How Many Nouns and Adjectives Your Song Needs

How Many Nouns and Adjectives Your Song Needs

One of the most common questions I get is “How much furniture does my song need?” What the writer means, is “How many nouns and adjectives should my song have?”

For instance, if I talk about my rusty blue Ford truck, I have painted you a picture. If I just mention my truck with no details, then you might not picture my truck as accurately. You might be imagining a brand new Dodge Ram with chrome everywhere. But my descriptive words “rusty”, “blue” and “Ford” give you a more exact image of my beat up old truck. You can SEE my lyric, like a movie.

I wish I could tell you that you need to include 10 nouns in each song and 47 adjectives or descriptors. That would make it easy. However, the one absolute in songwriting is that there are no absolutes.

But, I can give you some guidelines to help you understand the principle and make the decision for each of your songs about how much furniture to include, in other words, how many nouns and adjectives you should have.

One good general way to think about furniture in songs is the same way you think about it in your house. How much furniture do you need in your den? You’d ask yourself, “How many people do we usually have sitting in this room? If you have a family of 5, then you’ll want spots for at least that many people to sit and maybe some extra room for guests. Family of two? Maybe you just need two comfy La-Z-Boy chairs. But, what you DON’T do is cram as much furniture as possible into the room.

Having 5 couches is probably overkill for almost any family. You want enough furniture to be comfortable and practical. You don’t want to land yourself a feature on the hoarding TV show. Often, I see song furniture hoarders when I give feedback on songs. They have bought into the idea that packing a song with furniture is the key to success as a writer. Not so!

One of my favorite opening lines ever in a song is from a Diamond Rio song called “Two Pump Texaco”, written by Michael Dulaney and Neil Thrasher. The opening lines are:

He was wiping motor oil off her dipstick
She was pullin’ on the hair that got caught in her lipstick
And with the smell of her perfume he forgot the smell of gasoline
As he was toppin’ off her tank, she said “How far to Abilene”

The nouns and adjectives in the song create a mini movie playing in your head as you listen.

You can see it all. This song is a story song. Story songs need LOTS of detail and pictures, because you are really writing a 3 minute movie script. The listener needs to be able to picture the story going by. You want them to SEE the places you’re taking them, hear what’s going on, smell the smells (like perfume and gasoline). You also want them to have an image in their head of your characters.

In his song, “The Gospel According To Luke”, Skip Ewing starts off:

He was an old hand at living and making his way
He smelled like old whiskey and he needed a shave

We instantly KNOW this character. Thanks to the adjectives, we’ve seen him walking the streets of our town. Later, Skip writes:

Luke carried his Bible in a Crown Royal bag
He wiped off his brow with an old dirty rag

The song unfolds just like a movie. We see, smell and hear the song.

However, there is another kind of song that needs far less furniture.

And it’s a much more common type of song. We’ll call story songs “movie” songs and this kind of song a “message” song. Most popular songs are message songs. They are communicating something from the singer to another person (maybe a lover) or to the audience.

Message songs don’t need as many adjectives and nouns because the MESSAGE is the important part, not the setting or location. For instance, in one of my favorite songs of all time, “I Can’t Make You Love Me” by Allen Shamblin and Mike Reid, they start the song:

Turn down the lights
Turn down the bed
Turn down these voices
Inside my head

You have nouns, like “lights” and “bed”, but no descriptors. It doesn’t matter in this song what sort of bed it is, the color of the sheets, etc. The writers just needed the bare bones of furniture. Contrast that to John Denver’s story song “Grandma’s Feather Bed” in which the entire chorus describes the bed. The chorus begins:

It was nine feet high and six feet wide, and soft as a downy chick
It was made from the feathers of forty ‘leven geese
Took a whole bolt of cloth for the tick

In “I Can’t Make You Love Me”, the nouns and adjectives of the song need to stay out of the way of the message.

So, the writers just use most of the lyric to communicate this heart-wrenching message about unrequited love. The singer is begging her lover, who doesn’t love her back, for one more night to pretend that he does care for her.

My song “Must Be Doin’ Somethin’ Right” is the same way. The song is about an intimate moment between the singer and his lover. We didn’t even tell you where they were. You have to imagine that for yourself, because our song was about the EMOTION between the singer and his lover, not about where they are.

So, when you are writing your next song, ask yourself “Am I writing a ‘movie’ or ‘message’ song?” Answering that question will get you on the right track and help you know how many nouns and adjectives to add to the song.

Happy writing!

~ Marty

Marty Dodson - pro songwriter/instructor - SongTown

Marty Dodson is a multi-hit songwriter, co-founder of SongTown, and co-author of  The Songwriter’s Guide To Mastering Cowriting and Song Building: Mastering Lyric Writing

13 thoughts on “How Many Nouns and Adjectives Your Song Needs

  1. Hi Marty! A very long time ago I was told that the best book for songwriters was “Write A Movie Script in 30 Days”. At the time it was out of print, so I found it at the local library in reference..couldn’t check it out. So I dropped by the library as often as I could and copied out what I could. It was a skinny paperback, and I don’t remember the author’s name, but if anybody stumbles across it, I remember it as pure gold…Needless to say I don’t know what happened to my notes…

    1. I found this piece REALLY interesting because many of the critiques I’ve received over the years have said I need MORE furniture. In some cases, I’ve recognized the point and rewritten accordingly. In most cases, as the song goes, I did it my way. I kinda have a bar set taller than the Empire State Building.. bottom line for me is a clean but clearly crafted make each line count. Example: I think jimmy Webb’s song, Wichita lineman” is a perfectly crafted song. Call me old, but I’d rather have been the author of that song than most of what is “in”.
      Fly

  2. I hope you are saving all these wonderful insights to turn into a book one day. Nice work Marty. You could title it: Marty’s wish I had known that book!

  3. Great insights! I’ve been fooling around with the rules (OMG not rules) concerning the order of adjectives. According to the best minds on the planet there is a definite odering of adjectives as follows. The order of cumulative adjectives is as follows: quantity, opinion, size, age, color, shape, origin, material and purpose. It’s really interesting to switch the order around and see what happens. Is a rusty (opinion) old (age)Blue (color) Pickup the same vehicle as a Blue, rusty, old pickup? Maybe so but it takes a bit more work to get the picture in focus.

    One last thought, and it’s another one of those brain itches I keep having, in Shamblin and Reid’s I Can’t Make You Love Me, the gender of the singer is never revealed yet you refer to them in your letter as “her”. I suppose that’s because we all relate to Bonnie Rait’s version of the song but what if Del McCoury had accpeted that submission from Mike and Alan and done it blue grass style? We would have a whole different spin on the tune.

  4. Good article, Marty! I’d never thought that way about using furniture in a song. Message vs movie. Thank you!

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