Writing better lyrics (notes on Pattison’s book)

This blog entry is a set of notes that I made on the book: Pattison, Pat (2009) Writing better lyrics: the essential guide to powerful songwriting, Writers Digest Books, Cincinnati. I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, there is a wealth of great advice, based on solid experience, and despite the significant reservations I am about to voice, I strongly encourage people to read this book because it is packed with wisdom. On the other hand, I emphatically disagree with a number of Pattison’s arguments, notably: his claims about near rhymes (many of which are not rhymes at all in my view, and do not fulfil the basic function or sonic effect of a true rhyme); his definition of prosody, which strikes me as a bizarre deviation from how any academic or dictionary authority might use the term; his attempts to present a theory of how rhyme, stress patterns, line lengths and numbers of lines interact to create different effects (in which he seems either vague, or wildly inconsistent, subjective and unsystematic); and his suggestion that co-writers should never discuss technique, or critique each other’s work or ideas.

The notes I have made here are not a comprehensive executive summary of the book. Rather, they record the ideas that I find useful, sound, and even inspiring. I have also set out those ideas of Pattison’s that I find problematic; in square brackets I have outlined my objections. Also in square brackets, I have included my own thoughts that arose, and theories that I began to formulate, stimulated by reading Pattison’s book. In this regard, I am grateful to Pattison for getting me to think.

  1. Object writing: the art of the diver
  • 3 “Much of lyric writing is technical. The stronger your skills are, the better you can express your creative ideas.”
  • [Writing is not the art of expressing what you already know or think. It is an act of finding out what you think and feel, of how you see, hear, taste, touch and experience yourself and the world.]
  • 4 Use your five senses [and proprioception]
  • 5 Write with 7 senses: sight, hearing, smeall, taste, touch, organic, and kinaesthetic
  • 5 Describing what I sense stimulates the audience’s senses and associations
  • 6 Ten minutes only, every morning to wake up the writer for the day, and build muscle [compare Julia Cameron ‘The Artist’s Way’]
  • 8 Free associate – go off topic. Let the sentences do the driving
  • 8 Sense-bound language involves the reader/listener
  • [Object writing builds the skill of free association and developing clusters and constellations of linked images and vocabulary.]
  • 9 Listen to other people’s writing exercises
  • 10 Pick a real object to write about
  • [‘I feel/smell’ is ‘telling’, and therefore weak writing.]
  • [Train yourself not to censor first thoughts.]
  • [Practise letting other people experience your material.]
  • 16 Destination writing – have a message in mind
  • 17 Who is singing? Who are they singing to? Who are they singing about?
  • 17 “Never let reality get in the way of truth.”
  • 17 Airport game: imagine stories about people you see
  • 18 “’Where’ can be anywhere.”
  1. Rusty’s collar: a lesson in showing and telling
  • 20 “You can’t tell unless you show first.”
  • 21 “Colours drip down, not up.” In other words, show us something, and then comment on it. Example before idea, not idea/commentary before the example.
  1. Making metaphors
  • 23 “… a metaphor is a collision between ideas that don’t belong together. It jams them together and leaves us to struggle with the consequences.”
  • 23 “Conflict is essential for metaphor.”
  • 24 Expressed (asserts identity between 2 nouns), qualifying (adjective to qualify noun, adverb to qualify verb) and verbal (conflict between verb and subject/object) metaphors [Andrea Stolpe calls these ‘collisions’.]
  • 25 To generate a metaphor, a) Find an image/thing b) name its characteristics c) find a second thing with those characteristics.
  • 26 Exercise: adjective and noun; adverb and adjective; noun and verb
  • 28 Verbs drive lyrics forward
  • 28 Noun-noun can have 3 types of expressed metaphor: summer is a Rolls-Royce; the Rolls-Royce of summer; summer’s Rolls-Royce
  • 29 Adjective + noun; noun + verb; verb + noun; noun + adjective; noun + noun
  • 31 A metaphor transfers our focus to the second term (i.e. the unexpected comparative term), so use one comparison (one second term) and develop the idea. A simile keeps us focussed on the first term (i.e. the main, original object); it can be used in passing, and several similes can be used to refer to the one main object.
