Besides having a clear and freshly presented message, there is another element that enables a song to embed itself permanently into a listener's mind. Each place in a song where there is some phonetic entity to grab your ear is called a "ping-point". The sum total of all the ping-points in a song make up its "sonic activity". The higher the sonic activity of a song, the more it holds attention and etches itself into the listener's memory. (The concepts discussed in this article are covered in much more detail in the book "Songcrafters' Coloring Book: The Essential Guide to Effective and Successful Songwriting" by Bill Pere.)
and Creating Ping-Points.
semantic parameters in a lyric have to do with the meaning of the words and
conveying your message. Although
clarity is a major element of effective and successful songwriting, we all know
songs where the lyrics are obscure in their meaning, or have no significant
message, yet still tend to "work" on some level. This is usually due to sonic activity – the
structural and phonetic properties of words which are completely independent of
of certain moments in your life that were fleeting, perhaps just a second or
two, yet they generated a feeling that you remember to this day. Some of these
might be: the moment you first set
eyes on the person who was destined to be "the one" in your
life; the Christmas morning as a child when you saw that
present under the tree that you thought you’d never get; the instant you had your first
Spiritual connection with something greater than yourself; the first moment you set eyes on
something of incredible beauty like the Grand Canyon or the childlike wonder of
this day, I recall the moments as a child when I’d walk into the corner Mom and
Pop candy shop after school and see the first issues of the Amazing Spider-Man,
the Fantastic Four, the Justice League, and all those great comic books for the
first time. The
moments were fleeting but the impressions were deep and lasting.
same idea with a ping-point in a
song. How many moments can you
recall when, hearing a song for the first time, something in that song made you
just tingle and feel an inner "wow"? I recall with total clarity, sitting in the audience at
Broadway shows. At "1776", hearing the intricate sonic dance of "Cool
Cool Considerate Men", and so many of the other great numbers,
feeling a chill each time, and remembering those key phrases long after the
show was over. The cross-verse
rhyming in "At
the End of the Day" in "Les
Miserables" was lyrical
electricity. As a young kid,
I was absolutely spellbound by the phonetic frenzy of the lyrics from Tandyn
Almer's "Along Comes Mary".
the musical "Wicked"
the delightful freshness of the assonance and
"frank analysis"/"personality dialysis", and the semantic
pivot of "I
don’t know if I’ve been changed for the better, but since I met you, I have
been changed for good" hit
with the high-voltage that etches the moment into memory.
I vividly recall the first time I heard "A Whole New
World" (from "Aladdin"), how the "splendid" and
"when did" pair just jumped right out. And the indelible first line of "Higher Than She’s
Ever Been Before"
by Jim Morgan , "Pretty Patty Peterson from Patterson New
Jersey…" And one of my all-time favorites from
the Lee Adams lyrics in "Put on a Happy Face", from the musical "Bye Bye
off that gloomy mask of tragedy,
It's not your style.
look so good that you'll be glad ya de-cided to smile!
are the bits of songwriting magic that keep a listener spellbound. They go way beyond the simplicity of a
rhyming dictionary (no rhyming dictionary will show you "glad-ya-de-"
as an option for rhyming with
sonic gems come not just from the meaning of the words, but from the physical
sound of the words – their phonetic properties. The phonetic properties of words are distinct from their
semantic properties. How they sound is generally independent of what they mean
(except for onomatopoeia). Obviously, when semantic AND sonic properties are both
working at the same time, you’re
well on your way to that Perfect 10.
it’s not your natural instinct to hear and generate the specific types of
things discussed below, then practice listening to lyrics and picking out the
ping-points. Then imitate.
Your Phonetic Crayons:
are several phonetic properties which contribute to overall sonic activity, but the big guns are rhyme, assonance, alliteration, para rhyme, and sonic reversal.
