November 18, 2014

The Establishing Lyric

by Gary Fearon, Creative Director, Southern Writers Magazine

Frequent establishing shot from TV's Seinfeld
At the beginning of any story, the first thing the audience wants to know is what's going on.  Those first few sentences have a duty to satisfy that curiosity by identifying some sense of who, what, when and where. In a song or poem, where much has to be conveyed in even fewer words, it's especially appreciated when the scene is set up front.

Just like the establishing shot in a movie, a good opening lyric gives the listener an instant understanding of the current state of affairs so that they feel caught up on whatever they need to know to jump right in with us.

Consider the opening lines of these hit songs from various genres.  In each of the following examples, they provide an establishing setup, if not a backstory, for what will be the closing line of the song:

"Yesterday" (The Beatles)
     First line: Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away
     Last line: Oh, I believe in yesterday.

"Somewhere Over the Rainbow" (from The Wizard of Oz)
     First line: Somewhere over the rainbow,way up high
     Last line: Why, oh why can't I?

"All By Myself" (Eric Carmen)
     First line: When I was young, I never needed anyone
     Last line: Don't wanna live all by myself anymore.

"Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay" (Otis Redding)
     First line: Sittin' in the mornin' sun, I'll be sittin' till the evening's done
     Last line: Sittin' on the dock of the bay, wastin' time.

"Heartbreak Hotel" (Elvis Presley)
     First line: Well, since my baby left me, I found a new place to dwell
     Last line: I get so lonely, I could die.

"Sunshine of Your Love" (Cream)
     First line: It's getting near dawn
     Last line: I've been waiting so long to be where I'm going, in the sunshine of your love.

"By the Time I Get to Phoenix" (Glen Campbell)
     First line: By the time I get to Phoenix she'll be rising
     Last line: She just didn't know I would really go.
"New York New York" (Frank Sinatra)
     First line: Start spreading the news, I'm leavin' today
     Last line: It's up to you, New York, New York.

Full circle is very satisfying, and a correspondence between the opening and closing lines offers that sense of fulfillment. But even more important is providing the listener with that helpful briefing up front. Giving them an easy invitation to follow along and not waste time sorting out what the song is about is music to their ears.

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