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When I Stopped Using My Song’s 1st Verse To Clear My Throat

When beginning a conversation, especially with someone you don’t know well, it’s normal to spend a little time on pleasantries, polite chitchat… It breaks the ice. “How’ve you been? How’s your husband/wife? How are the kids? How’s work?” Etc.

After that, unless some earth-shattering event is reported, you move on to the business at hand.

When giving a speech or a talk of any sort, the same thing holds… maybe start with a joke or two… loosen yourself and everyone else up (hopefully). Then get to the topic.

I listen to quite a few podcasts. For some hosts, it’s pretty common to do the same – shake out their uneasiness with some casual conversation about traffic on the way to the studio, parking, etc.

I do not like these kind of podcasts (unless the hosts are truly funny or can speak extemporaneously in an entertaining way. There are damn few of these.).

I call this kind of thing ‘throat-clearing’… as in, uncomfortably clearing your throat before saying, with seeming reluctance, what you came to say. In real life, throat-clearing makes sense; it bridges an awkward gap at the beginning of a new interaction. In podcasts, not so much.

And in screenwriting and playwriting it’s common that the first act, or a good part of it, is unnecessary throat-clearing and can often be tossed out with no harm done (except, sadly, to the writer’s ego).

The same thing is very true in songwriting. I often find myself dithering around in the first Verse (and I see the same thing in writers I work with) when I should be getting right down to the business of what the song is about. Same thing as with scripts – get to the story right away! No need to clear my throat or hem and haw.

It’s amazing to me how often the first Verse can be cut, or cut down. And, as when cutting anything non-essential – but more so, since it’s the beginning – the whole song comes into much clearer focus.

It’s completely natural to go through some ‘throat-clearing’ at the beginning of things in real life. But writing isn’t real life. It’s life without the dull bits (most of them anyway… I hope). As Elmore Leonard said, “Leave out the parts that people tend to skip.”

I’d add: Particularly at the beginning. Leave out the throat-clearing!

Let me know your thoughts, additions, disagreements in the Comments section below:

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3 responses to “When I Stopped Using My Song’s 1st Verse To Clear My Throat”

  • Mark Permann

    Hi Tony! Seems logical, but I confess “throat clearing” is less obvious to me in the context of a song vs a podcast. Would love to see a before / after example (even if the latter is imagined on your part) on a published song, or one you can otherwise share.

    If I end up figuring this out later with respect to my own work, I’m making a mental note here to come back and do the same :)

  • Mark Permann

    Though I’d still like to see another example, for benefit of myself and others, I’ll post a lyric of a song I wrote, Helicopter One, that Tony suggested might be throat clearing:

    “Flying way up here
    I ain’t got no fear
    Looking down on you
    I know what to do”

    Some of my fellow classmates said this song reminded them of David Bowie’s Space Oddity (I’m a beginner so I’m flying around at a lower altitude!!), and though I definitely didn’t consciously have that song in mind, I do see the similarity. So I will replicate here the opening lyric of that song:

    “Ground Control to Major Tom
    Ground Control to Major Tom
    Take your protein pills and put your helmet on
    Ground Control to Major Tom (ten, nine, eight, seven, six)
    Commencing countdown, engines on (five, four, three)
    Check ignition and may God’s love be with you (two, one, liftoff)”

    Comparing the two, without a doubt the Space Oddity lyric pretty quickly paints the situation for you. My opening lines are a lot more ambiguous. Someone fearless and knowing is flying above us, but who is it? Why is he that way?

    In my case, the ambiguity is on purpose – it was a creative take on a class assignment, a case in which a helicopter pilot reminded me of others who sit on top of things and judge from above. However, if that’s not clear to the listener, it’s not going to have the same power for them as it does for me.

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