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on song structure

When writing lyrics per se, i.e.
- lyrics for which there is neither a given tune that I have to match them with
- nor a chord progression or preset song structure that I have to squeeze them into
I often orientate myself by a widespread song structure:


This is the most common structure of pop songs.

The parts in brackets are optional. The last chorus obviously will only be there if there is a bridge, so there remain two choruses at the end of the song. In rock music there often is a guitar solo instead of a bridge, sometimes there are both.

If the verses are rather long it may be better to have just one verse at the beginning. Remember the 'rule': "don't bore us, get to the chorus"! Or the other one that says you've got only 30 seconds to get to the exciting part, which again would be the chorus. Of course there are no strict rules but you'll get my drift.

A more advanced song structure would read:


The lift - sometimes, rather formalistically, called a 'pre-chorus' - increases the excitement towards the chorus. After the bridge there is no lift since it serves the same function.

a poem or maybe lyrics in the making

I've already written two lyrics on the subject of refugees, and to my greta joy both have been set to music. Well, "hostile stars" was actually wirtten to match Hot Mama's music so you could say that one was commissioned work. The other one, "promised land", was picked by KOMIR, two hobby musicians who create songs and videos to be published on the internet for the fun of it. As of today they have set 56 of my lyrics to music! Here's to KOMIR!

When today I read that the EU still - and even increasingly - subsidizes one of the most corrupt regimes of the world, the Ukraine, the subject somehow popped up in my mind again. Actually not the intention to write about the Ukraine but to write about flight and migration. I had started a text a while ago but discarded it as too clumsy. Today I was in a more cynical mood which seems to do my songwriting skills good ;-)

I'm not sure if it is finished, or if I should add another verse or a chorus. Should I make it a song I think I'll repeat the last stanza to give it more weight. Anyway, this is what I have:

wars rage in your home countries
fed by the guns we sell
corruption thrives while people starve
our grants make sure it swells

from 'cross the sea our riches lure
across the sea peace reigns
across the sea we've got the means
to end all hurt and pain

you try to flee from poverty
you try to flee the war
you launch your boats, capsize and drown
to wash up on our shores

approaches III - topline writing

... or writing on top of a chord progression (which would be the same approach actually, only the term "topline writing" did not exist, say, ten years ago).

Topline writing came into fashion with rap and hip hop. Producers created a 'beat' on top of which the singers rapped or sang. In today's pop industry most titles are written in that manner. First a backing track is created which is then sent out to a number of topline writers who again create the vocal tune together with the lyrics. Since the backing track plays a huge role in this royalties for the composition are normally shared between topline writer and producer. Topline writers should typically be (the) singers as well so the resulting mix can either serve as a demo for professional singers or their label - or actually become the 'real thing'.

Traditional rock bands often began writing songs with either a chord progression or a riff on top of which then the song would be created. This would usually be done in close interaction, and the vocal line probably would often give cause to modify the song's structure, whereas in modern pop song creation the backing track is finished.

I tried topline writing for other guys three times. But as a singer I could only offer a rough guide instead of a 'real' demo, i.e. a fully produced recording that would be 'radio ready' except that it is only sung by someone unknown. The songs are "some go too soon", "dance into my life", and "addicted", you can find them on the bottom of my SoundClick list. In the case of "dance into my life" I could only publish the chorus because that is the only part I created the vocal tune for, the tune for the verses already existed.

I actually write my own rock songs in that very manner. I usually begin with a guitar part bacause that's the most fun. Step by step I add other guitar parts, the bass, and the drums until I get a complete backing track. Only then I begin to think about lyrics and a tune. But I don't offer topline writing for others any more. Neither do I write just the lyrics for backing tracks without a vocal line because that would actually mean creating the tune twice: once in my mind, then again by the singer who would just have the backing track and my words without a clue how I envisioned them sung. It would seem likely that the lyrics might not quite fit together with her or his idea for a tune, so I would have to rewrite the lyrics - and so on.

Bernd Harmsen/Paul Boyd - addicted
(topline written to a track by Paul Boyd)

eyes wide open

These are the lyrics I've written for Ronson (not yet approved):

you think he's your great love
the real thing
but will he stand the test
will he be true
true to you

pure, gentle, romantic
your white knight
you think he is the best
the best for you
best for now
and ever

today he charms you
one day he'll harm you
why are you acting
like blind?

(your) eyes wide open
I (can) see you head for a fall
(your) eyes wide open
I don't wanna watch you break down and fall

do I have to tell you
what I heard
about his way with girls
hurtful and rude
he's a brute

do I have to warn you
what's in store
dark forces that unfurl
once he is
sure of you
he's got you

today he charms you
one day he'll harm you
why are you acting
like blind?

(your) eyes wide open
I (can) see you head for a fall
(your) eyes wide open
I don't wanna watch you break down and fall

May I draw your attention to the lift (pre-chorus)? In the tune (vocal line) the intonation goes:

NA na na NA na
NA na na NA na
NA na na NA na

In the first three lines the stress lies on the second last syllable. This must be observed by the words used. A line like "such wonderful day" would NOT really work. Also, the rhyme should lie on the stressed syllable, not on the unstressed last one. It is fine if both harmonize, but the stressed syllable is the important one. Here the words "charm(s)" and "harm" constitute the rhyme.

working for Ronson

Ronson is a new partner from India. We got in contact over a songwriting board. I had asked him to provide a vocal line as I do not offer topline-writing (I'll get to that in some other post). On his recording he sings "na na na..." as a replacement for the words that I am supposed to contribute.

First step: analyzing the song's structure
After listening to the song two or three times I began taking notes. This is the structure that I have made out:
0.15 verse
0.45 lift (also called 'pre-chorus')
0.59 chorus
1:16 verse
1:45 lift
1:59 chorus
2:16 [guitar solo]
3: 15 chorus
3:30 chorus

Second step: defining what's it about
It's a rock song. The verses sound light and maybe romantic. The melody of the lift gave me the idea that there might be a 'but', some catch. It could be something like: "it's all very fine and easy, BUT...." A strong chorus, quite a bit of drama there. And very short.

The idea I got: 'she' is very romantic but falls for the wrong guy (not 'me' - i.e. the singer); 'I' see bad things coming (in the lift); 'I' warn her (in the chorus).

Third step: writing ;-)
Here my 'job' actually begins, and depending on how the music goes - how narrowly it is defined, for example - this can be tough. I usually begin by writing the chorus. The chorus defines what the song is about, and the chorus contains the hook that in most cases also is the song's title. This part must be strong. And, of course, writing the chorus' lyrics might require modifying my basic concept. Would I begin with writing the verses I might run into an impasse: either write a weak chorus, or rewrite the lot.

The chorus
The tune goes

NA na NA na
na NA na na na na NA
NA na NA na
na na na na NA na na na na NA

and these are my words:

(your) eyes wide open
I (can) see you head for a fall
eyes wide open
I don't wanna watch you break down and fall

The idea behind it is "to head for disaster with your eyes wide open", the title could be "eyes wide open". The words in brackets are addtional - and optional. I can envision an upbeat note in the first line, and two short notes instead of one in the second without damaging the tune. But to decide this is up to the composer and singer.

That's all I have at the moment. I'll keep you updated.