Songwriting

Creating Perfect Opening Song Lines: Lyrics That Are Musical

by Clay Mills
Nov 23, 2021

Often when we talk about key elements of a song, you’ll hear people talk opening song lines. They’ll say things like, that’s where you grab the listener’s attention, and that’s where you set the scene of the song. Or maybe if you don’t do it right, you’re going to lose the listener at the very first line.

So much of this discussion is focused on the lyrical principals of songwriting. Today I wanted to talk about a different aspect to the opening line of a song, something that can enhance the lyric and make it more powerful, emotional and make it resonate in a person. So today we’re going to talk about how to enhance opening song lines with sound.

Music = Sound

Music, at its very essence, is really just sound. And lyrics have a sound – there are vowel sounds that rhyme and sound good to the ear; there are also hard consonant sounds like k’s and p’s. There’s a lot of sound involved in lyric, but often lyricists will look at what the words mean. But the sound part of it is equally important, and I’m going to prove it to you right here.

Opening Song Lines Example #1: “Whiskey Lullaby”

I’m going to take a song that was a past Song of the Year in the country genre called “Whiskey Lullaby”, because I think it has one of the greatest opening lines to a song that I’ve ever heard. It was sung by Alison Krauss and Brad Paisley, and the opening line to the song is:

She put him out like the burning end of a midnight cigarette.

For me, as far as opening song lines go, this is brilliant. Not only because it paints a picture and you see the action and you feel the emotion, but the sound of the words themselves. It’s like poetry coming off the lips, yet it’s conversational at the same time. So why is that?

There are four rhymes right in a row. If you change the words up and take the rhymes, but let the meaning stay the same, does it still work?

Say, “she put him out like the fiery end of a late night cigarette”.

It’s still a nice line, still has all the images there, but there’s something about that ear candy of the vowel sounds that’s missing here. Those four rhymes right in a row actually make it more powerful; it haunts you, resonates more in your soul.

So the reason I think it’s a brilliant opening line is that it’s working on so many levels. Visually, meaning wise, and the element of sound; it has lyrics that are musical. And that’s what we strive for. That’s what’s going to make people remember your lyrics – when they’re firing on all cylinders.

Opening Song Lines Example #2: “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It”

opening song lines

Another example is a song I was fortunate to score a #1 hit with was “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It”. When Darius Rucker and I were finished writing the song, we actually went back and rewrote the opening line. Originally, we had…

“I drove off in a cloud of tail lights and dust”.

Instead, we changed just one part of it, to sing…

“I left out in a cloud of tail lights and dust”.

You get the two little words there that rhyme, and all of a sudden it’s ear candy; it adds a little bit more depth and emotion. Something like that can make a huge difference on how memorable the song is and how much impact it has to the listener.

Try It!

Music is not only about the notes you choose- and I really want to stress that Mastering Melody Writing requires using sounds to reinforce a songs lyrics. So when you’re writing, be conscious of the sounds that you’re making. Does it add to the emotion, or does it take away? If there’s two ways of saying something, can we add some alliteration with consonant sounds? Can we add some vowels in there so that it rhymes internally?

So today I would like to challenge you that when you sit down and are trying to come up with great opening song lines, that you not only think about the lyrics and the meaning of the words, but also think of the sound of the words, because they are equally important.

Clay Mills

Clay Mills

Clay Mills is a 16-time ASCAP hit songwriter, producer, and performer. He is the co-founder of SongTown and has 2 Grammy nominations for “Beautiful Mess” by Diamond Rio and “Heaven Heartache” by Trisha Yearwood. Clay is also the co-author of Mastering Melody Writing and The Songwriter’s Guide To Mastering Co-writing.

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