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Twists on Lists
By Bill Pere - 10/14/2010 - 02:04 PM EDT

Critique sessions are very popular these days, and at any given session, we speak a great deal  about song form.  Songs have parts called verses, choruses, bridges, tags, climbs and we can represent the order of these in a song by using letters to represent the different parts. Thus a song might be of the form A-B-A-B (verse-chorus-verse-chorus), A-B-A-B-C-B,   (verse-chorus,verse-chorus-bridge-chorus), A-A-A (verse-verse-verse), or many other variations.  We also speak a great deal about song  genre, style, or type.  We refer to a song as a country tune, ballad, pop, folk, rock, protest song, church hymn, rap, blues, torch song, show tune, etc.  What we do not speak about often enough is song formatThere are two primary song formats: lists and stories.   A song of any form (ABAB) or of any genre (country, rock) can be either a list or a story.  Writers often run into trouble when operating in the borderland between the two, because they do not mix well.  There are clear guidelines for successful lists and story formats,  so let's now take a look a look at those.

What is a List Song?

A list song is one where:

 (a)  the main point of the song (the focus) is stated completely in a single verse

       (or verse-  chorus  combination) i.e., any verse (or verse-chorus) could stand on its own

        as a complete unit, with nothing further needed.

 (b)  each subsequent verse re-states the same  pointin a distinctly different way

 (c)  if any verse is removed from the song, it is not critical to the  sense or success of the song in

      communicating the message.

 (d)  there is no required relationship in time between events described in  one verse and

        those any other

What is a Story Song?

A story song is one where:

(a) The flow of the verses depicts a sequence of events which in total  make the song’s point.

     A single verse (or verse-chorus) is not enough by itself to stand alone and convey the


(b) if any verse is removed from the song, something critical to the overall logic of the song

      is lost

(c)  the lyric addresses the six “W’s” ,  who, what, where, when , why, and how  

(d)  there is an explicit or implicit relationshipin timebetween the events in the verses

       (i.e., verse #2 occurs 3 hours after verse #1)

It should be easy to tell the difference between lists and stories, and it should be very easy to write a “list” lyric, right?  Well, let’s take a look.  Dan Fogelberg’s “Longer” is clearly a list about the magnitude of his love. The only point of the song is “I love you a lot”. All the lyrics just re-state that point using different metaphors e.g., Longer than there are stars up in the heavens/ Higher than any bird ever flew/Deeper than any forest primeval  ...   Sounds easy?  We have to remember scope and semantic field.  The metaphors are consistent with each other in that they are all about natural things like forests, stars, birds, fish, and oceans,  and they are all about “big” things. It would not be appropriate to insert an item about the height of a skyscraper in a list of natural wonders, or an item about a grain of sand in a list of big things. Lists must be crafted for consistency of scope and semantic field to achieve maximum impact.

For another source of list songs, look at church hymns?  A quick look through a hymnal will show that most hymns are 3-5 verses all of which re-state the same message. Any single verse can stand alone, thus, hymns are list songs. Well known examples are  “America the Beautiful”, with verses extolling different virtues of our country, and “All Things Bright and Beautiful”,  about the natural world.

Another shape that a list song can take is that the first verse or the chorus can state the song’s message in a general way and then all the following verses can serve as more specific, supporting examples. In this case, each verse can be internally consistent within itself regarding scope and semantic field,  but not necessarily consistent from verse to verse. This is fine, as long as each verse states exactly the same message, and each verse after the first serves as a specific supporting example of a more general case presented in the first verse or chorus.

For an array of list songs, many of which are classics, look at the work of Cole Porter, who was a master of the list format.

There are yet other twists on lists... Let’s look at the lyrics from Billy Joel’s "Movin'  Out":

Anthony works in the grocery store saving his pennies for someday

Mama Leone left a note on the door, she said  "Sonny move out to the country"

Working too hard can give you a heart attack, you ought to know by now,

Who needs a house out in Hackensack? Is that all you get for your money?

It seems such a waste of time, if that’s what it’s all about,

If that’s movin’ up, then I’m movin’ out.


Sergeant O’Leary is walking the beat, at night he becomes a bartender

He works at Mr. Cacciatore’s down on Sullivan Street, across from the Medical Center

He’s trading in his Chevy for a Cadillac, you ought to know by now,

If he can’t drive with a broken back, at least he can polish the fender

It seems such a waste of time, if that’s what it’s all about,

If that’s movin’ up, then I’m movin’ out.

It’s a song with an (A-A) format.  Is it story or list?  Your first impulse might be to say it’s a story,  but if you look closely, verse one and verse two share no dependence on each other at all.  They are both self-contained statements of the song’s message.  It is true that within themselves. they are short stories, but the overall song is a list of short stories or vignettes,  each supporting a shared central idea.  Another well known example is "Don't Stop Believin'".


When writing the songs for my "High School My School"  CD,  many of the concepts lent themselves to the vignette format.  Here's an example of the vignette format, which I used in the song "Bein’ Cool".   The central statement of the chorus is:

"Bein’ cool – It ain’t so hot if you are what you’re not".


