Every writer knows that if you want to write a novel, you have to read a lot of books. And not just in your genre — you have to venture into all of the categories of your kindle. It’s the same for songwriting. In order to understand the craft of putting a song together, you first need to expose yourself to as much music as you can. Keep listening until you can hear the musical and lyrical structures of the nearly countless variations of songwriting out there. And then listen some more.
Whether it’s pop, which currently tends to have simpler, more repetitive lyrics over intense production, or rap, which usually focuses on telling a story over production-heavy loops and beats, or country, which almost entirely tells stories via vivid imagery and hooks, sometimes with a stripped-down sound, sometimes with arena-ready production gloss, you’ll learn the many nuances of songwriting from all of them. All kinds of styles are calling to you; let them in.
As you jump out of the For You section of your streaming service, you’ll notice almost all music shares one objective: emotion. Every song wants you to feel something. And to do that, they tell a story, whether it’s in one chorus chanted over and over again, or in an epic poem type style that provides you with characters, locations, events and even a timeline.
We’ve grabbed some of our favorite songs that tell stories in an original way, with inventive use of rhymes, imagery and phrasing. Add them to your playlist:
Chris Stapleton, “Whiskey and You” (written by Stapleton with Lee Thomas Miller). The opening line says it all: “There’s a bottle on the dresser by your ring, and it’s empty so I don’t feel a thing.” You have the whole story right there — that’s economy of imagery and phrasing. The rest of the song uses the differences between “whiskey and you” to say how the singer feels about his ex. It’s concise, hyper-effective storytelling using whiskey as the vehicle to attack his true feelings.
Kacey Musgraves, “Dime Store Cowgirl” (written by Musgraves with Shane McAnally and Luke Laird). Musgraves takes an insult screamed at her by another girl’s mom when she was a kid, and turns it into this statement of intent and identity. The phrase itself is evocative and catchy, and she weaves it into a stream of memories as she doubles down on where she’s from (“it don’t matter where I’m going, I still call my hometown home”).
Eminem, “Stan” (written by Eminem, Dido and Paul Harmon). One of the greatest examples of storytelling in rap, or any genre, this bleak but brilliant track is narrated by Eminem as Stan, one of Eminem’s biggest fans. It details Stan’s descent from happy fanboying to homicidal rage as his idol seemingly ignores all his attempts to get in contact. At the end, Eminem raps as himself again. The track is full of psychological and emotional moments that vividly illustrate Stan’s journey — Stan rationalizing that Eminem probably didn’t get his letters because his handwriting is too sloppy, Eminem ignoring Stan and his little brother when they were waiting in the cold outside one of his concerts, Stan laying out how he and Eminem are the same, even as Stan’s rage begins to creep into his phrasing more and more. It’s a masterpiece of sharp, memorable imagery used to convey a complex series of emotions, and to track a psychological breakdown.
Jessica Roadcap, “Always Find Me” (written by Roadcap, David Dorn and Rose Falcon). Roadcap uses a sparkling flow of imagery to detail her failed attempts to escape a memory: a fast car, an ocean, running, hiding, breaking free, Vegas, one night stands, ghosts… but always ending up realizing, “your memory always finds me.” This is how you take a hugely relatable feeling (wanting to forget the love of someone who’s gone) and make it instantly evocative to the listener using well-chosen imagery.
Beyoncé, “Single Ladies” (written by Beyoncé, The-Dream, Kuk and Christopher “Tricky” Stewart). This falls into the category of anthemic statement of intent, with its heavily repeated call to “all the single ladies” over a stuttering, relentless beat. It makes its point in pointed fashion, with its poetic “you had your turn, and now you’re gonna learn, what it feels like to miss me,” and its instantly iconic, “if you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on it,” which distills the meaning of the entire song into one bladed phrase.
Keith Urban and Eric Church, “Raise ’em Up” (written by Tim Douglas, Jaren Johnston and Jeffrey Steele). That title is used in a multitude of ways that get ever more profound: raising your glass in a toast, your hands in prayer, your tear-filled eyes up to the sky, your kids as they grow up. It’s a beautiful song that transcends that simple phrase by layering on the meanings.
Howlin’ Wolf, “Smokestack Lightning” (written by the Wolf). A classic, old-time blues, this uses a ruthlessly stripped-back image to drive the song: the sparks coming out of the smokestack of a train rushing past into the night (“smokestack lightning, shining just like gold…”). That becomes symbolic of the relationship that the character is losing (“where did you sleep last night… why don’t you hear me crying…”). Even musically, the song sits in one hypnotic chord throughout as the image is used again and again, making this in some ways a precursor to modern pop (we’ll take that Pulitzer now).
Whatever genre you listen to, the lessons of the best are clear: choose unusual imagery that hooks you in and tells you a story in its own right; play with words and phrases, layering in more than one meaning to give a song more depth; give your words a dynamic rhythm that sticks in our minds; but above all, keep it authentic, keep it true, keep it relatable, keep it real.
Make us feel it.