  1. Learning to say no: building worksheets
  • 33 To develop good material, ensure you increase choices, so you can choose the best.
  • 34 Objective correlatives: images that will predictably evoke specific emotions in the receiver. [Are there musical equivalents? Yes, probably. Different musical styles, rhythms, melodic shapes etc evoke predictable associations. We’re drawing from common cultural pools.]
  • 34 Roget’s Thesaurus clusters ideas around key words.
  • 37 Perfect rhyme: the syllables’ vowel sounds are the same, consonant sounds after the  vowels (if any) are the same, the sounds before the vowels are different.
  • 37-9 Explains three consonant families: plosives, fricatives, nasals. Then argues [unconvincingly for me!!] that “Family rhyme sounds so close that when sung, the ear won’t know the difference.” [I have good ears, and I do know the difference. Even casual, untrained ears, hear the difference, even though they may not consciously realise there is a difference. And the untrained ear will prefer, I believe, the true rhyme over the ‘family’ rhyme. Part of the problem is that so many singers are sloppy and sing the ends of words very lazily, often leaving off final consonants completely, which is why something can seem to be a rhyme when it definitely isn’t.]
  • 40 Subtractive rhyme [NO! Pattison’s rhyme types are not rhymes, in my view. They are more like Hammerstein’s ‘euphony’. ‘Assonance rhyme’ seems to be Pattison’s most common ‘rhyme’. It works more if one can see as well as hear it, and when there’s time to reflect. But it’s a weaker method for a heard lyric.]
  • 43 Additive rhyme: fun + lunch [add sounds after the completed rhyme]
  • 43 Consonance rhyme: fun + on
  • 42 Most to least resolved rhyme [in Pattison’s world …]: perfect, family, additive/subtractive, assonance, consonance
  • 44 [An example of Pattison’s ‘rhyme’] “Baby, baby take my hand / Let me know you’d like to dance.” [Ugh! The ‘surprise’ as Pattison calls it, is my disappointment at a non-rhyme. I am dissatisfied because the lyric fails to deliver sonically. I hear the non-rhyme rhyme as a lack of conviction on whether to rhyme or not rhyme, and I feel unsure whether the two concepts are supposed to be connected or not. Perfect rhymes connect concepts and complete ideas; that is their function. Pattison’s versions of rhyme, which are ubiquitous in modern lyric writing unfortunately, are all about hedging one’s bets, and not committing to anything. I have decided to call all this ‘Pattison’s Rhyme Fallacy’. He says (p.46), “Pretty neat, huh?’. I say, emphatically, no!]
  • 46 Use a rhyming dictionary
  • 46 Create worksheets of possible rhymes when generating lyrics.
  1. Clichés: the sleeping puppy (case study)
  • 47 clichés make us switch off
  • 47 “Cliché phrases. Cliché rhymes. Cliché images. Cliché metaphors. These viruses infect songs, television, movies and commercials, not to mention everyday conversations.”
  • 48 “Songs should be universal, but don’t mistake universal for generic. Sense-bound is universal. When you stimulate your listener’s senses, they pick pictures from their own personal sense files. When you use generic language, they fall asleep.”
  • 48 “Clichés are other people’s licks. They don’t come from your emotions.” [Clichés are ‘off the peg’, standard sizes, not tailored to your unique message and mode of delivery.]
  • 51 Pattison argues that “most cliché rhymes are perfect rhymes” which is why he suggests avoiding them [!]. He suggests that imperfect rhymes [which, for me, aren’t rhymes at all …] satisfy because they aren’t clichés. [Perhaps some listeners are too easily satisfied, or just lazy, disaffected, desensitised, resigned. Because so many lyrics have non-rhyme rhymes these days, I suspect listeners have been conditioned to accept this.]
  • 53 You can use a cliché if you can shed new light on it, give a fresh perspective.
