So how important is the first verse, and what is the first verse supposed to do? The first verse is extremely important! Let’s think about this the first verse establishes a rapport that you have with your listener. In the first verse you are showing listener what the song is about and what your attitude is in regards to the subject matter. You are also establishing the tone of the song.
The first verse, in conjunction with the title and the first line of the song hopefully, make that ‘first impression’ of the song a good one!
Some songwriters feel that ambiguity is important in the first verse. That it instills a need for clarification and draws the listener in. I’m not sure I agree with that. I mean, the argument has some validity, but I don’t think one should be purposely ambiguous. I think it just confuses the listener. However, I encourage you to try it out and see how it works for you.
What do you think?
4 thoughts on “The First Verse”
I have done it both ways. By offering a clear and informative first verse, you can engage your listener. According to multi-Grammy winning songwriter Ralph Murphy, you have exactly 45 seconds to do that, or else your listener is turning to a different station (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8wBOUJ5Mbrk ).
But that doesn’t mean you can’t be deceptive or ambiguously misleading in the title or first verse. You just have to be engaging to the listener. By distracting the audience as a magician would, you can pull the rabbit out of the hat later in the song when more details are revealed, preferably toward the end of the song. People love to be surprised by discovering the real meaning of the title after being misled for a while.
I kind of work it inside out. I agree with catchy title and first line. But I usually try to make the first line something really specific and as the song fleshes out, I try to work in the overall general idea of the emotion or mood I’m trying to demonstrate. I like to stay away from overworked cliches. I read a thing Aimee Mann said one time: “If I have to hear one more person wishing it would rain, I’m going to wretch!” True indeed. There are few of these kind of universals that just get overworked, like “going down to the river” or “wrong side of the tracks” or “that was a lifetime ago.” I like things that pique one’s interest right from the start. I think back to one of Jim’s lines: “I never should have got that blue tattoo” (or lyrics to that effect). That kind of makes you go, “What?” And makes you want to hear the rest of the story. I’m using one right at the moment “I don’t whistle by the graveyard.” That’s a superstition that you don’t hear very often. Now, trying to work that in with the rest of the message of the song is another challenge altogether! I just kind of like the line.
I think it’s possible to build a song around a simple sentence like that. On the other hand, I know many writers that have an idea of the general concept they want to convey, but then they search and try to find specifics that fit the idea.
So it actually works both ways–specific to general and general explained in specifics. Mostly, I just really agree that you need to grab the listener by the throat with the very first line and interest him enough to at least hear out the balance of the first verse. If you can get him that far, then give him the payoff with a great chorus, that’s money.
I’d love to see some specific examples, both ways and both good and bad.
I think the opening verse/line of a song is extremely important! I also think that the musical opening/intro to a song is important.
I’ve written songs using the ambiguous approach and the direct approach and I think the approach depends largely on what the song is about.
Recently I’ve found that having a solid chorus ~ “hook” line in mind helps me a lot. Once I have that in mind I find it easier to build verses that lead up to the chorus. After all, that is what I want to remain in the listeners mind when the song is over.
To use a metaphor, I’m reasonably confident that a painter knows what the painting is going to be about long before putting paint to canvas. The painter knows whether it’s going to be a portrait, landscape, still life…etc. Even if the painter knows it’s going to be an abstract work (ambiguity), there is some concept the painter wishes to convey.
Song writing is not exactly like being a painter, but whenever I try to write a song without having any idea about where it’s going, I usually flounder. And as a result, that song usually ends up in the scrap pile (or recycle bin).
So…yes, I have to open the song with something that catches the listeners attention or I will lose them. But that opening line will be moot if it doesn’t lead to a chorus/hook that puts the whole thing together.