Songwriting Steps: Overcoming Second Verse Hell!

by Susan Cattaneo
Posted Apr 25, 2014 at 1:41pm

This is it! You’re inspired to write a song! In a frenzy of creativity, you work out a fabulous verse and an equally fabulous chorus!

And then it happens….nothing.

You run completely out of steam and don’t know why.

You start telling yourself, “Maybe a song that’s only 1 minute and 23 seconds is long enough? It’s “minimalistic” music, right?”

Welcome to SECOND VERSE HELL!
(sfx: lightning, room darkens. Cue thunder and demonic laugh track)

Don’t despair! Second Verse Hell is a common creative block. Think of it as a creative “pause.”

If you find yourself in SVH and there seems to be no escape, here are some ways that can help you finish your song.

LET YOUR IDEAS “MARINATE”

I know this sounds strange, but in my experience, some songs just aren’t meant to be finished at the time when you start them.

Once, I was given the title “Abide” as a song prompt. I wrote lots of different versions of that song. Once, it was a love song about a young couple. Then, it was a song about gun control. Nothing felt right. Then, Blizzard Nemo came through, and I found myself without heat for five days, waiting every day for the plumber to come. And he never seemed to have the right part to fix our furnace. Angry, wrapped in blankets and wearing many layers of clothing, I happened to google the word, blizzard. And I discovered the Dust Bowl. I learned that the dust storms were called black blizzards. And finally, my title had a good home, and I was able to finish the song!

To listen to "Abide," go here>>

CONTRAST IS KEY

Verse and chorus have different jobs in a song. The verse is the place where the “story” happens. The chorus usually contains the song’s hook or main message. The chorus also uses devices like repetition to bring the message home. Sometimes, Second Verse Hell happens when there isn’t enough contrast between verse and chorus. Look at your two sections and ask yourself:

- Are the melody and music too similar?
If the melodic range of the verse is the same as the chorus, then your chorus isn’t going to shine. Try keeping your verse melody low and your chorus melody high.

- Are your chords too similar?
If the actual chords in your verse and chorus are the same, we won’t recognize the chorus when get to it. It will just feel like two verses. Try changing the chords in one section and see if that makes the sections sound different.

- Are your chord changes are occurring at the same places?
If both the verse and the chorus have the chord changes happening at exactly the same place, (i.e. every measure, every other measure), this also leads to the sections feeling uniform and static. Try placing the changes in different measures and see if that creates contrast.

CHECK THE PROSODY

Last time we talked about this concept. Does the music match what you’re trying to say? Sometimes, as much as we wish it were so, our music and lyrics are not making a love connection.

Just this week, I had a student in my class who had just broken it off with a longtime girlfriend. His song was about how he was feeling really great about the relationship ending. Yet, the musical bed that he chose to lay all these positive lyrics in was in a minor key, at a slow tempo and his melody was full of tensions and non-chord tones. So, we heard the lyrics as happy, but felt the song as unhappy. Truth was, he was feeling really unresolved. Without even realizing it, this feeling was informing his musical choices. He has since rewritten the song so music and lyric content are in harmony with each other. (Pun intended)

DON’T GIVE AWAY THE FARM IN THE FIRST VERSE

Sometimes, Second Verse Hell happens because you have a story to tell, and you’ve sandwiched the entire story into one verse. So, of course you have nowhere to go in verse 2!

Imagine a song with the title, “I Can’t Get Over You”

Let’s say your first verse says: We used to love each other, but now you’re gone. Therefore, HOOK: “I Can’t Get Over You”

Well, that’s fine and good, but notice you’ve got us loving each other, losing each other and the emotional result of that loss all occurring in verse 1.

What if you let the relationship unfold using the title as the theme?

First verse: Maybe it’s about how I just met you. And you’re wonderful! I’m so excited that we’re together – “I can’t get over you” meaning: I can’t get over how we’re together and how great this is.

Second verse: Now, trouble comes around. We’re not getting along. And you’re saying some pretty harsh things to me – “I can’t get over you” meaning: I can’t believe how you’re treating me

Third verse or bridge: We break up. And even though I’m happier on my own, I wonder if I’ll ever feel truly content again – “I can’t get over you” now means I can’t get over our relationship.

!sdrawkcab gnitirw yrT or TRY WRITING BACKWARDS!

This last one is a strange phenomenon. But it works. Here’s a real life example from a song I wrote called “Gotta Get Gone.” I had come up with this verse one:

10 miles out of El Paso
Gas tank sinkin’ down to E
Road maps littering the dashboard
Layin’ down road between my old life and me
For too long, I tried to hold on
Now, I gotta get gone

And then I wrote a bunch of choruses around the hook:

Gotta get gone
Like a thunder bolt flying
Gotta get gone
Like an angel takes wing
Gotta get gone
Like a shadow in lightning
Gotta get gone
From the love that I’m missing

Gotta get gone
Like a race car speeding
Tires burn charcoal on the track
Gotta get gone
With the radio blasting
Gotta get gone and I ain’t comin' back

And that was “all she wrote.” Literally, that was all I wrote for this song for months! I tried to finish it. But I could never figure out the character in the song, and why she needed to “get gone” so much.

Then, I brought the song to my friend and co-writer, Scarlet Keys, and she suggested I try writing backwards. So, I decided to write about what happened before she got into the car. Putting verse 1 at the end made everything clear. Here’s how verse 1 and 2 ended up:

I tiptoed out into the darkness
Suitcase banging on my knee
The neighbor’s dog started barkin’
And my heart was beating faster than a hummingbird’s wings
Almost dawn
Gotta to get gone

Sold your diamond down in Austin
Just enough to get me by
Who needs to keep an empty promise
When the Texas moon dangles like a pearl in the sky
Sayin’, come on
Girl, it’s time to get gone

I wrote the entire song in about ½ hour!! It was incredibly liberating to not work in a linear manner. I’ve used this technique many times, and it helps get me through SVH.

To listen to “Gotta Get Gone,” go here>>

Second Verse Hell is something that happens to all good songwriters. Hope these tips help you dampen the fire and brimstone that are keeping you from finishing your songs. Good luck and let me know how these techniques worked for you!

Susan Cattaneo is a Boston-based singer songwriter who released her fourth album Haunted Heart January 21st. Her music has been played on country and Americana radio in over 30 countries, and she recently was a regional finalist for the New Mountain Stage contest. In addition to her performing career, Susan has been teaching Songwriting at the Berklee College of Music for 15 years. Find out more and purchase her album here: http://susancattaneo.bandcamp.com/