  • 54 “I don’t mean to sound revolutionary, but you might also try a diet of good literature and poetry. You are what you eat.”
  1. Productive repetition
  • 55 “In its simplest form, this is the basic rule of songwriting.: Keep your listeners interested all the way through your song. Get them with you from the beginning with a strong opening line, then keep them with you the rest of the way. Whether they stay or go is up to you.”
  • 57 Each verse must add ‘weight’ to the song.
  • 57 The last verse often produces the ‘why’.
  • 57 Develop an outline for the song [what I call storyboarding your song – roadmap, plan of campaign, an architect’s plan based on a client’s brief]
  • 58 Development is crucial.
  • 59 A chorus must be the same each time, so that listeners can sing along.
  • 59 Choruses and refrains gather weight when verses develop properly. [Verses must pull their weight, and contribute to the song. Don’t leave it to hooks or choruses.]
  • 62 A chorus lyric must be able to take on greater meaning through the course of a song.
  • 67 Give a new idea to each song section, so each section makes a fresh contribution.
  • [Repetition should never feel like repetition – ie it should never feel like we are going over the same ground, unless we intend to give people a groundhog day experience because that is part of the purpose of the song.]
  • 68 Try switching perspectives between verses. E.g. you, I, we or past, present, future.
  • 75 Leave out the chorus if the verses haven’t built enough momentum.
  • 75 The first verse you write may not be the first verse of the song.
  • 79 Find a smaller grammatical unit in your lyric to create new lines. E.g. “Why do you laugh? Do you laugh?”
  1. Verse development and power positions
  • 86 Each verse’s content can draw attention to different aspects of the chorus that follows.
  • 87 Power positions are usually the first or last line. You can create more of these in a long verse using rhyme schemes and beat schemes.
  • 89 Power positions lead what listeners focus on.
  • 91 “That’s the power of a perfectly developed song: It changes our way of looking at our lives and our surroundings.”
  • 92 Surprises created by metre or rhyme or line length create power positions. Put important content in those places.
  1. Travelogues: verse continuity
  • 94 “Verse development should mean verse relationship. Your verses should have a good reason to hang out together. When verses are in the same lyric only because you’re taking a tour of the title, you likely have a travelogue on your hands.”
  • [Exercise: Storyboard your verses: check your chorus/refrain gains weight each time.]
  • [Exercise: Analyse a verse of a well-written song for its rhyme and rhythmic structure.]
  • Exercise: Analyse your verse one for rhythm and rhyme. Use the same scheme for later verses.]
  1. Stripping your repetition for repainting
  • 103 Chorus/refrain becomes more versatile if you strip out: past, present, future; pronouns. It will then accept whatever pronouns or tenses from the preceding verse.
  • 109 “Remember as a rule of thumb that verses show, chorus tells.”
  • 110 Exercise: re-write a non-neutral refrain/chorus as a neutral one.
  1. Perspectives
  • 117 Writing in first person is very effective. But beware ‘first person narrative’ that describes yourself as though you are observing someone (yourself!). 1st person narrative ok if you are describing the world around yourself, and what it is doing. [“Nobody wants to talk to me …” is ok, but “I don’t talk to anyone” is emotionally disconnected, and doesn’t work.]
  • 121 Third person narrative: the singer and the audience are outside observers
  • 121 Every element must serve a purpose: “Heinrik Ibsen said, “If you put a gun in Act 1, it damn well better go off by the end of the play!” This is more than a principle about effective use of props. It says that you should have a reason for each element in your work. Nothing without its purpose.”
  • 124-5 Direct address (you) is the most intimate, and is more about feelings than facts. “As a listener: I imagine the singer is singing to me, or, I watch the singer singing directly to someone else, real or imagined by the singer, or, I can imagine that the singer is someone I know singing to me, or, I can identify with the singer and sing to someone I know.”
  • 127 Experiment changing your lyric’s perspective between 1) direct address 2) first person narrative 3) third person narrative. Decide each time, which works best.
