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"Potent Notions" & The Evolution Of A Song
by Irene Bom

Creative Genes

I recently saw a programme on BBC about "controller genes" - a set of eight genes found in all living creatures, from fruit flies to humans, that control the development of that organism from a single cell to a fully grown specimen.  These eight genes are like the software that programmes all the other genes to come into play at the right time, in the right sequence.

These "controller genes" - present in every cell of our bodies - have a lot to teach us about the creative process.  And they can serve as a model for us as songwriters as we attempt to take a germ idea and turn it into a fully realised song.

Potent Notions

My contention is that every good lyric is based on a number of "controller genes" or, what I prefer to call, "potent notions".  Some of these "potent notions" are conceptual, some are rhythmic, some are rhyming. They give the song its identity, strength and impact.  Like the "controller genes", they are an integral, essential part of the song's character, but they also play a part in determining how the song evolves.  With a handful of "potent notions", the song almost writes itself.

Finding Potent Notions

How do we find these "potent notions" and get them to work for us?

Firstly, we must set a framework to operate from.  What kind of song do we want to write?  Is for children, teens or for adults?  Is a solo item, or for choral singing?  Is it a love song, or protest song?  You should try to settle these matters before you begin writing, because "potent notions" are so closely tied up with context.  "Old MacDonald had a farm" is a prime example.  I can't imagine an adult orientated rock song based on this line, but it works a charm in the well-known children's song.

Then, once your framework is in place, you experiment with different combinations of words and phrases, rhythms and rhymes, until you "land on" a "potent notion" that a) matches your framework, and b) is powerful enough to get the creative juices flowing.

You'll know that you've found a "potent notion" when it takes you by surprise and introduces a whole new chain of images and ideas that you can't wait to explore.

As you begin to explore these images and ideas and work them into the fabric of your song, you will discover other "potent notions", and additional uses for seemingly arbitrary words and phrases that you've already used in the text - upgrading these to "potent notion" status.

Make sure to jot your ideas down on paper, so you can refer to them when you need fresh stimulation.

Variations on a Theme

There are different types of "potent notions" found in song lyrics, for example conceptual, rhythmic, rhyming.  Still they do have something in common.  All "potent notions" seem to generate (or be linked to or derived from) an intricate web of associations of similarity and contrast.    

Same word - different context    
Same sound - different context    
Same word - different meaning    
Same idea - different word

With "potent notions", repetitions are always a variation on a theme.  That's what makes them so powerful and so exciting.

Case Study

To give an example of how "potent notions" work in practice, here is a detailed description of the creative process that gave rise to the lyrics of one of my songs,

Heart to Heart.

It was specially written for a couple I know fairly well, to sing as a solo item at their wedding.

The Framework

From the beginning I knew that the song would have to satisfy certain criteria

It would have to be appropriate for the occasion (a church wedding) and for the wedding couple (from very different cultural backgrounds).

It also needed to reflect a Christian view of relationships and marriage (both the couple and I are committed Christians, and the wedding would take place in a church setting).

Another consideration was that I would be accompanying myself - either on the keyboard (which I don't play very well, but used extensively in writing the melody and chord structure of the song) or on the guitar (which I play adequately, but where I'm restricted with respect to ambitious chord progressions).

Finally, the song would have to satisfy my personal standards a strong melody; and no sentimentality, superficiality or shortcuts.

A Starting Point

My first "potent notion" came to me on the bus en route to work.  Just the words, "Worlds apart".  I recognised the potential of these words immediately.  The concept was so apt for the couple concerned, and it had such potential.  It could be exploited in all kinds of ways.

So I had a good beginning.  But where would I go from there?  I decided to bring God into the picture in the very first line, thereby indicating the Christian perspective that underlies the whole song.  So I soon had the first line "Worlds apart, but God ordained that you should be together."

I didn't realise it then, but the word "ordained", or rather the sound, "ained", was to play an important part in the rhyming structure of the song, acting as a glue to hold the song together.

I had to struggle awhile before I got the next line, but it was worth the wait "So He rearranged the world that you could be together".  It was such a novel thought - a revolutionary new way of viewing the circumstances that brought this couple together.  At the same time it matched the first line beautifully in terms of rhythm, rhyme and content.

