“How, as a human being, does one face infinity? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums, through encyclopedias and dictionaries…” —Umberto Eco
The fastest and easiest way to write a new song lyric is to begin making a list.
You’re no stranger to list-making. Lists help you remember what to buy at the grocery store. They track things you need to do today. Bucket lists store famous places you want to see, people you want to meet, life experiences you want to have before you die.
In short: lists help us make sense of a chaotic world. They help us plan, prepare, and organize our lives. But even aside from all their practical uses, lists can also be entertaining and beautiful in their own right.
“Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpeck’d cherries,
Melons and raspberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
All ripe together
In summer weather…”
–“Goblin Market” by Christina Rossetti
Lists Can Be Emotional
An old friend of mine likes to sit and list out things that make her happy and things that she’s grateful for. She says making these lists lifts her mood and focuses her attention on positive things.
Every time she does that, whether she realizes it or not, she’s writing her own personal version of “My Favorite Things“. The lyric of that Rodgers & Hammerstein classic is really just a long list of pleasing images, helped along by some delicious-sounding rhymes.
And the structure couldn’t be any simpler: it’s a list song! Just a list, plus a few lines of commentary toward the end. In modern terms, that lyric could be somebody’s Pinterest board set to music.
Five Famous List Songs
In case you need more inspiration…
“Reasons to Quit“–by Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. In the verses of this lyric, the singer lists out reasons why he should stop smoking and drinking, struggling to convince himself to kick the habit.
“50 Ways to Leave Your Lover“–by Paul Simon. A bit of false advertising here: the chorus lyric lists ways to leave your lover–but only five. Where are the lost forty-five ways, Paul? Oh well, we get the idea.
“I’ve Been Everywhere“–by Geoff Mack. This song packs 91 towns into two minutes and 45 seconds. The song’s four verses are just tongue-twisting lists of cities for the singer to test her memory (and lung capacity) against.
“Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love)“–Cole Porter wrote many list songs in his day that have since gone on to become classics, but “Let’s Do It” was his first. Each verse is a list of people, animals, and even objects that “Do It”: one verse lists birds; another lists sea creatures; another lists insects. So really each verse is a sub-list.
“Hate it Here“–by Jeff Tweedy and Wilco. The singer lists out ways he’s been keeping himself busy ever since his love left. Little chores, little things to stay busy–mowing, sweeping, laundry, checking the phone and the mail over and over again… this song’s a great example of how a simple list can tell a story.
More List Songs
- “21 Things I Want in a Lover” by Alanis Morrissette
- “These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)” by Eric Maschwitz and Jack Strachey
- “What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor?”, a sea chantey
And this is just a tiny fraction of the list songs you can find out there in the musical wild.
Keep your eyes and ears sharp for lists–they turn up often in articles, novels, poems, lyrics, and in your own life. Any given list could be a song. Even something as seemingly mundane as a grocery list reveals something about the person making it.
Let’s Do It (Let’s Write a List Song)
Maybe one of the topics above got your gears turning–here they are recapped, plus a few extras:
- Things you love (a kind of Pinterest board set to music)
- Reasons to [do something you’re reluctant to do]
- Things you admire in a lover
- Things you do to keep busy while avoiding [something unpleasant]
- Things that remind you of [a person or place that’s important to you]
You can write from your own perspective or you could write as a character. Any one of these list song ideas could easily sprout hundreds and hundreds of variations. If you write a “My Favorite Things”-style list song from the perspective of Gengis Khan, by the way, please let me know.