  1. Point of view: second person and the hangman
  • 131 “The point is simple: make second person conversational. If you want to give the audience a history lesson, either put it in third person or find a natural way to list your facts.”
  • 131 “As a matter of habit, you should try out all three points of view – first, second, and third person – for each lyric you write from now until you die, just to make sure you are using the best possible one for each song.”
  1. Point of view: second person as narrative
  • 133 ‘You’ can be a substitute for ‘I’ in an internal monologue of self-address.
  • 137 Exercise: rewrite a well-known lyric from two other perspectives
  • 137 [Pattison has contradicted himself. The second person narrative doesn’t work here, as he originally cautioned!]
  1. Dialogue and point of view
  • 140 In a duet, both characters need to be able to sing the chorus.
  • 140 [Pattison’s example of direct address is actually 2nd person narrative, telling ‘you’ what ‘you’ already knows. “I asked you ….” means that ‘you’ knows already that I asked …]
  • 142 “If the singer is the I in the story, you’ve got to give him/her a good reason for telling it.” [i.e. Why is the singer directly addressing/telling the audience? Another way to think of this is that, even in a monologue, the singer is addressing someone, often a part of themselves.]
  • 145 Dialogue works well in 3rd person narrative.
  • 145 3rd person narrative allows singer to be either gender [and chorus can be sung by either gender even if said by a gendered character]
  • 145 [Pattison’s counting of stresses in his example is completely wrong.]
  • [Irregular line length or rhythm sets us up to want the next section to resolve.]
  • [Avoiding a final rhyme keeps a more open feeling.]
  1. Meter: something in common
  • 150 Stresses of 4-3-4-3 = basic patterning = long short long short. Can then spring a surprise  by changing one of these.
  • 151 Reserve structural surprises for important ideas
  • 152 Exercise: take a basic idea and express in common meter variations: 4-3-4-3, 3-3 3-3
  1. Spotlighting with common meter
  • 153 [Pattison’s ‘rhymes’ are not rhymes at all. They may seem so because contemporary singers often don’t enunciate final consonants.]
  • 153 “First, let your listeners expect something, then surprise them with something different.”
  • 154 [Numbers refer to number of stresses in a line, letters refer to the rhyme scheme.] 4a-3b-4a-2b
  • 155 4a-3b-4a-4a
  • 156 4a-3b-4a-4a-4a
  • 157 4a-3b-4a-4a-4a-4a; 4a-3b-4a-4a-4a-4a-3b: keep rhyming the same line, delay the other line until the very end, and use the same number of stresses
  • 158 [x stands for any unrhymed line] Another form of common meter is xaxa
  • 160 “Learn to turn on spotlights. Then be sure to put something interesting where they shine.”
  • [NB Common meter still has four beats per line, though only 3 stresses in the 3nd and 4th line. The 4th beat is silent. In line 2, the reader mentally breaks, in line 4, the reader provides the ‘full stop’.]
  1. Meter: two by two
  • [Rhymes create a stop, and … line lengths of stresses create expectation and resolution. These two principles interact. I don’t agree with Pattison’s description of the effect of these interactions, but he has drawn attention to both the fact that these issues – rhyme, and line length of stresses – exist, and that they interact.]
  • 161 4a-4a-4b-4b completes at every second line.
  • [What makes something a couplet? The equal number of stresses? Or the immediate rhyme necessary for it to be a couplet, even if the stresses are not equal?]
  • [Mary had a little lamb / and it was in a jam. / The lamb had got into a stew; /what should Mary do?]
  • [Stresses dictate stability; rhymes can a) link words or passages b) intensify a half- or full-closure, c) create acceleration if rhymes are more frequent.]
  • 163 4a-3b-4c-3b / 4d-4d
  • 163 4a-4a-4a-3b / 4c-4c-4c-3b: “The odd fourth line stands out because we expected a four-stress rhymed couplet. Instead, we get a three-stress unrhymed line, handing us an IOU that isn’t cashed until line eight.”
