Pat's Lyric Tips

Structure Creates Expectations

That’s what it’s for. To take you on a journey, and, as any good mom knows, to get the kids all revved up about what they’re gonna see, to build up excitement as the trip gets closer. Then to watch their eyes get bigger as they stretch their necks trying to see around the corner. Almost there…

Or sometimes she tells you to just get in the car. You’re going somewhere, but she won’t tell you where. It’ll be a surprise. Moms are like that sometimes. So is structure.

Moms are supposed to provide structure, to organize things so the kids have the right kind of journey, whether it be to Pirate’s Cove or through life. You’re the mom. You get to choose what kind of trip you want your song to take.

Let’s go.

Valentine
   - Chanelle Davis

I once had a Valentine
Someone to walk me home

 

These first two lines create little, if any, expectation. You could be going anywhere. If the next line had been
 

I once had a Valentine
Someone to walk me home
Someone to say he’s mine

 

Then we’d have expectations. We now know what should come next: a line to match and rhyme with line 2. The principle at work is the Principle of Sequence. Since line 3 mimics line 1, we expect line 4 to mimic line 2. Something like,


I once had a Valentine
Someone to walk me home
Someone to say he’s mine
Someone who wouldn’t go

 

Now it feels done.

Of course, that’s not how the lyric really goes at line 3. It’s,


I once had a Valentine
Someone to walk me home
And hear a little midnight saxophone

 

Mom is being coy here. The line lengths (measured by the number of stressed syllables) are,

I ónce had a Válentíne                                           3 stresses
Sómeone to wálk me hóme                                   3 stresses
And héar a líttle mídnight sáxophóne                   5 stresses

 

Ignore the rhyme just for now, and concentrate on the line lengths: They feel unstable and tell us to keep going, though it’s not entirely clear where. Though, from the twinkle in mom’s eye, it feels like the line lengths should be going somewhere like,
 

I ónce had a Válentíne                                          3 stresses
Sómeone to wálk me home                                   3 stresses
And héar a líttle mídnight saxophone…               5 stresses
Da DUM da da DUM da DUM                            3 stresses
DUM dad a DUM da DUM                                  3 stresses
Da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM                 5 stresses

 

But, of course, there’s that pesky rhyme, dragging its feet by hanging on to line 2,


I once had a Valentine                                          x
Someone to walk me home                                 a
And hear a little midnight saxophone                 a

Now we’re not sure what to do. We’re getting mixed stop/go messages from mom. She’s really got us set up for a surprise,

 

I once had a Valentine
Someone to walk me home
And hear a little midnight saxophone
I got kisses in the night
From my Valentine

Not what we expected at all. It feels a little incomplete – a little disappointing. After all that suspense, all we get are two short lines that rhyme. It feels, as it were, that we thought we had something to look forward to and it didn’t really happen – it stopped short.

Probably feels like it would if you once had a Valentine who disappointed you…

Then we start again,

Used to drink my chardonnay
And smoke my cigarettes 
We danced around the room just silhouettes
I sang Auld Lang Syne
For my Valentine

Same trip. At least we’d been warned what would happen. It feels like two complete sections, both of which feel misty and soaked with longing.

Note especially the two lovely ambiguities:

Used to drink my chardonnay

Since there’s no pronoun here, the subject could be “I,” “he,” or “we.” All three work, and stack up on each other to give us a picture of the relationship. He was drinking her Chardonnay and smoking her cigarettes. The "he" was a taker, not a giver. But of course, she drank and smoked too, and remembers it fondly. That’s when ambiguity works best: 2 or more meanings, all of which work. “Ambiguity” is, for me, a positive term. It’s productive. It deepens meaning. It’s contrast is “vagueness,” a negative term which promotes confusion – which doesn’t commit to anything specific.

The second ambiguity:

I sang Auld Lang Syne
For my Valentine

“For” could mean:

 

  1. I performed it, I sang it to him,

  2. I sang a farewell song.

 

Again, both of them work – the best kind of ambiguity: two or more meanings, each of which adds something to the song.

