Small Moments Write the Song

Andrea Stolpe

If you’ve been writing songs very long, you may have heard how important ‘imagery’ can be in songwriting.  We use imagery to draw the listener into a small moment, to engage the senses in the story.  When the senses are engaged, the listener ‘feels’, and the story comes to life.  The story is personal, authentic, and memorable.  But how do we find and choose the imagery we use?  Quite simply, we choose a moment that shows what the chorus tells us is true.

A moment is a snapshot – a location such as a gate in the airport, an old leather couch in your childhood living-room, a wooden park bench, or a humid laundromat.  Notice how each location is made more specific by the descriptor that precedes it?  When we’re coming up blank on ideas, it’s often because we’re not allowing ourselves to get specific enough.

Try taking a week and making a list of locations – in a field at dawn, at a drive-in movie in your grandmother’s chevy, driving by your old boyfriend’s house, spraying graffiti on 4th and Seller’s St.  The more specific, the more ideas.

Now, write only a first verse using the image of that location as your setting.  Use language that involves the senses of taste, touch, sight, sound, smell, and movement.  Do not try to rhyme, write in lyric form, establish a rhythm to your writing, or predicts good lyric content.  Just write, free-form, and without judgment or expectation.  This is your verse content from which you can pull words and phrases to serve as your actual lyric.  This technique is the basis of my book Popular Lyric Writing: 10 Steps to Effective Storytelling and the online course Commercial Songwriting Techniques.

Then, write about what the scene means to you.  What bigger message is this scene conveying?  Ask yourself “What am I really trying to say here?” and write or speak into a recording device about that answer.  This material ends up providing your title, main message, and therefore chorus material for the song.

I’d like to leave you with a lyric that captures some great imagery in the verses, and summarizes the meaning in the chorus.  Great songs don’t reveal new concepts, but show the undeniable and personal truth in old, familiar concepts.

She’s a good girl, she loves her mama
She loves Jesus and America too
She’s a good girl, she’s crazy ’bout Elvis
She loves horses and her boyfriend too

It’s a long day livin’ in Reseda
There’s a freeway runnin’ through the yard
And I’m a bad boy, ’cause I don’t even miss her
And I’m a bad boy for breakin’ her heart

And I’m free, I’m free fallin’ [x2]

All the vampires walkin’ through the valley
Move west down Ventura Blvd
And all the bad boys are standing in the shadows
All the good girls are home with broken hearts

And I’m free, I’m free fallin’ [x2]

Andrea Stolpe
Andrea Stolpe

Andrea Stolpe teaches songwriting at Berklee Online and the University of Southern California. Her songs have been recorded by Faith Hill, Julianne Hough, and Jimmy Wayne. She is also the author of Popular Songwriting: 10 Steps to Effective Storytelling.