  • [Patterns are where we perceive or create relationships. Rhymes create relationships, at best, unexpected ones. Stress patterns in successive lines are sections are compared automatically (and unconsciously) to find similarity and contrast, imbalance and balance, forward momentum and closure, tension and resolution, predictability and surprise, stability and instability.]
  1. Managing couplets
  • 171 “Which rhyme scheme should you use? It depends on what you’re saying. If the lyric’s emotion deals with uncertainty or loss (unstable), keep it looser. If its ideas are more factual or resolved (stable), tighten it up. Make your structure reflect the emotion of the lyric.” [Pattison goes on to say that this is prosody. It isn’t! Prosody is about rhythm, stress, even pitch inflection in speech. It is not about the relationship between these features and the intended meaning of the words.]
  • [Stresses are in the ear of the listener. We don’t all interpret in the same way where stresses might be.]
  • 176 “the power of the dance between structure and ideas”
  1. Prosody: structure as film score
  • 179 “Aristotle said that every great work of art contains the same feature: unity. Everything in the work belongs – it all works to support every other element.”
  • [Pattison goes on to say that this is the same as ‘prosody’, which is nonsense. Prosody is nothing to do with ‘unity’ or integrity of sound and meaning. Pattison also describes prosody as “the appropriate relationship between elements”. This is purely his invention, and such a definition of prosody cannot be found in any dictionary or online academic resource.]
  • [It’s more about the meaning a listener might derive from voiced sounds and patterns.]
  • 180 Stable v. unstable: “Looking at your sections through the lens of stability or instability is a practical tool for creating prosody [sic] because you’ll be able to use it for every aspect of your song: the idea, the melody, the rhythm, the chords, the lyric structure – everything. It governs the choices you make. Ask yourself: is the emotion in this section stable or unstable? Once you answer that question, you have a standard for making all other choices.”
  • 180 “… motion always creates emotion, completely independently of what is being said. Ideally, structure should …  – support what is being said – strengthening the message, making it more powerful.”
  • 180 Five elements of lyric structure: number of lines, length of lines [number of stresses, or number of beats, which could include silent ones?] and their arrangement, rhythm of lines, rhyme scheme, rhyme type. [Five elements of lyric structure interact with the larger structure of the song (verse, chorus, bridge etc.) and the substantive content.]
  • [I agree, but Pattison’s claims about these are woolly thinking.]
  • [Final consonants, or not having one, make a difference to feeling of the degree of closure.]
  • 180 An odd number of lines is less stable than an even number.
  • 184 Musical stress should match key word stress
  • 185 Pattison claims that lines 4 and 5 have rhythmic variations that make little impact. [I disagree. They make major impact!]
  • [Rhymes complete. Rhymes connect.]
  • 186 Degree of resolution in rhymes: perfect, family, additive/subtractive, assonance, consonance.
  • 187 “There are no rules, only tools.”
  • 187 4a-4b-4c-4b 4d-5d-4d-3b
  • 188 “Structure is your film score. Learn how to use it. Learn the effects that various structures can create, and se them to support your own ideas. Sometimes, you can even use them to create emotions underneath what you are saying.” [Structure can magnify words’ intent or provide an emotional counterpoint.]
  1. Understanding motion
  • [This chapter is useful for its presentation of many different possible structures, and how they might feel. However, throughout this chapter, Pattison makes claims about the effect these examples have, and whether they are more or less stable. But he has no clear, objective, systematic set of principles by which ot justify his claims. He seems to miss the point of primary and secondary stresses or time signatures; he has no coherent hierarchy of rules of how rhyme or non-rhyme interacts with such stress patterns, or symmetry, balance, stability etc. See Jack Perricone’s book on melody for a careful study of such concepts.]
  • 191 To notate structure: large letter denotes lines of same length and rhyme, so 4a-3b-4a-3b becomes ABAB
  • 192 [PP doesn’t define rhythm. Rhythm is the arrangement of stresses of different weight; it may be a regular pattern, giving a sense of evenness and predictability, or irregular. Irregular rhythm may turn out to be part of a larger regular pattern.]
