Songwriting: The secret power of lists

“I like lists”, one prominent worship songwriter once told me in passing after glancing over my shoulder during a songwriting conference. (I’ll leave you to guess who.)

  • Lists are great.
  • Lists are options.
  • Lists are brain dumps.
  • Lists are low investment, high return.

You can have a list for everything. I don’t just mean your shopping list or your to-do list (although for heaven’s sake, you need both of those).

I mean your rhymes
What chimes?
What lines
Will rhyme?
The time
It takes to turn a dime
‘Twixt fingers while you chew your lime
And prime
Your list, your options climb
A blooming vine
(A half-rhyme’s fine) . . .

You get the idea. Are you creating lists of possible rhymes? (Of course, don’t create rhyme lists for the sake of it; do it once you have a line that you want to rhyme with, then start scratching that pencil!)

How about your key words? This is something I definitely got from Pat Pattison: what are the key words to your song, and what are the words that relate to them?

For example, if your chorus involves a lot of stormy seas – if that’s the main thing in your chorus – your list should include things like:

  • Bream
  • Ocean
  • Angry clouds
  • Crashing waves (but you know you’ll likely avoid or change this as it’s too clichéd on its own)
  • Biting cold
  • Foam
  • Froth
  • Driving rain
  • Soaked
  • Creaking hull
  • Mast snapping
  • Etc.

Metaphors (interchangeable here with simile) can be listed in two ways.

The first involves simply creating a list of unusual combinations. Here’s a few (we’ve already had the fist one):

  • Angry clouds
  • His name rotted on the tongue
  • Feet like rubber
  • Pouncing waves (that might be better than crashing waves, above)

The second involves creating a list related to your main theme (let’s stick with stormy seas), and then a list relating to some otherwise-unrelated (but possibly metaphorically useful) theme – and then trying to marry the two.

Stormy seasWild cats
WavesPounce, Leap
CloudsProwl
ColdGrowl, Roar, Snarl
WetHunt
Terror, FearFur, Furry
WeatherFury
Etc.Etc.

We’ll never weather the fury of this storm. Roaring waves leap into the boat; the snarling wind howls through tattered sails. Another surge prowls at our keel, hunting us down, ready to pounce at any moment.

You could even select your metaphor more appropriately; in a short bit of copywriting I once did to advertise a church men’s breakfast meeting, I wrote

Conversation will be sizzling, ideas popping and deep thoughts brewing . . .

marrying both the ideas of breakfast (sizzling, popping, brewing) and what’s usually intended by trying to get men to get together (conversation, ideas, deep thoughts).

As someone once pointed out, adjectives are really boring. They’re mostly all tired, overworked and underpaid – well, it’s time to let them go. Wave them off to a fake-tanned semi-retirement in Trump’s speeches (where they will be really, really smart, big, funny, etc.). Or instead, relegate them to mere servant duties – in service to Lord Verb and Lady Noun. Or in other words, make lists of great nouns (for still scenes) and verbs (for action and movement). And again, find good combinations of the two. Nouns and verbs should be the first things you go to in your metaphor lists above, and key words lists. Look at how many verbs I went to for the big cats: prowl, growl, hunt, etc. Barely an adjective in sight; the only one is ‘furry’ – and what was I thinking with that? How useful is that in a stormy sea description?

Make lists.


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