By the end of this verse, it feels like we’re probably wandering through an AABA song form. So now, of course, the music moves us away, and, after an interlude, we hear this:

Love does funny things
And when it gives you wings

Unlike the first two lines of the song,

I once had a Valentine
Someone to walk me home

These lines,

Love does funny things
And when it gives you wings

Feel like a unit. If we traded a “w” for a “t,”

Love does funny things
And then it gives you wings

 

We’d feel like everything was solid. Alas, that pesky “when” asks us to keep going. But notice, it is the content that pushes forward here, not the structure. The content says “I won’t be finished until “when” is resolved.

 

And now we hear,

Love does funny things
And when it gives you wings
You're a fool for thinking you can fly

Now the content is resolved, but the structure is, for the first time, clearly telling us where we’ll go next:

 

Love does funny things                             a           3 stresses
And when it gives you wings                    a           3 stresses
You're a fóol for thínking you can fly       b           4 stresses

 

The third line is screaming to be matched, ideally by

 

Love does funny things                              a            3 stresses
And when it gives you wings                     a            3 stresses
You're a fóol for thínking you can fly        b            4 stresses
DUM da DUM da mark                             c            3 stresses
Da DUM da DUM da heart                       c            3 stresses
Da da DUM da DUM da DUM da cry      b           4 stresses

 

Or at least by something like,

 

Love does funny things                               a            3 stresses
And when it gives you wings                      a            3 stresses
You're a fóol for thínking you can fly         b            4 stresses
Da da DUM da DUM da DUM da cry       b            4 stresses

 

But what really happens…? Though mom is chirping away about how much fun we’re going to have and how we’ll remember this trip all our lives and isn’t it wonderful to be so excited, suddenly, poof, she stops the car, and says we’re not going anywhere. We turn around and go back where we started:

 

Love does funny things
And when it gives you wings
You're a fool for thinking you can fly 

I once had a Valentine
Someone to walk me home
And hear a little midnight saxophone
I got kisses in the night
From my Valentine

Yikes! Us kids howling in the backseat to keep going and whining “It’s not fair!” Mom meanwhile is driving us home without an explanation.

 

Here’s the whole trip,

I once had a Valentine
Someone to walk me home
And hear a little midnight saxophone
I got kisses in the night
From my Valentine 

Used to drink my chardonnay
And smoke my cigarettes
We danced around the room just silhouettes
I sang Auld Lang Syne
For my Valentine

Love does funny things
And when it gives you wings
You're a fool for thinking you can fly

I once had a Valentine
Someone to walk me home
And hear a little midnight saxophone
I got kisses in the night
From my Valentine

 

What a perfect journey for the feeling of the song. You thought you had someone special and fell in love, thinking you could fly. Then the strong feeling that something more had to come of it, and then when it didn’t, you couldn’t even finish telling the story. So you interrupt yourself and return to your original thought, like you’ll be repeating it over and over for a long time.

 

Something special happens with rhyme here. Remember that we could have kinda finished the bridge by adding only one line?

 

Love does funny things                              a            3 stresses
And when it gives you wings                     a            3 stresses
You're a fool for thinking you can fly        b            4 stresses
Da da DUM da DUM da DUM da cry      b            4 stresses

 

Pretty much the same thing is accomplished here,

Love does funny things
And when it gives you wings
You're a fool for thinking you can fly

 

I once had a Valentine

So the unrhymed 3rd line of the bridge “targets” sonically to the title of the song, increasing its visibility and deepening its emotion by turning the spotlight on “Valentine,” which now turns mildly ironic. (See The Essential Guide to Lyric Form and Structure on “strategic positions” and “sonic targeting.”)

 

In most AABA forms, we usually expect the 3rd verse to tie everything up – to make a new and final statement. Here, we’ve already seen the 3rd verse – we started with it, though now we’re looking at it through new eyes and with more emotion. We’ve felt the disappointment of an interrupted love affair.

 

The interrupted bridge conspires with the song form, the repetition of the first verse rather than an expansion into the new thought of a 3rd verse, to create a character who will live with this bittersweet feeling forever, always regretting, always feeling like something wasn’t finished. Always going backwards time and again, just like the song form. Just like the interrupted bridge.

 

Nice trip, mom.

© 2020 Pat Pattison