  • 193 [PP’s line length appears to be about the number of beats in a bar. Rhythm and line length combine to define the time signature.]
  • 193 “by the end of the first line, you know a … piece of structural information: line length.” [This is not true. There could be varying line lengths, and musically, the time signature, and therefore line lengths, could very throughout.]
  • 193 “The earliest I can hear rhyme structure, and the motion caused by it, is at the end of the second line.” [This is not true. An internal rhyme could happen before the end of the first line.]
  • 194 Line length and rhyme are independent elements that can interact.
  • 194 PP claims that the number of lines is “one of the last determinants of motion.” [I disagree. Line length and numbers of lines combine to be the most important determinant of motion.]
  • [Non-rhyme is more ustable or open than perfect rhyme. Rhyme closes and stabilises.]
  • 197 “Longer followed by shorter is less stable than shorter followed by longer.”
  • [Structure can underline or undermine content or intent.]
  • 199 Avoiding rhyme keeps listener in limbo.
  • 200 Finish a section in an unstable way, in order to move us forward into the next section.
  • 200 Rhyme something from one section into somewhere in the next.
  • 200 Exercise: “Make up your own title, and, using it as the first line of an oncoming chorus, write an AAB structure leading up to it, with the third line targeting a vowel sound in the title. Try not to target the end rhyme. Instead, give the words inside the title a sonic boost. Then rewrite the third line (B line) to target a different vowel sound in the title.”
  • 200 ‘Target’ a vowel in the Title opening a Chorus by setting the vowel up in the Verse.
  • 201 Different results from targeting internal or end rhymes.
  • 202 [Pattison’s conclusions are spurious. ‘Like’ stands out in the chorus not because it happens to have the same vowel as ‘bite’ in the verse two lines previously, but because there is a dramatically new stress pattern in the chorus that emphasises ‘like’.
  • 204 “When the protagonist says something using this structure [stable, common meter], he/she’s telling the truth. It’s a stable fact.”
  • 204 In ABAB common meter, the line 3 rhyme pushes forward.
  • 207 Exercise: “Make up your own title, and, using it as the first line of an oncoming chorus, write an ABAA structure leading up to it, with the second line targeting a vowel sound in the title. Try not to target the end rhyme. Instead, give the words inside the title a sonic boost. Then rewrite the end sound in your second line to target a different vowel sound in the title.”
  • 209 Adjust exercise on 207: Use the last syllable in line 3 to target the vowel in Title and Chorus.
  • 209 [It’s not line line length, but a primary stress ending that brings resolution in Pattison’s example.]
  • 210 4a-4b-4b-4a = ABBA = ‘In Memoriam’ form, from Tennyson.
  • 210 ABBAA
  • 211 AAAX highlights the X, which would be the Title [or Refrain]
  • 212 Structures can be complete in themselves, but look for interesting extensions. “Each structure is what it is, but always keep an eye out for what else it could become – for what could come next.”
  • [Rhyme feels a lot like punctuation – all lyrics need some, not least, because lyrics are a sonic art form.h]
  • [Experiment having a stable structure ending with a stable idea, or an unstable structure ending with a stable idea.]
  • [Closure feels stronger when final syllables are on a downbeat.]
  • [A rhyme underlines a rhythmic  closure if the latter is present.]
  • [A fourth, even line closes the pattern, whether it has 5, 4 or 3 stresses.]
  • [A missing beat, e.g. a missing final beat, makes us fill it in – as a breath taking us forward, or as a full stop. Rhyme makes us refer back to its set-up word.]
  • 224 Pattison says that the final line in his example (‘Nothing left to do but go’) feels unstable, but doesn’t explain why. [In my view, it is because the final stressed vowel rhymes, but there is no final consonant, unlike ‘road’, the word it is supposed to rhyme.]
  • 224-5 [Pattison’s claims about whether lines feel stable / unstable, complete, or pushing forward, seem very subjective, and he seems to have no objective criteria on which he bases his claims.]
