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START MAKING SENSE (Songwriter tunnel vision and how to avoid it)

There is a phenomenon I see among writers, particularly younger people, in what I refer to as “Songwriter tunnel vision.” These are usually very emotional songs from a personal point of view, usually negative experiences that are so wrapped up in their own vision that it doesn’t translate to the general public listening to their songs. It also rarely translates to anyone else, industry people, potential co-writers, artists, or anyone. It is very much like poetry, done for the benefit of the writer.

Now, before you think I am “condemning” that type of writing, I am not. It is valid and important. We all have to get past our experiences, say what we feel inside, and wear our feelings on our sleeves. That is part of the growth of a writer or artist. But we don’t have to portray that for the general listening public. Now, to be fair, the “esoteric” lyric, has a place and there have been some amazing people who have done it throughout history. John Lennon, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, have done just fine with that. But they have that something special that is indefinable. They also started out writing more conventional things, before they developed their craft and art. It is much harder than it seems and takes years to hone that craft. Many people who think they are being “the next Dylan” are actually just being very confusing.

My thoughts go out to the newer people trying to do this, or people coming to places like Nashville with the intention of getting the attention of co-writers, publishers, sitting with ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, producers, artists (or being artists). For that, it is desirable to be understood by a wide variety of people. This does not mean DUMBING DOWN! You should never do that. Doesn’t help the writer or the listener. But you should be aware that you are trying to COMMUNICATE. That requires being CLEAR and thoughtful.

You can express your feelings, can express the emotions that mean so much to you. But you can also make them understood by others. A way to do this is to consider what I refer to as “Nashville style writing.” There are three essential elements to this kind of writing:

#1. REALITY. It takes a situation and paints a picture with people, places, things, subject matter that stimulates the mind’s eye, so people can see the SCENE you are describing immediately without having to think about it. It sounds like the listener is IN THE ROOM WITH THE WRITER AND SEES WHAT IS GOING ON.

#2. CONVERSATIONAL. If it sounds like two people having a conversation, it is like you are having that conversation with your AUDIENCE. Using concise, clear language will help in this effort. If you take the music out of your song, READ IT ALOUD, and it sounds conversational, not like a sophomore Shakespeare class, you are on the road. No offense to Bill, but he is a bit confusing at times.

#3. REINFORCING MELODIC HOOK. This is where the POINT of your song is driven home. If it is easy to sing, hum, and reinforces the melody throughout the song WITHOUT BEING REDUNDANT, (which is repeating the same thing TOO MUCH),

Being that little “earworm” that sticks with people. Simple, yet not simplistic.

This is really not just “Nashville” songwriting. And it is NOT JUST COUNTRY MUSIC. It is all forms. Listening to the Beatles, Stones, even a lot of Dylan, you can understand what they are talking about. “The answer is blowing in the wind…” Pretty self- explanatory if you ask me. Now, most country music, (and a lot of people who come to Nashville are going for the country market) it is pretty important to have a clear story line. But you still can have SUBTEXT, still can have deeper meanings. Songs can be taken in multiple ways. And should be. But it does help when you make it easier for your audience to GET WHAT YOU ARE SAYING. If they don’t “Get you”…the don’t “GET YOU.”

And remember, we all have incredibly shorter attention spans now. Thanks to all the extra stimulus in our lives, the Internet, constant information, 24 hour television, computer games, we are all stimulated to the maximum. People rarely take time to FIGURE IT OUT any more. So you have to be clearer than ever.

There is nothing like sitting in a song critique and being unable to say anything about the song, because it just DOESN’T MAKE SENSE. So think of your songs like you would explain it to a blind person. Think of your audience. Would they get the point you are trying to make? Would they be able to explain it to someone else? To pass it on.

Be clever, be instructional, touch lives. But first and foremost, BE UNDERSTOOD. It helps everyone.


Marc-Alan Barnette (MAB) is a long time Nashville songwriting veteran, performer, teacher, mentor and coach for songwriters and artists.He has had songs recorded by Shelby Lynne, David Ball, John Berry and Frankie Ballard. He hosts, “Nashville songwriter tours” and contributes to many publications and blogs. For information on MAB, or a list of services, go to

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