in a mode or time that you don't normally use, or that is not the obvious one with which to tackle your chosen subject (see the 'Writing In Different Modes' box). If you set yourself to write, say, a dramatic song addressed to an inanimate object, the chances are you'll come up with something memorable — if only because it's different. And while standing out from the pack in terms of musical style may be to risk becoming uncommercial, a quirky or offbeat lyric can often add to the commercial potential of a track, giving it that special something to lift it above other music in the same vein.

In the third part of this series, I'll focus on the nuts and bolts of lyric‑writing: words and sentences, and the ways in which they can be arranged. Until we enter this murky world of metre and rhyme, happy writing...

Narrators & Persons

Even though The Kinks' 'David Watts' (from the album Something Else) is about another person, it is still a direct expression of the narrator's feelings, and is hence in the lyric mode.Even though The Kinks' 'David Watts' (from the album Something Else) is about another person, it is still a direct expression of the narrator's feelings, and is hence in the lyric mode.

Every song can be thought of as having a narrator — in other words a real or imagined person who is the 'voice' of the song. When we use a first‑person narrator, we are implying that the voice of the song is also a character in the events that the song describes; the narrative voice is saying 'These are the things that happened to me', or 'This is what I have to say to you'. Third‑person narrative, by contrast, does not necessarily imply any connection between the narrator and what is being described: the narrator is simply passing on information, with no implied character of his or her own and no involvement in events.

The relationship of the narrator to the events or feelings described in a lyric is expressed by the way in which individual lines are written, and especially by the use of personal pronouns. In simple terms, we can say that a sentence is in the first person if the subject (the person 'doing' the verb) is 'I' ('I went to bed'), in the second person if the subject is 'you' ('You went to bed'), and in the third person if it is 'he', 'she' or 'they', or a name or noun ('They went to bed', 'he went to bed', 'Jane went to bed', 'The girls went to bed'). I, you, he, she and they are personal pronouns: they stand in for nouns or names (proper nouns), and refer to people.

The relationship of the narrator to events is implied by the person of the lines in a lyric. In general, if a lyric or section of a lyric contains even one sentence in either the first or the second person, this implies the existence of a first‑person narrator (except in special circumstances such as when a first‑person statement is put into the mouth of a character in the song).

Time & Tense

Understanding & Writing Lyrics, Part 2: Modes

We often speak of entire song lyrics, poems or novels as being 'in the past tense', or 'in the present tense'. Technically, though, individual sentences are the only things that can have tenses — and given that most poems, song lyrics and novels contain sentences in several different tenses, it's probably better to say that a song lyric is narrated in present, past or future time, meaning that a situation is being described as it existed in the past, as it exists or came to exist now, or as it is going to exist in the future. Consistency is, again, the key. If you start describing an event as having happened in the past, you shouldn't suddenly switch to talking about the same event as if it's going on now, unless there's a good reason to do so.

Tense is the feature of a sentence that allows it to express time, and is in turn determined by the different ways that verbs within that sentence can be modified. We tend to think of English as containing three basic tenses — past, present and future — which correspond to the three divisions of time I've used. This, however, is something of an oversimplification, because there are in fact anything up to at least 12 tenses, depending on how you look at them. When you write a lyric about events that happened in the past, you'll tend to end up using sentences in several different past tenses, and when you write in the present, you'll probably use several different past and present tenses. In general, any use of a present tense implies that a lyric as a whole is in the present time, even if most of the sentences are in past tense — it implies that the information you've given about the past is given because it describes how the present situation came to be.

