On Songwriting: Breaking the Curse of Knowledge

My dad is an electrician. Naturally, I call him when I have an electrical problem. He’ll troubleshoot with me over the phone, and I understand him for a little bit. But then he slips into jargon and electrical-speak and I have to have him explain what he means. When it comes to wiring a house, my dad has what’s called the “curse of knowledge.” His relationship to it is so natural, he forgets others don’t share that same relationship. 

As a songwriter, you have the curse of knowledge, too. You’re so close to the song you’re writing that it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking others know what it is you’re talking about. So here are three questions that will help you break the curse. 

1. What’s Your Singer’s Perspective?

Is your singer narrating in first person? “I went over here, I did this thing, and met with some people…” or are they in second person, “You went over there and did this thing, and met with some people…” or third person, “He went over there and did this thing and met with some people.” And what tense are they in? Is this happening in the moment? “I go over here, I do this thing, and meet with some people…” or is it in the past past? “I went over here, I did this thing, and met with some people.” Or future? “I’ll go over here, I’ll do this thing, and meet with some people.” 

Your singer’s perspective matters. It helps avoid verb-tense confusion for your listener. Plus there’s often a perspective that will be a stronger choice than other perspectives. For example, let’s look at Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a Changin’.” It’s in second person, present tense. 

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
And you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’

But imagine if he had decided to use first person, past tense. Like this:

I gathered ‘round people wherever I roamed
Admitted the the waters around me had grown
Accepted that soon I’d be drenched to the bone
If my time to me was worth saving
I had to start swimming or I’d sink like a stone
For the times they were a changin’

Has a completely different feel, right? It was probably obvious for Bob Dylan that the song would benefit most in second person, present tense. But sometimes it’s not always clear. So try out different perspective hats on your singer. 

2. Who Is Your Singer Singing To? 

This is related to perspective. Are they singing to a friend, an ex-lover, the world in general? It doesn’t have to be explicit, but just clear enough to the listener to ground them. The sooner the better. It makes the listener’s brain stop wasting calories on trying to organize the information. Let’s stick with the Bob Dylan example. In “The Times They Are a Changin’” it’s established in the first line. “Come gather ‘round people wherever you roam.” The singer is talking to all of us, the world in general. Within a matter of seconds we have our bearings. You don’t have to establish it that quickly in your own song, but just be intentional about when you do. 

3. What’s Your “So What?” Factor?

In college, I had a creative writing professor teach me this. The “so what?” factor is a universal truth. It should ring true for everyone or most everyone. It’s the subtext of your song. Yeah, you might be singing about a breakup, but you’re really talking about loneliness. You might be singing about your road trip with friends, but you’re really talking about togetherness and the value of community. 

Does your song have a “so what?” factor?  In “The Times They Are a Changin’” clearly a central theme is “We’re all in this together. Our actions affect each other, and each of us should do our part to make the world a better place.” 

Side note: There are plenty of songs that don’t have a “so what?” factor, but are still compelling. I’m sure you have favorite songs with no idea what they’re about. But that’s likely because of the delivery and expression. The emotion is authentic. The reason you like it has more to do with the artist being the songwriter and expressing their truth. So, if you’re an artist and just wanting to express something in a compelling way, you might be off the hook regarding this lesson. It won’t mean you’ll have a good song, though. Just good art.