The next line again incorporates the "ained" rhyme.  It also draws on some key Christian concepts, namely grace, faith, hope and love "Worlds apart, but God sustained you by his love and grace, giving you the faith and hope that brings you to this place."

Getting to the Heart of the Matter

Most of the chorus is based on some notes that I jotted down when I first started working on the song.  The last line, however, came to me suddenly, out of the blue, and played such a key role in the development of the rest of the song

"Who can keep your worlds apart
Now that God has placed within your hearts
All you need to make a start
To bridge your worlds - heart to heart?"

"Heart to heart".  That was even more potent than "worlds apart", and the two concepts counterbalanced each other beautifully in terms of content, overtones, rhythm and rhyme.  It felt so natural to progress from the one to the other.  What a good way to begin the second verse.

"Heart to heart - it's God-ordained you should be together".

I was delighted by how well "God ordained" fitted into this new context.  And "heart to heart" as well.

Next, I needed to find another word with the "ained" rhyme for the next line.  I came up with the following "How much both your worlds have changed since you've been together."  Although "changed" doesn't rhyme perfectly with "ordained", it was close enough.

The next line came to me while I was jotting down some more ideas.  I was trying to generate a fresh idea that matched the calibre to what I had already.  Given the emerging structure of the song, the next line would have to start with "heart to heart".  But what then? Certainly, I would have to use the "ained" rhyme.  Perhaps I could also refer back to a word or phrase used earlier in the lyrics - such as "worlds" or "bridges".

After a few minutes I had the following "Heart to heart you are reclaimed worlds that have been lost".  I was really pleased with that, but I had a problem.  Would I be able to find the words to complete the verse?  There aren't that many words that rhyme with "lost".  Frost. Cost.  Accost.  I didn't like any of them.  Then it struck me "Crossed" rhymes perfectly, and even "cross" is good.  A few seconds later I knew how to end the verse "With every bridge you cross".  It didn't take me long to fill in the missing bits "Giving all the praise to God for every bridge you cross".

Finishing Touches

On the morning of the wedding, I devised a final chorus, using two alternatives I had for "make a start", namely "play your part" and "learn the art".

"Who can keep your worlds apart Now that God has placed within your hearts All you need to play your part And practice the art of bridging worlds - heart to heart."

Here are the full lyrics as sung at the wedding

Heart to Heart
words and music by Irene Bom

Worlds apart  but God ordained
You should be together
So He rearranged the world
That you could be together
Worlds apart  but God sustained you
By His love and grace
Giving you the faith and hope
That brings you to this place

Who can keep your worlds apart
Now that God has placed within your hearts
All you need to make a start
To bridge your worlds  heart to heart

Heart to heart  it's God-ordained
You should be together
How much both your worlds have changed
Since you've been together
Heart to heart you are reclaiming
Worlds that have been lost
Giving all the praise to God
For every bridge you cross

Who can keep your worlds apart
Now that God has placed within your hearts
All you need to play your part
And bridge your worlds

Who can keep your worlds apart
Now that God has placed within your hearts
All you need to play your part
And practice the art of bridging worlds
Heart to heart


Irene Bom wrote her first songs when she was about 14, using the Bible as her primary source of inspiration.  During the past few years, she has written extensively for children, translating spiritual truths and biblical narratives into words and pictures that children can relate to.  In 1994 she made a tape of Christian songs specially for older children (8 to 12s), entitled *Shepherd King*.  She has a preference for this age group - because their needs are so often neglected, and because they are so responsive to her brand of music.

In 1996 she wrote and directed a Christmas musical for a cast of two adults and a group of children of all ages. In 1997 the production was rewritten for an older cast (mostly teens and adults), with a whole new script, some additional songs and new arrangements.

Besides her work for children, she also writes for other target groups, and writes solo items for special occasions. 

Irene sees herself as a materials resource developer, who has specialised in the use of songs as a medium - for instruction, inspiration, group dynamics, etc.  Her songs aren't all overtly Christian, but most have some didactic purpose. 

She would like to work more on assignment, and collaborate with publishers, teachers, materials resource developers, etc. in producing good songs for today's children, and today's church.

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