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Rewriting Lyrics

By Jason Blume

I once read an interview with legendary songwriter Leonard Cohen ("Suzanne"), in which he said that when he writes a lyric, he might spend the day filling an entire notebook and if one line actually makes it into the song, he's had a good day! At first, that seemed incredible to me, but then I realized that most songs don't have more than eight lines in each of two verses (sixteen lines); a maximum of another eight lines in the chorus, and at the most, another four lines of lyric in the bridge. That's a total of 28 lines (and many songs might have less).Taking 28 days to write a song with each line being an extraordinary line could produce twelve incredible songs per year. It's easier to get one great song published and recorded than a hundred pretty good ones.

Exercise: Rewriting A Verse Lyric

In your notebook, rewrite each of the following verse lyrics three times. For each rewrite, keep the idea the same, but change the images and the specific words. Feel free to change the length of the lines and where the rhymes occur. Remember to:

Use detail
Keep it conversational
Use fresh imagery
Allow the listener to watch the scene unfold.

I held you close
That first night we danced
And when I took you home
I took a chance.

There's really good music
Where I go on Saturday nights
Everybody has a lot of fun
And they're feelin' alright.

When you said that you were leaving me
The first thing I did was cry
Then I got really angry
And then I told you why.

When you've completed the exercise, answer the following questions:

• Did you use detail?
• Is the language conversational?
• Does it incorporate fresh imagery?
• Does the lyric allow the listener to watch the scene unfold?
• Did the work get stronger with each rewrite?

Exercise: Rewriting The Lyrics To An Existing Song
Copy the lyric to a recent hit song that you love and wish you had written. Be sure to select one that was written by an outside writer. In crafting your new lyric, use the same

• Basic Idea (positive love song, sad love song, social issue song)
• Song Structure (A-A-B-A-A-B-A-B-C-B)
• Number of Lines In Each Section
• Rhyming Scheme (rhyme lines 2 & 4 in verses, 1&2 and 3&4 in chorus)
• Approximate Number of Syllables in Each Line
• Tone of the Lyric (clever, heartfelt, twists on words)

Create a new title, fresh images, and new ways to express the essence of the original lyric while using the same set of tools that led to success for the writer of the existing lyric.

Copyright © 1999 by Jason Blume
Excerpted from 6 Steps To Songwriting Success by Jason Blume. Published by Billboard Books, an imprint of Watson-Guptill Publications, New York, New York.