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15 Song First Lines Songwriters Should Know!

15 Song First Lines Songwriters Should Know!

Song first lines are one of the hardest things to do well, but one of the most important things in your song.

Actually, I’m just going to say it: song first lines are more than your chorus. Why?

Because if someone doesn’t stick around after your first line, they’re never going to hear the chorus!  By that time they’ve changed the station, hit next on their music player or tuned the lyrics out.

We’ll look at 15 of the best first lines out there and explain why they work so well.  Then you can use the two songwriting exercise to hone your own first lines on a regular basis!

I should probably clarify: for our purposes here, the “first line” will be the first “sentence” of your song.  A line break across the melody in the middle of a thought doesn’t mean people don’t listen to the whole thought.

Your first line is your first sentence.

 

TIP
I use punctuation in my lyrics just to give myself another road sign when I’m writing. A sentence fragment is still a partial, confusing thought even when it’s in a lyric. Call it out!

 

Why Does A Compelling First Line Matter?

 

It's First!
It’s the first thing your listener hears, and the primary element in deciding if they’ll pay attention.

 

It Sets The Songwriter's Intention
Your first line not only serves the song but, to quote Jimmy Webb: “serves the true goal or intent of the songwriter.” It’s not an accident that just happens.  While it might have popped into your head, that doesn’t mean it has no meaning. You created it because there’s a meaning there for you. Explaining it and the goal of the song are your intent.  Your first line is your first step.

 

It Sets The Tone For The Whole Song
From it, the rest of your lyrics will evolve.  It may not always set the scene – but it adds a level of complexity by identifying the tone of the lyrics to follow.

  • Tone is the songwriter’s attitude towards the topic.
  • Mood is the atmosphere of the story.
  • Both contribute to the meaning of the song by utilizing a setting, characters, details, word choices, etc. For example, choosing the word “cruel” over the word “angry” to describe someone changes the listener’s perception of them – intentionally harsh vs. upset.  These two words, although similar to describe ill feelings give a very different tone to the song.

 

Let’s Look At Some Songs!

I’ve pulled a full sentence or thought from each of the songs.  A line break is indicated by a slash (“/”) similar to how it would be denoted in a poem.

 

“Old Ghosts”  Travis Meadows Old Ghosts & Unfinished Business (2013)

“Old ghosts – haunt these halls and cross my lonely thoughts,/show up in the funny way I talk,/speak to me in records that I bought, scream at me for all the things I’ve lost – old ghosts.”

A concise way to evoke your heritage, and the little things that made you who you are. I also love how it combines some happy memories with some that might be a little less so. Granted, this one is a full verse, but notice how he does a terrific job of keeping the listener with the thought by using short, very sparse lines with crystal clear imagery. An exceptionally crafted first line and first verse!

 

“It Gets Better”  Travis Meadows Killin’ Uncle Buzzy (2010)

“I’m waitin’ on the magic they say’s supposed to happen / If I do what they say I need to do.”

A little doubtful and a little hopeful, the main character is committing to actions others have promised will deliver a result.  But what?  Draws you in to learn more.

And because he’s so good at it:

“My Boots”  Travis Meadows My Life 101

“I was shaving off yesterday / Checking out the new lines in my changing face.”

Great imagery of someone getting older pulls you in.

“Let It Go”  Travis Meadows Killin’ Uncle Buzzy (2010)

“I had an old Ford Cobra with a 302 Bossman sittin’ under the hood, / Pullin’ on a cool up and down McDowell Road.”

Another very visual intro that gives you a little insight into the main character.

“Good Intentions”  Travis Meadows Old Ghosts & Unfinished Business (2013)

There’s a letter on the dresser without a postage stamp / Collecting dust with all that other junk.”

 

“Whiskey And You”  Chris Stapleton Traveler (2015)

“There’s a bottle on the dresser by your ring”

Talk about setting the scene.  He didn’t have to use the whole first verse to explain that she left him. This is similar to as “Good Intentions” which focuses on an unsent letter – to who? Why?

 

“Stealing Kisses”  Lori McKenna Bittertown (2004)

“’It’s late enough, all you kids should be home,’ / The policeman says as he takes your beer for his own.”

You immediately know the scene:  teenage kids in a care and police officer who knows he can get a free six pack of beer if he stakes out the road to the county line.

 

“Bird On The Wire”  Leonard Cohen Songs From A Room (1969)

“Like a bird on the wire / like a drunk in a midnight choir / I have tried in my way to be free.”

Cohen uses similes to start the song, setting a reference for the remaining lines.  Try this as a song starter.  Notice how your entire first verse will need to align with the simile.

 

“California Dreaming”  John Phillips & Michelle Phillips

(Mamas & the Papas If You Can Believe Your Eyes And Ears 1965)

“All the leaves are brown, / And the sky is grey.”

Talk about capturing the image, mood and overall tone!  The contrast with the title is perfect.

 

“Wichita Lineman”  Jimmy Webb (Glen Campbell Wichita Lineman 1968)

“I am a lineman for the county / And I drive the main road / Searchin’ in the sun for another overload.”

Who’s the main character?  Oh – that telephone line repair guy!  You also have to appreciate the foreshadowing of the story with the word “overload” – pretty strong writing.

 

“The Life You Chose”  Jason Isbell Something More Than Free (2015)

“Who are you, you’re not the one I met / One July night when the town went wet? / Jack and Coke in your Mama’s car – / You were reading the Bell Jar.”

Clearly direct address to someone from the past who the speaker met when he was younger.  Time has passed to the present and he’s thinking back to a specific scene. OK – 2 lines, but the first line sets it the second perfectly.

 

“Dyin’”  Elizabeth Cook Exodus Of Venus (2016)

“I’ve been dyin’ – turnin’ into dirt, / Waitin’ for the day when it don’t hurt.“

Not a happy main character – and the word “dyin’” immediately suggests a melancholy song, but you’re drawn in by “waitin’ for the day,” which suggests there’s some thought going into the events.  Now you’re wondering what the full story is: someone recovering from a health problem, an emotional event?

 

“Long White Line”  Buford Abner (Sturgill Simpson Metamodern Sounds In Country Music 2014)

“I won’t be around this old town anymore for a long, long time: / Gonna hit the road and start looking for the end of that long white line”

This first lines goes right into the second – here’s the consequence of my actions -> here’s the action I’m taking. Then the song uses the second line as a refrain throughout the song, similar to a blues structure. It’s a nice twist on a country song.

 

“Sympathy For The Devil”  Mick Jagger & Keith Richards (Rolling Stones Beggars Banquet 1969)

“Please allow me to introduce myself / I’m a man of wealth and taste.”

Pretty clear this is direct address right from the start and that the main character is talking about himself.

 

“Don’t You Want Me”  Philip Oakey, Jo Callis & Philip Adrian Wright (Human League Dare 1981)

“You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar / When I met you.“

I know there are two characters, they met in a bar, and I’m pretty sure when he says “when I met you” he was hitting on her at the time.  One sentence.

 

“West End Girls”  Neil Tennant & Chris Lowe (Pet Shop Boys Please 1984)

“Sometimes you’re better off dead / There’s a gun in your hand and it’s pointing at your head.”

Pretty strong lyric for a song that was a hit in dance clubs!  They did a great job of using a great first line, contrasted with the music, to get a listener in, but make the song commercial.

 

How about some songwriting exercises to create your own memorable first lines?

 





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