How to Use the “List Technique” in Your Song
What do the songs in the list below have in common?
- “The Twelve Days of Christmas” (traditional)
- “Achy Breaky Heart” (recorded by Billy Ray Cyrus, written by Don Von Tress)
- Sting’s “If I Ever Lose My Faith” (written by Sting)
- Carrie Underwood’s “Cry Pretty” (written by Underwood with Liz Rose, Lori McKenna, and Hillary Lindsey)
- Dua Lipa’s “New Rules” (written by Caroline Ailin Buvik, Ian Kirkpatrick, and Emily Warren Schwartz)
- George Jones’ “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes” (written by Max D. Barnes and Troy Seals)
- Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows”(written by Cohen and Sharon Robinson)
- Blake Shelton’s “Honeybee” (written by Rhett Akins and Ben Hayslip)
- Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” (written by Simon)
- Keith Urban’s “Female” (written by Nicolle Clawson, Ross Copperman, and Shane McAnally)
- Mozart’s “Madamina, il Catalogo è Questo” (the Catalog Aria from Don Giovanni (libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte)
All the songs, as well as the aria, listed above include lyrics that were crafted using the list technique. The list technique is a means of crafting a lyric by including a list of lines that relate to—and lead the listener to—the title. Sometimes referred to as the laundry list technique, it can be a powerful tool to help make our titles pay off and feel satisfying.
The list technique can be used in any section of a song (i.e., verse, pre-chorus, chorus, or bridge), in part of a section, or in multiple sections of the same song. Most often, the list ends with the song’s title.
The list is typically approached one of two ways:
Create a list (i.e., of traits, actions, colors, names, or other subjects) in which the final item in the list being emphasized.
For instance, in the example below, titled “Your Loving Heart,” I list the things I like, followed by the thing I love:
I like the way we end our days
And I like the way we start
I like you in a thousand ways
But I love “Your Loving Heart”
The alternative is to list items that are the opposite of the final line, as in the example below, titled “When We’re Apart.”
I love the way we end our days
And I love the way we start
I love you in a thousand ways
But I hate “When We’re Apart”
Let’s see how this technique was used exceptionally well in the GRAMMY awarded Best American Roots Song, “If We Were Vampires” (performed by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, written by Jason Isbell).
Each line of the first verse lyric enumerates the things that are NOT the reason why each moment of the singer’s relationship is precious.
- Your dress
- The light coming off your skin
- Your fragile heart
- Your sense of right and wrong
- Your hands…
- Your nails
- Or the way you talk me off the roof
The subsequent chorus contrasts the thoughts listed in the verse by addressing the reasons each minute of the relation IS to be savored:
- the relationship won’t continue forever
- that maybe we’ll get forty years
- that one of us will be gone
- that one will be left behind
The first four lines of the second verse continue using the list technique, listing the things they would do if they were immortal.
IF we were vampires we would:
- laugh at lovers who make plans
- not feel the need to hold hands
Note that the last half of the second verse does not use the list technique.
In some instances, a set-up line serves to provide a seamless connection between the list and the title. This is typically found in lists that are the opposite of the title.
Title: “I Can’t Stop Loving You”
I can lie to myself
I can lie to my friends
I can swear I don’t miss you
I can say we’re just friends
But no matter what I do (this is the set up line)
I can’t stop loving you
It’s important to have the lines that comprise your list be fresh and original.
Now that you understand the list technique, try it yourself in the exercise that follows.
1) Create a list that leads to this title:
“That’s Why I Love You”
2) Create a list of lines that are the opposite of this title:
“I Still Need You”
This approach is not something you’ll want to use in every lyric. But it is an important technique to add to the “list” of tools in your proverbial toolbox.
Jason Blume is the author of 6 Steps to Songwriting Success, This Business of Songwriting, and Inside Songwriting (Billboard Books). His songs are on Grammy-nominated albums and have sold more than 50,000,000 copies. He has been a guest lecturer at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (co-founded by Sir Paul McCartney) and at the Berklee School of Music. For information about his workshops, additional articles, instructional audio downloads, and more, visit www.jasonblume.com.
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