Rhyme = words or accented syllables where only the initial sound differs
(i.e. the internal vowel and final consonants of the accented syllable are identical)
Assonance = words or accented syllables with identical vowel sound but
different consonant sounds preceding and following. ( sign/time;
referred to as near-rhyme, assonance is an adjunct to, but not a substitute
for, a perfect rhyme.
Alliteration = words or accented syllables with the same initial sound.
(big/bear; choose/champ; strong/street, inflate/reflect )
same initial and final consonants of an accented syllable with a different vowel sound in
between (seem/same; tripping/trapping )
reversal (a subset of
palindromes) = the same sound given in reverse. (lever/revel, lap/pal, stop/pots, car/rock . This differs from palindromes which
only need to look the same
backwards and forwards, not
necessarily have the same sounds, e.g.
lane/elan , or the word
addition to these primary tools, you have lexical repetition and Klang association to
add even more zing to your songs. Both
are discussed further in Songcrafters' Coloring Book. If you master these elements in all their forms and
variations, you’ll be producing lyrics that really grab attention and stick in
I write primarily for impact though meaning, I always try to make the sonic
activity equally as important.
Here’s an example of a high level of sonic activity I worked on in one
of my Christmas songs. In the five
line chorus of this Christmas song, the key word, "ornament" is
permutated seven times, within other words and across multiple words, while maintaining
even cadence and
Ornament (words and music
by Bill Pere)
KidThink Music All Rights Reserved.
child was born,
it meant a -- a
No more lament in the world tonight
a -- b
In the morn it meant for the poor was sent
a -- a
A new wonderment with the star’s ascent a
Sound the horn, present the good news
a – c
at this simple verse from "Rain Dance", a hit from the Guess Who.
(words and music by Burt Cummings and Kurt Winter)
©Bug Music; All Rights Reserved
Christopher was asking
Can your telescope
tell me where the sun’s gone ?
I’m still sittin’ with
my next door neighbor sayin
"Where’d you get
the gun John ? "
Here is that same verse
with the ping-points and rhyme scheme identified.
As you can see, there is
very high sonic activity.
Christopher was asking
a a ( -opher….-omer )
Canyour telescopetellme where the sun’s
gone ? b c-d
(your …sun’s gone
with my next door neighbor sayin
b e-e (door…nay /.say)
you get the gun John ? "
c-d (…. gun John)
third line alone contains triple alliteration on
"s"; assonance and a
sonic reversal on
still - sit; alliteration on
"n"; a perfect rhyme back
to the previous line with
your/door; and a perfect
internal rhyme with
another example showing effective use of alliteration, assonance, and rhyme from
the bridge of "If My Mary Were Here" by Harry Chapin (©
WB Music Corp) enhancing lyrics which are already semantically clear and
filled with emotion.
I could whistle up
an old tune babe that your memory
just might recall (a)
Rustle up some reminisce, ‘bout the good old days and all
If I were seekin’ someone
else, I could find
a place to hide
But I’m just pleading like a pauper babe,
And it leaves
no place for pride…
sonic activity coupled with clarity of meaning is a winning
combination. If you reduce the
importance of melody to zero and increase the importance of sonic activity, you have the essence of rap and hip-hop. Good hip-hop writing is built on sonic
activity. Great hip-hop writing
adds a clearly communicated message.
is no coincidence that so many of the made-up, iconic names in our pop culture
have high sonic activity:
Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Betty Boop, Porky Pig, Roger Rabbit, Clark
Kent, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, Peter Parker, J. Jonah Jameson, Wonder Woman, Hulk
Hogan, Gorgeous George, Captain Kirk, Andy Panda, Blue Blazer, Silk Spectre,
Hunter Hearst Helmsley, Chubby Checker, Big Bopper, Deputy Dawg, Quick-Draw
McGraw, Hannah Montana, and so many more.
