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How To Surprise Your Listener

Working on a new song recently I was faced with a typical songwriting problem. One so mundane that I thought sharing how it looked to me, and what I’ve done about it so far (the song’s not finished), might be worthwhile.

My first draft lyric for the Verses was something like –

I could come in last
I could come in first
I could make things better
I could make them worse

Either way you play it
It’s a sucker’s game…

(That’s all I had!)

‘I could do this… I could do that…’ Mostly a list song. 4 bar sections; one line of lyrics per bar. Very typical; you get the idea.

The problem is, everyone listening to the song would get the idea too… and know what was coming next before I sang it! After I’d sung, ‘I could come in last/I could come in first/I could make things better…’  anyone listening would know that the next line was going to be, ‘I could make them worse’.

That’s not good. (Unless the tempo was super-fast, which it definitely was not.) And frankly I’d bore myself before I got to the next line.

One solution was to toss out the whole concept and start from scratch. But there was something about the general approach that I liked; plus it also made sense with the Chorus/Title idea I had. So I did something I’ve been doing more frequently lately. I started fooling around with the lengths of the phrases to see if I could end up with something that worked and was more interesting to me.

If I change the melody it forces the lyric to evolve in unexpected ways. And vice versa.

First I tried making the 4th line come unexpectedly sooner, using the element of surprise so the line would happen before the listener could anticipate it.

Not only was I not able to come up with something satisfying  that moved fast enough for this to work, and made musical sense to me, this also didn’t solve the real problem – that the lyric’s pattern and way of expressing its idea were way too cliched and predictable. It was just an attempt to cover that up.

(You can have a predictable pattern but avoid this pitfall if you’re brilliantly creative – like, say, Bob Dylan. Or if you’re brilliantly clever – like, say, Yip Harburg. I’m neither.)

So my next choice was to attempt to lengthen some of the phrases, using irregular phrasing and inner rhymes. Currently, this is the rewritten lyric and pattern I have:

I could come in last
I could come in first
I could make the world a better place
Or join the race
To make it worse

Either way you play it
It’s a sucker’s game
And all the other motherfuckers
With no luck’re
Stayin’ the same

The first 2 lines/bars are the same but the melody and lyric in the 3rd and 4th bar (lines 3-5 of each Verse) go in what I hope is an unexpected direction – which also makes the last line ‘resolution’ harder to anticipate. And it still fits in 4 bars (spilling into the 5th bar but not getting in the way of anything).

Now it has the benefit of lyric phrases of irregular lengths, which I usually find to be inherently more ‘musical’ than lines that are all the same length. It avoids at least some of the predictability of phrasing and thought in the first draft (above). I think this approach helped me to say basically the same thing in a more musically and lyrically interesting way.

Don’t misunderstand – I’m not making any claims for the brilliance of the current lyric rewrite. I may completely rewrite it. The song itself may well end up in the dustbin.

But I’ve stuck with it, and I think I’ve improved it, by my lights. It’s a work-in-progress, but I thought it might be interesting to share some of the process with you.

Thanks for reading! Let me know your thoughts, additions, disagreements in the Comments section below:



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4 responses to “How To Surprise Your Listener”

  • Ray Fortunato

    Excellent Post.

    Sometimes in my writing I write “blah, blah, blah” because it seems so cliché and boring. Tony’s expressed some good ideas for overcoming that here. I have tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to change the lengths of phrases but this is an inspiration to try again.

    Thanks Tony.

  • Joyce Rogers

    I like the natural way it starts. Perhaps if you figure out the title then the direction will take off, ie “Sucker’s Game” or, “Staying the Same” or even “Better Place”. Always enjoy your posts.

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