Story songs are essentially short stories set to music. Like short stories, effective story songs are tasked with conveying a great deal of information with a relatively small number of words. While many songs include elements of a story, the following components are almost always included in strong story songs:
- a compelling premise
- a developed plot
- one or more vividly drawn characters
- a setting
- tension or conflict
- a turning point
- a payoff or satisfying conclusion
To evoke a strong emotional response in our listeners, like any short story, the lyrics of story songs need to create a tale that progresses, introduces conflict, and ultimately, reaches a conclusion. By incorporating detail and imagery into our descriptions of the songs’ settings and characters, we can further draw listeners into the worlds contained within our songs. Details might include references to the sights, sounds, odors, tastes and the weather our characters encounter.
The heart of any memorable story song is its plot—the events, the who, what, and where, as well as the why and how—that unfold within the story. For an example of an exceptionally well-crafted plot listen to “Ol’ Red” (written by Don Goodman, Mark Sherrill, and James “Bo” Bohon; recorded by artists including George Jones, Kenny Rogers, and Blake Shelton). The narrator shares the tale of how he escaped from prison while serving a ninety-nine-year prison term for a crime committed after he caught his wife with another man. The story details how the prisoner cared for Ol’ Red, a hound used to track escaped prisoners. He used a female bluetick hound to distract Ol’ Red while he made his getaway. The clever payoff at the conclusion states that there are now red-haired blue ticks all over the South. “Love got me in here and love got me out.”
Story songs are found more frequently in country music than in other styles of music, but there have been successful story songs in almost every musical genre. For example, “Stan” (written by Eminem, Paul Herman, and Dido; recorded by Eminem featuring Dido), a hip-hop classic, tells the story of an obsessed fan who writes letters to Eminem. The story is told from the point of view of the fan and ends with Eminem’s learning that Stan has killed himself and his pregnant girlfriend.
Story songs can be works of fiction, such as Charlie Daniels’ classic “The Devil went Down to Georgia” (written by Charlie Daniels, John Crain, Jr., William Di Gregorio, Fred Edwards, Charles Hayward, and James Marshall). They might also tell the true story of historical events, such as “Hurricane” (written by Bob Dylan and Jacques Levy; recorded by Bob Dylan), which recounts the story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a boxer who was wrongfully convicted of a triple homicide. Story songs can also be autobiographical, such as the classics, “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (written and recorded by Loretta Lynn) and “Coat of Many Colors” (written and recorded by Dolly Parton).
Many of the strongest story songs include a surprise ending—a payoff or unexpected twist. Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s In the Cradle” (written by Harry Chapin, Sandy Chapin, and Martin Ruminski) and “Three Wooden Crosses” (written by Doug Johnson and Kim Williams, recorded by Randy Travis) are prime examples, as are “Ol’ Red,” “Stan,” and “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” which were previously mentioned.
While you certainly want a memorable melody, you don’t want to distract listeners from the lyrics, which are the basis of any story song. Unexpected melodic intervals and complex rhythms might pull the listeners’ attention away from the information being conveyed.
Effective story songs incorporate prosody by matching the music to the emotions elicited by the lyrics. For example, a sad story will likely be accompanied by a mournful melody.
The late David Olney’s stunning, self-penned “1917,” sung from the perspective of a French prostitute during World War I, is an exceptionally vivid piece of storytelling set to an exquisite melody. The cinematic detail, imagery, and use of language elicit powerful emotions.
When I taught a class with David, I learned that he typically composed the melodies for his story songs prior to writing the lyrics. He shared that the constraints of writing to an existing melody helped him to be precise and concise in his writing. Because of the depth and detail of his lyrics, I had assumed they were written first. Learning about his writing process was a reminder that regardless of whether the lyric or melody is written first, even the best lyrics need to be delivered on the wings of a memorable melody.
By crafting lyrics that include a compelling story, vividly drawn characters and settings, tension, a turning point, and a conclusion—and setting them to unforgettable melodies—we can write story songs that find a special place in listeners’ hearts.
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. A guest lecturer at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (co-founded by Sir Paul McCartney) and at the Berklee School of Music, he has been interviewed as a songwriting expert for CNN, NPR, the BBC, Rolling Stone, and the New York Times. To receive a free video, “3 Things You MUST Do for Success” and weekly tips to enhance creativity click on https://tinyurl.com/yckat6fc. Join Songwriting With Jason Blume on Facebook for free events and song critiques. For information about his workshops, webinars, additional articles, and more, visit www.jasonblume.com.