Lexical Repetition and Combinations
Along with the five primary sonic
crayons mentioned above, there is also the technique of lexical repetition. This is the use of the same words in equivalent places in
lines, e.g., starting or ending lines with the same word or phrase. In the above example from "If
My Mary Were Here", lexical repetition is combined with
rhyme and alliteration to give the very strong combination of "place to
hide" and "place for pride". Dan Fogelberg's "Longer" uses it as each line changes the
first syllable, but the second and third syllables are always "–er than" (longer than, higher than, deeper
than). And the verses each
end with the same phrase "in love with you".
In the Frank Sinatra hit "It
Was a Very Good Year", written by Ervin Drake, the first three verses each start off
with "When I was…", and the second and third lines of each verse are
"It was a very good year".
The line is again repeated as the last line of verse four. Lots of lexical repetition in this song of AAAA form, which anchors the concrete picture being unfolded of a person's lifetime of living and
Much of the memorable
stickiness and appeal of Bob Dylan's lyrics lies in their sonic activity beyond the rhyme scheme. Among Dylan's songs, look at "Like a Rolling Stone" as an example.
I often use this repeated sound technique in many of my
songs. An example from the chorus
of "Another Touch of Gray" (follow the vowel and consonant sounds separately):
Just in that moment she made me feel like a kid again
Days of new blue jeans,
summer scenes, ice cream every day
Whatever anyone called fun, you know I did it then
But jeans and dreams and the scenes, it seems, like ice cream,
©2002 Bill Pere/Kidthink Music All Rights
When I was writing my "High School My School"
collection of songs, I was beginning to work on a song about being
picked on and bullied at school.
Once I thought of the key word "taunted", the following
phrases wrote themselves, from the
related sonic elements.
Taunted, run a gauntlet down anendless hall
Haunted , relentless echoes of the names they call…
The high sonic activity is a result of lots of practice in developing sensitivity to
the sound of words, so that it becomes automatic. What we have in two short lines are: two rhyme pairs, alliteration (haunted/hall),
(name/they), and para rhyme (down/n an/ n en)
The sonic crayons, though each powerful alone, become ever more
potent when used in combinations with multiple repetitions. In the previously mentioned
example from the song "Popular" in the
musical "Wicked", the phrase "frank
analysis" not only rhymes with "personality dialysis", but there
is also sonic repetition within each pair and across pairs: frANk ANalysis --
and -- anALYsis / personALIty / diALYsis. The next line throws in "palaces" for good measure -- a very good measure.
The take-away message:
Phonetic techniques used in repeated combination have a greatly
multiplied effect as opposed to when they are used alone! However, no matter how well used, assonance, alliteration, para-rhyme and lexical repetition cannot substitute for the impact and stickiness of a good
The concepts discussed in this article are covered in much more detail in the book "Songcrafters' Coloring Book: The Essential Guide to Effective and Successful Songwriting" by BIll Pere. Bill Pere was named one of the "Top 50 Innovators,
Groundbreakers and Guiding Lights of the Music Industry" by Music Connection Magazine. With more than 30 years in
the music business, as a recording artist, award winning songwriter, performer,
and educator Bill is well
known for his superbly
crafted lyrics, with lasting
impact. Bill has released 16
CD's , and is President of the Connecticut Songwriters Association. Bill is an Official Connecticut State
Troubadour, and is the Founder and Executive Director of the LUNCH Ensemble
Twice named Connecticut Songwriter of the Year, Bill is a qualified MBTI practitioner, a member of CMEA and MENC, and as Director of the Connecticut Songwriting Academy he
helps develop young talent in songwriting, performing, and learning about the music business. Bill's song analysis and
critiques are among the best in the industry.
© Copyright 2010 Bill Pere. All Rights Reserved.
This article may not be reproduced in any way with out permission of the
author, except for academic use, with proper attribution. For workshops, consultation, performances, or other songwriter services, contact Bill via his web sites, at
www.billpere.com, www.ctsongwriting.com, and www.lunchensemble.com