Here are the verses:

  (v1) Wiley Willy's walkin' down the hall, trash talkin'

When Serena sidles up and stops him right in his tracks

She says "You better stop your messin'

See you really ain't impressin me

And if you think you are then you ain't got all the facts" -  (to chorus)


(v2) Lita's so elite,  she says 'bout every guy she'll meet

That they just don't have the heat to hang with her very long

I say "You know, if you're believing

That's why all your friends are leaving

Well then let me tell you now that you just got it all wrong  -  (to chorus)


(v3)  Cheno is the man,  everyone else is also-ran

If he's around he'll put you down in any way that he can

I tell him man it's just your call, but if you think you're standing tall

Well then let me tell you now you're heading right for a fall  -  (to chorus)

Three verses, each a separate scene,  different characters, not dependent on any other verse, but all setting up the same central message of the chorus.  I again used the technique  in "All I Need is a Friend", where three independent vignettes each convey the same message  (alienation leads to self-destructive behavior)  and each verse flows to the same chorus by way of a common pre-chorus .  Here is the chorus:

    I am poetry not yet written,  a tale still too young to take wing

   A symphony just getting set to soar,  a song not yet ready to sing

   But I know, for these things to grow and be all they can be in the end

   I need someone there to care and help all the hurt mend

   All I need is a friend


Here are the verses:

( v1)  Chiani  disappears after school

I thought she had it all together, she was nobody's fool

But she's feeling like there's no one around

To give her life direction, keep her feet on the ground

So she waits until the end of each class

Then she hangs with Jackie Daniels, a bottle, and a glass

People turn their heads, choose not to see

I know about being alone, it could be me (to chorus)


( v 2) Joshua has been feeling down

It's another world out  there on the far side of town

That's the way  his life's always been

Built a wall around him,  no one ever gets in

From lessons learned and tears that  he's cried

Always by himself, Smith and Wesson by his side

People turn their heads, choose not to see

I know about being alone, it could be me (to chorus)


( v 3) Brianna really needs to connect

She's feeling like a castaway, relationship-wrecked

She's tried to reach out for a hand

Someone to talk to,   someone to understand

The silence slowly drives her insane

She spends her time just floating with her friend Mary Jane

People turn their heads, choose not to see

I know about being alone, it could be me (to chorus)


In crafting your format, whether a story or list,  the guideline for maximum effectiveness is :

(a)   either all the verses should be interdependent for time and context (a story); 


(b) none of the verses should be interdependent for time and context (a list). 

Problems with song construction arise when some verses are independent examples of something, and others in the same lyric bear a sequential dependence on one of the other verses.  In that case, you are mixing the two formats, and what you really have is  either

(a) a redundant verse (one of the independent ones)    - or –

(b) an illogical/inconsistent verse (one of the dependent ones).

This is a major cause of confusing and unfocused lyrics but is often hard to bring out at a critique session because it may be difficult to detect and explain at first glance.

If we look at actual story-songs which are not lists of vignettes,  we have classic examples like "Coward of the County", "Taxi", "Big Bad John", "Laurie", "Luka", "Moments", "The Wreck of the  Edmund Fitzgerald", "Christmas in the Trenches",  "Copacabana", and "A Boy Named Sue".  All are sequences of verses which together, weave a complete tale, and no single part can stand alone.  Every verse interrelates to all the others, and no verse can be removed without losing a piece of logic.  Good story songs are more difficult to write than lists because of the required connections of time and logic and consistency across all parts of the lyric.  For great examples of the story format, listen to the body of work of Harry Chapin.

Some songs can be subtle about whether they are lists or stories, but if you apply the tests listed above, you’ll find that if well written, they are one type or the other.  Pay particular attention to the importance or non-importance of time.  In songs that try to describe a moment or a feeling,  it is easy to do as a list by specifying characteristics of that moment (what do you see, how do you feel, etc.),  but it is extremely difficult if not impossible to do as a story, because time isn’t flowing.

What about all those songs which just seek to express or evoke an emotion, without a particular story or message?  If you look closely, these types are songs are usually random lists of emotive phrases or images, which may or may not have something tying them together.

Oh baby you left me

You made me feel so sad

I’m gonna get my life together

You always smelled real bad
            I knew it when we met

You liked her more than me

But my brother in law sells cars

So I'll go where love is free

This is essentially a list of loosely related thoughts and sentiments.  There are many songs written this way, and they usually need to rely on a great musical groove to  give them some traction.  There's certainly nothing wrong with that, but it raises the question, if you have a great musical groove, how much would you increase the song’s appeal if you also had great lyrics?  When people think of Disco, the last thing they think about is "great lyrics!".  Disco is first and foremost, dance music.  However, a disco song does not preclude having a solid set of story or list lyrics which are more than moaning, groaning, and emoting.  The example mentioned above, "Copacabana", written by Jack Feldman, Barry Manilow, and Bruce Sussman,is pure disco, but it is also a well-told story of love, jealousy, and tragedy, spanning many years.  The same musical production without the lyrical story would not likely have won Manilow's only Grammy and spawned a TV musical.  

The same holds true in the R&B genre, known more for groove and mood than great lyrics, but listen to the well told tale of "Lady Marmalade" (Bob Crewe and Ken Nolan) and you'll see how lyrical content only elevates a great groove and broadens appeal.

To help you really think about it, listen to songs you really admire and look at their format.  Then look at your own songs, verse by verse, and if they cannot easily be identified as a list or a story, then perhaps some re-thinking may be in order.

For more:

...Bill Pere

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