Some tenses are more widely used in songwriting than others. The most important are:

  • The simple past tense is used to describe events that happened at some point in the past and which are now completed: 'I went to sleep', 'I fell off the chair', 'You said you loved me', 'They worked hard'.
  • The past progressive tense is used to describe events that were going on at a particular time in the past that is being talked about now (and which might still be going on): 'I was going to sleep', 'I was feeling low', 'You were keeping still', 'It was getting late'.
  • The past perfective tense is used to describe events that had already been completed at whatever point in the past you're talking about: 'I had gone to sleep', 'You had already come back', 'He had left earlier that evening'.
  • The present progressive tense is used to describe events that are going on at the moment: 'I am going to sleep', 'You are looking good', 'They are hoping for too much'.
  • The present perfective tense is used to describe particular events that, at the present moment in time, have finished: 'I have cooked the chicken', 'You've done it this time', 'He's left for the night'.
  • The simple present tense is used to describe states of affairs — usually general rather than specific — that have started but haven't yet finished, without implying anything about when they started, or whether they are active at the present moment: 'I go to school', 'I love her', 'You smell', 'They like it'.
  • The present perfect progressive (!) tense is used to describe states of affairs — once again, usually general rather than specific — that existed in the past and may still exist, without implying anything about when they started: 'I have been working too hard', 'You've been telling lies', 'He's been cheating on you'.

Experimenting With Modes

Paul Simon's 'Still Crazy After All These Years' (from the album of the same name) and Craig David's 'Seven Days' (from Born To Do It) are good examples of the narrative mode.Paul Simon's 'Still Crazy After All These Years' (from the album of the same name) and Craig David's 'Seven Days' (from Born To Do It) are good examples of the narrative mode.

The concept of modes may seem quite technical, but it's worth getting to grips with. As I've tried to explain in the main text, it's a great tool for understanding why the lyrics of classic songs work — and it can also be invaluable when you're thinking about the most effective way to turn an idea, lyrical fragment or situation into a song.

Some basic ideas could form the basis of a song in any of the three modes. Indeed, it's interesting to try taking the situation at the heart of an existing song and deliberately setting out to examine that same situation using a different mode. You can, for instance, take the scenario of a narrative‑based song such as 'She's Leaving Home', 'Up The Junction', or 'Whisky In The Jar', and think about how the events and characters might be presented in other modes. The girl who's leaving home leaves a note for her parents: the contents of that note could form a song in the dramatic mode. 'Up The Junction' tells the story of the narrator's getting together with 'the girl from Clapham', the birth of the couple's baby, his decline into drunkenness, and the resulting breakdown of the relationship. The same events could be seen from the point of view of the wife or child, either as a simple narrative or as an angry speech addressed to the feckless husband. Stories can often be rethought to create songs in the lyric or dramatic modes because they have a lot of descriptive content, and usually involve several characters. It's often harder to make a story out of a song in the lyric mode, because such songs tend to describe feelings rather than events.

When it comes to writing songs from new ideas, it can be worth writing in a different mode from the one that first springs to mind. Suppose, for instance, you want to write a straightforward love song about your boyfriend or girlfriend. There are already a million and one songs in the lyric mode which mix explanations of the singer's feelings with gushing descriptions of the object of his or her affections. If you choose to do the same, then unless you have stumbled upon a genuinely new way to say 'She's very nice, and I love her,' you're unlikely to produce a lyric that will stand out from the crowd. So why not try to come up with a different angle?

Some of the most successful love songs work because they find a simple but effective way of making the singer's feelings for his or her loved one clear, without just describing those feelings in the lyric mode. Like it or loathe it, Eric Clapton's 'Wonderful Tonight' stands out as a distinctive love song because it is told as a narrative. Rather than just saying 'I love you', it tells the story of an ordinary evening out with his wife in such a way that it becomes clear, purely from the description of what the characters say and do, that the narrator is in love with her. Billy Joel's equally icky 'Just The Way You Are' is, likewise, distinctive because it expresses more or less the same message, but uses the dramatic mode.

If you want to write a love song about someone, then, rather than simply saying 'She's very nice and I love her', why not think of a story about some incident in your relationship, however trivial, which illustrates the love you feel? Or why not think about something that has been said between you, and develop it into a dramatic address? Everyone knows what it's like to be in love, and while this means that everyone can relate to a song that just says 'She's very nice and I love her', it also makes it very hard to come up with a fresh way of describing this feeling directly. The events and conversations that have happened in your relationships are, by contrast, unique — and thus allow you to say something unique about being in love.

'She's Leaving Home', from the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, cleverly combines the narrative mode with the lyric mode.'She's Leaving Home', from the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, cleverly combines the narrative mode with the lyric mode.