  • 225 ABABAA [satisfying pattern], as are ABACC, and AABAAB (onp.226), and ABABBA (p.227)
  1. Form follows function: building the perfect beast
  • [Compare this with Sondheim’s principle of “Content dictates form”. Perhaps there is truth in both: content and/or function (of content) can dictate form.]
  • 229 Form is dictated by function. Distinct functions lead to contrasted forms.
  • 230 [Wrong use of the word ‘prosody’ again.]
  • 230 “The closer the rhymes are to each other, the faster the structure moves.”
  • 232 The Verse and a Chorus should not have the same form. “When you move from a verse to another function – for example, to a chorus function (commentary, summary) – the form should change: the rhyme scheme, prhase lengths, number of phrases, or rhythms of phrases. Maybe all four. ‘Form follows function’ is the real rationale behind what often look like silly rules: All verses should have the same rhyme scheme! Change the Rhyme scheme when you get to the chorus.”
  • 234 “When you want two sections to contrast, the opening phrase of the new section must make a difference immediately.”
  1. The great balancing act: courting danger on the high wire
  • [What is PP’s distinction between a phrase and a line? E.g. p.180, p.192. In this chapter, he suddenly starts using the word ‘phrase’ to talk about what he seemed to refer to as ‘lines’ earlier in the book. For PP, is a phrase a unit of meaning?]
  • 240 “How do we use balancing and unbalancing? Stated simply, unbalanced sections make you want to move and find a stable spot. Balanced sections stop motion; they pause for a rest. Balancing and unbalancing a lyric in the right places gives you at least four audience-grabbing strategies: 1) spotlightin important ideas; 2) pushing one section forward into another section; 3) contrasting one section with another one; and 4) setting up a need for a balancing section or phrase.”
  • 241 [In the Janis Ian and Kye Fleming example, there is some neat structural play, but a lot of that PP would call ‘rhymes’ aren’t, and simply sound ‘off-colour’ to me.]
  • 243 An odd number of rhymes, e.g. abbb, as distinct from xaxa unbalances the structure.
  • 244 “If the rhyme scheme in the verses were stable, the arrival at a stable section in the chorus wouldn’t have the same power.”
  • 245 An uneven number of lines in one section pushes us forward into the next.
  • 246 [In PP’s example of a 3 line structure, in my view, it’s really 4 lines, and therefore more stable than he claims, because in the music there is a gap after line 2, so line 3 in the lyric is line four in the full sonic structure.]
  • 246 “Another way to unbalance a section is to add a phrase.” [line?]
  • 247-8 Pattison claims that a 3 line verse and 4 line chorus, making 7 lines in all (therefore uneven and unstable, is stabilised by being followed by a 4 line bridge, a section with an even number of lines. [This seems a strange claim. I feel it as an 11 line structure, uneven, and therefore unstable. Perhaps a listener’s perception of stability or instability is influenced by their capacity to perceive larger or smaller structures.]
  • 249 Pattison suggests that two sections that add up to an uneven number of lines (eg. odd and even) means the second, even, section can have a spotlighted extra line to finish the song. [This seems to support my comment about p.248, and undermine’s Pattison’s own claim on that page.]
  1. Song forms: (im)potent packages I

[V = verse; C = chorus]

  • 250 VVC-VVC means that the Verse experience is repeated too often to be interesting. 1) Drop a Verse and distil the content. 2) Make the 4th Verse into a Bridge. 3) Make 1 & 2, and 3 & 4 into single Verses, varying line lengths and rhythms to sustain movement and unity.
  1. Song forms: (im)potent packages II
  • 257 VC VC VC. 1) Add a Bridge before V3. 2) Substitute V3 with a Bridge. 3) Condense into AABA [Chorus may disappear and be condensed into a one-line refrain to finish each A, A being the original Verse.]
