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When To Write A Song Using Less Than 20 Words

Sometimes songs with very few words can be really effective.

I’m not talking here about songs that have only one word or phrase in or at the end of the Chorus (like ‘Tequila’, ‘Soulfinger’, ‘Do The Hustle’, etc). I’m talking about songs that actually have lyrics… just very few of them.

A friend of mine recently suggested I listen to Nirvana’s ‘School’ (Cobain). The whole song has only 3 lines, repeated a lot, each line in its own section. 14 individual words total.

Wouldn’t you believe it
It’s just my luck

No recess

You’re in high school again

This got me thinking of other songs that are similarly stingy with words. Such as Beck’s ‘Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime’ (Warren), a real favorite of mine (listen below). This bloats all the way up to 21 words.

Change your heart
Look around you
Change your heart
It will astound you

And I need your lovin’ like the sunshine

Everybody’s gotta learn sometime

Then there’s The Beatles’ monumental ‘I Want You/She’s So Heavy’ (Lennon/McCartney). I count 12 distinct words. (Listen below.)

I want you
I want so bad
I want you
I want so bad
It’s drivin’ me mad
It’s drivin’ me mad

She’s so heavy

Another classic, weighing in at 14 words, is ‘You Are So Beautiful’ (Preston/Fisher).

What makes this interesting to me is that these songs let the music carry the weight, using the obsessive urgency of repeating the same words over and over (and understanding that some listeners will just find the whole thing annoying).

Obviously this is not going to work in most songs, but when you have a simple lyric message that you really want to drive home, combined with the right musical setting… less can actually be more… big time!

Any others under 20 words that I missed?

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

kurt c


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5 responses to “When To Write A Song Using Less Than 20 Words”

  • shoshana

    “Why don’t we do it in the road” The Beatles
    “The Hustle” Van McCoy
    “Pink moon” Nick Drake

    Great topic! ( :

  • Scott B

    Very intriguing. Thanks, Tony.

  • Michael

    Radiohead’s lyrics are often a lot more sparse than you would expect, for example “The national anthem” definitely has less than 20 words, with “Everything in its right place” maybe just making the cut.

    On a different note: “Now I wanna sniff some glue” by the Ramones if you don’t count numbers as words. Many more of their early songs come to mind as well, like “Beat on the brat”.

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