It’s a sad truth that storytelling in songs has seen better days. We may get an occasional “Stan” or “Single Ladies”, but even those don’t come close to classics like “Eleanor Rigby” or “The Killing of Georgie”.
In this article, I want to propose 3 reasons for why we don’t hear stories anymore, as an incentive to a lyric genius somewhere to fix all of these and get storytelling back into songs.
1. Lyrics Require Attention
One of the biggest changes in the consumption of music today is its accessibility. Music is everywhere, and people take it for granted. It‘s no longer a special occasion to hear a new song, we just turn on the radio and fiddle a knob – done.
This means most listeners won‘t actively listen to your music. They will have it on in some playlist in the background and only listen if they hear something that captures their attention.
So what captures attention? The answer is „whatever stands out“. Things that stand out are:
- unusual instrumentation or sounds
- unique voice
- innovative processing / mix
- sections with a lot of tension or implied tension
- music that makes you physically move
- complex or strange harmony („wrong“ notes)
What do all these have in common? They can all be felt. They are all instinctive, like how it‘s impossible to see a word and not read it. We automatically, subconsciously take in these 7 elements.
Behavioral psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls this „System I“, the part of the brain that works automatically, assotiatively.
None of the 7 elements above require effortful thinking, as solving the equation 17×23 would. If I ask you to remember 12 digits for half an hour, this is a conscious effort, what Kahneman calls System II.
Lyrics fit in this second system.
WHAT the singer is trying to say (lyrics) is infinitely less interesting to our brain than HOW he says it (emotion).
When your best friend calls you on the phone and tells you they‘re „fine“, your brain doesn‘t just accept this as thruth. It listens to HOW your friend says it (sad, happy, tired, angry, etc).
The same happens with lyrics: Our brain doesn‘t listen to the story, it goes straight to the good stuff – emotion. More on this later.
2. You‘re making it harder on yourself
As songs got shorter to fit radio standards, so have lyrics. Songwriters used to have a lot of time to tell a story, now they have 3,5 minutes. We often hear songs on the radio that have no more than 3 different lines.
If you want to tell a story, you will have to say a LOT in very few lines. A typical modern lyric will have anywhere from 12 – 40 unique lines.
Given the fact that your lines need to fit the melody and the rest of the music, it becomes an immensely difficult feat to ALSO tell a story.
Writing lyrics is a challenge in itself, don‘t make it harder on yourself than you need to.
3. Stories Are Boring If You Hear Them Too Many Times
You don‘t need a grandpa that isn‘t so good at remembering which stories he‘s already told you to know that hearing a story for a second time is VERY different than the first time.
A good story feeds on the tension of not knowing what will happen. You sit there wondering how the conflict will resolve, and this is what captivates you.
But if you like a song, you will listen to it over and over again. How quickly do you think you‘re gonna get bored with the story? Exactly.
So How Do You Tell A Story The Right Way?
If you want to work a story into your lyrics, make sure you make every line an emotional experience, and not just the plot.
The Sixth Sense and Fight Club are widely known for their great endings, but they are also very strong emotionally in every scene. Each moment pulls us in and touches us – it‘s not just the big twist at the end that makes it an experience.