  • 261 “An AABA song form is effective because it creates a strong sense of resolution when it moves back to the third verse. The first two verses define ‘home base’, then the bridge takes you away from home – away from the familiar structure. When you come back to the third verse, you come back home to a familiar territory. It’s a real homecoming, seeing the old neighbourhood again after a long trip. The tension created by moving away has been resolved.” [Complement this description with Jason Robert Brown’s.]
  1. Process
  • 264 “Rhyming a secondary stress with a primary stress sounds awkward.” [E.g. I want to go to sea / I want to go daily.]
  • 264 Using, for example ‘plea’ is unnatural, unless the song is about going to court. Don’t use a word just because it rhymes. [It must fit in terms of meaning, tone of language etc.]
  • 268 A ‘trigger line’ “releases its meaning into the chorus; whatever the trigger line says will determine how we see the chorus.”
  • 269 “It’s important to work on your trigger lines. They are power positions, but more important, they are the last thing you hear before you enter your chorus. Always take time to check them, the earlier the better.”
  • 270 “I can’t just assume that my mental picture is everybody’s mental picture. I’ve got to make it everybody’s mental picture.”
  • 275 Bridge must have a unique structure.
  • 275 “Check every lyric you write from all points of view.” Re-write from different pronouns (1st, 2nd and 3rd person), and then past, present, future. Change tense in some sections.
  • 283 Change the rhyme scheme for subsequent verses [also line length?]
  • 288 “developing alternatives is what makes the decisions based on taste possible.”
  1. Co-writing: the ‘no’-free zone
  • 290 Stan Webb (his first co-writer): “I’m gonna say some of the dumbest things you’ve ever heard…. And if you do your job right today, you’re gonna say some of the dumbest things I ever heard… But, as long as that door is closed, nobody needs to know how dumb we are. I won’t tell if you won’t.” [Excellent idea, though in Ch.24, PP talks about how useful it is for co-writers to critique each other’s work.]
  • 290 Stan Webb: “Say everything that comes into your head. Say it out loud, no matter how dumb it is. Don’t censor anything. If you say something really dumb, you might give me an idea that’s not quite as dumb. And then I might have a decent one that gives you a better one that gives me a great one. If you’d never said the dumb one, we would never get to the great one. So that means that we’ll never say ‘no’ to each other. A co-writing room is a ‘-n’-free zone. If you suggest a line and I don’t like it, I just won’t say anything. Silence is a request for more, more, more. It says, ‘just keep throwing stuff out there’. When either one of us likes something, we’ll say ‘yes’. Otherwise, just keep going.” [I like this a lot. And … I also know how useful it can be to discuss why something gets a ‘no’; if we can work out why something doesn’t work, it can help us work out what the problem is and how to fix it. That gives us better substantive content, at the same time as training us to be reflective practitioners honing our craft knowledge.]
  • 291 “Never talk about writing in a co-writing room, especially about technique. Telling what you know about writing isn’t writing. You’re supposed to be writing, not talking about it. Stay inside the song, inside the characters. Don’t run away to the intellectual level.” [As I say, I get PP’s valuable point here, and I want there to be room for learning craft from and with each other. That is how I have proceeded as a performer working with other performers; it is central to the work.]
  • 291 “Don’t be afraid to write crap – it makes the best fertiliser. The more of it you write, the better your chances are of growing something wonderful.”

4 Comments on “Writing better lyrics (notes on Pattison’s book)

  1. Thanks for an alternative/antidote to the Pat Pattison book.I’ve read that and with your comments and Rikky Rooksby’s book on lyrics-more for ideas for lyrics when your having writers block, feel better
    enabled to write lyrics. Do you have a twitter link so I can supply your thoughts to a wider audience ?

  2. Not bad. You make some clear and very well articulated and great points. I agree with you. Pats book is mostly nonsense.
    You should check out the lyrics of Josef Wolff.
    Now that guy knows how to write a song with meaningful lyrics.

  3. Thanks for the summary and observations. I really wasn’t connecting with the rhyme type distinctions and stable/unstable feelings imparted, and found your blog when searching. I see you had issues with that same section.

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