The First Line
- How to begin – First impressions still count. Following on from Rule One, first lines will not get a second chance. Dress to impress. Rise and shine. If you were going out on a ‘blind’ first date, wouldn’t you make an effort? I imagine you’d probably invest quite some energy, time, and money into maximising your appeal to a prospective date. After all, this could potentially lead to a lifelong relationship. Likewise, if we were attending an all-important job interview, wouldn’t we research the firm, attempt to anticipate every potential question and reply, and ensure we presented ourselves in the best possible light? Wouldn’t we want to communicate in a friendly conversational tone and make a lasting first impression on others that outshines all competition?
- Invest – Your song IS that first date, that all-important job interview. Invest all you can afford – time, energy, and money – After all, you don’t want the competition stealing your date, do you? Or taking that job? You must outshine the competition if you want to be a hit songwriter. So, how do we ensure we shine? Well, I suggest doing what we would do on that first date or job interview – Introduce ourselves with an all-winning smile! In song terms, this translates as first lines being simply irresistable, they must make audiences passionately want to hear what is coming next in the second line. (Tell me more, tell me more – from “Grease” -Summer Nights – a song all about that first date).
- First Person Viewpoint – Would you go on a first date and talk about someone else? In order to write hit songs today, we should predominantly take the first person perspective. Let’s imagine that first date or job interview we talked about earlier. Who would we talk about and why? I suggest there would be very slight chances of a second date or job offer if we wasted our listener’s time talking about anyone or thing other than ourselves and them. You are selling yourself on a first encounter. Potential hit songs stand a much greater chance of success if communicated directly and personally with the audience. No-one should introduce third-parties or other distractions to an intimate conversation unless it is absolutely necessary.
- Houston, we have a problem – Communication breakdowns and how to avoid them. We live in an age of attention deficit disorders, fastfood chains, instant celebrities, disposable napkins/relationships/stars- you name it, and all manner of distractions vying for our time and attention. The hit songwriter always establishes and maintains their audience’s attention. In today’s highspeed modern culture, this is increasingly important, but not so difficult to do.
- Talk clearly, distinctly, and directly – This sounds like grandmother’s advice, but never truer than for today’s hit songwriters.
- Address your listener with ordinary conversational everyday language and in a friendly tone. Engage them. Make them want to listen to you.
- Introduce yourself (the singer’s role), introduce your subject and the theme of your song. You may very well decide to establish the title or chorus – your song name or signature – immediately in the first line. (Rihanna – What’s My Name? – Begins with Chorus)
- Try to directly address the BIG FIVE – Who? What? Where? When? and How? Paint a background scene, a canvas or stage on which all the song action and story will take place.
- Give detailed descriptions. It may be useful to think in terms of being questioned by detectives, or asked to give evidence in a major trial under cross-examination.
- Establish a unique perspective if possible – in other words, your subject matter may be universal in nature, but think of expressing it from another perspective, with a current slant, or new ways of saying it. Be contemporary – NEWs not OLDs.
- Be upbeat and positive. Come on! Who wants to go on a first date with a grouch? We are talking about principles and templates for HIT songs here. If you simply insist on being negative in the first line, you should really think about turning this around later in the song to show the singer as a winning role model, someone who can directly face and overcome life’s problems.
- Remember, the song is about the LISTENER, not YOU, the songwriter. Sure, when you go on a first date, you will talk about yourself somewhat, and try to present yourself in the best possible light, honestly and authentically – (Very important: no-one likes frauds, especially not in songs). But then- well, wouldn’t you compliment your date? Wouldn’t you ask them questions? Wouldn’t you want to know their history, about their thoughts, experience, and feelings on life? Remember, everyone’s favourite subject and what they know most about is themselves. As a songwriter, get into your audience’s head and write ABOUT them, FOR them, and FROM their perspective.
- Don’t confuse your audience. Confuse them, lose them. Stay on subject. Don’t jump around randomly from point to point. Address only one subject, one event, one feeling or emotion, one thought, and talk deeply about this. Knowledge is power only when actioned. Stay focused and on track – If you are focused as a songwriter, your audience will be too whilst listening to your hit songs.
- Give your best – All the time. Don’t settle for the first line that pops into your head. Write and rewrite. Is the first line instantly memorable? Is it unique? Does it relate directly to the song title? Would you, as a listener, want to hear the next line? Does it have universal appeal? Is it newsworthy and current?
- I wish he would tell you what she is doing to them – Confused yet? Don’t change perspectives or point of view. To echo the lyric line – ‘Please don’t let me be misunderstood.’
- Finally, do all of this in the first line, using only single syllable words if possible, and with a maximum of seven words and eleven syllables for the entire line. Impossible? Remember – You, yes! YOU!! You are a hit songwriter, you are heroic, you are writing the soundtrack to people’s lives – In the words of Alice, do five impossible things before breakfast.
- Just to prove to you it’s not impossible– I happened upon an on-going survey on the excellent Why Music Matters website yesterday where they asked people to submit their all-time favourite first lines of songs. Quite a coincidence! Anyhow, the results so far are very revealing. Of the first lines I studied, over 90% of them are written from the first person perspective. Remember, this is a list of people’s favourite first lines, so the survey is not restricted necessarily to hit songs. I imagine the percentage may have been even higher if this restriction had been added.
- Hit Song Examples – McCartney’s Yesterday – “Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away…” (8 words, 13 syllables – but one could argue this is actually two lines of lyrics. First line -1 word, 3 syllables. Second line – 7 words, 10 syllables). Neil Young’s Heart of Gold – ” I want to live, I want to give…” (8 words, 8 syllables – Again, arguably two lines!). From these first lines – wouldn’t we want to know what happens next in these great hit songs from yesteryear? Ok, not convinced?? Let’s get up-to-date! Adele’s Someone Like You – “I heard that you’re settled down…”(6 words, 8 syllables – Excellent example, and also already establishes the “I and Thou” conversation between singer and audience). Finally, for the Doubting Thomas’s among you – Eminem (ft.Rihanna) – Love The Way You Lie – “Just gonna stand there and watch me burn…” (8 words, 9 syllables – the YOU of the listener watching her burn is strongly implied) – Also, song BEGINS with the Chorus, and Eminem’s first line rap – “I can’t tell you what it really is…” (also 8 words, 9 syllables) …. I rest my case.
- Write as you speak. K.I.S.S – Keep it simple songwriter!