Murphy's Laws of Songwriting: THE "NUT"

The conclusion, the point, the message, the result of the story or action

For a song to be a living thing - sought out by singers,entertaining in elevators, delighting dancers or making people sing it for 50 years after you're dead - it's important to remember that it must be in perfect balance. A major part of this balance is the ratio of imagery or emotion or story to result. The reason for this Murphy's Law dealing solely with the "Nut" is that I go through about a hundred songs a week.At clubs, as I listen to writers in the round or on the half-shell, prepare new writers for their first publishing deal or help hit writers search for their next publishing deal, I am up to my ears in imagery, emotion and story. What is missing 90 percent of the time is the essence, the substance, the correct conclusion, the very thing from which mighty oak trees grow ... the Nut.

Origins of the Nut

To put a historical perspective on this process, and to understand the emergence of today's songwriter, let's go back to the dawn of society.There were the hunters, the gatherers, the teachers, the healers, the traders - group after group scrambling to guarantee its place in the community, its spot near the comfort of the fire. From a distance, watching the triumphs and failures of humankind, were the storytellers. They were charged with re-creating, bringing to life, with word or gesture, the profound, profane or comic events of society around them. In order to justify their warm place by the fire, they had to entertain, as well as inform. After all, any fool could come back from the hunt and say, "We killed the Woolly Mastodon," but the first one to say, "It was a dark and stormy night as the beast towered above us!" had the audience by the . . . ears. The best of these storytellers, scribes and minstrels became minor celebrities welcome at every fire. Striking the perfect balance between imagery and information, fluff and fact, they generally prospered, thriving on the phrase, "Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story." That information was passed on from the first songwriter on earth to the second songwriter on earth, who passed it on to Harlan Howard . . . at least that's Harlan's story!

Lead the listener to the Nut

When I'm asked to critique a song, no matter how explicit an idea may appear as I read the lyric or listen to the melody, I always ask the writer one question: "What is this REALLY about?" At least half the time,the answer the writer gives me does not appear anywhere in the song to which I have just listened. Therefore, when crafting your songs, make sure you lead the listener to the Nut (the point you're trying to make), which, many times, is the hook or title of the song. For example:

  • After references to "It must have been cold there in my shadow" and"You always walked a step behind," Larry Henley and Jeff Silbar lead the listener to the conclusion "If I can fly higher than an eagle / You Are TheWind Beneath My Wings." In this case, the title could be the Nut, but it could also be stated as "your selflessness makes my achievements possible."
  • After references to "When I heard that old familiar music start" and"It was like a dam had broken in my heart," Hugh Prestwood leads the listener to "After I'd forgotten all about us / The Song Remembers When." In this case, the title could be the Nut, but it could also be stated as "certain songs can trigger certain emotions and memories to make you re-live moments in your life."
  • After references to "She could telephone, tell a friend, tell a lie about where she's been" and "Send a pigeon, send a fax, write it on aPost-It pad," Phil Barnhart, Sam Hogin and Mark D. Sanders lead the listener to "I'd prefer a bad excuse to No News." In this case, the Nut could be stated as "any type of communication from my loved one would be better than none at all."

(It's important not to confuse the Nut with the theme. For me, the theme is best expressed in general terms regarding a struggle on a grand scale, such as right vs. wrong, old vs. young, virtue vs. venal, etc. TheNut, however, is the resolution of that struggle.)

In addition to being monster hits, each of these songs - as in 99 percent of all hit songs - contains an easily identifiable Nut. In fact, the only exception I can think of is a song like "Unchained Melody," in which the phrase "unchained melody" occurs nowhere in the song, and the title has no relevance to the song!

Locating the Nut

When searching for the Nut in your own songs, co-writing makes theprocess easier. To make sure your song is on target, read the lyric aloud and ask your co-writer, "What is this song REALLY about?" At that point, if his or her answer is not clear - re-write. When writing by yourself, finish your song, then on a separate piece of paper, write out the Nut in one sentence. Then, the first time you play the song for someone else, ask what he or she thinks the Nut is.If it doesn't coincide with your assessment, you are wrong. Remember, the listener is always right!

Strive for the "Oow" Factor

Judge your songs by what I call the "Oow" factor. Simply put, it means that it's not just a GOOD song; it's SO GOOD that, when you play it for people, they say "OOW!" At that point, you have a perfect song that is in total balance. It uses enough insightful detail to make the situation and the character(s) come to life, but never forgets to perfectly position the Nut: for example, it could be all the reasons that "you are the wind beneath my wings" or that "the song remembers when" or the fact that you can ask anyone you want, but there's still "no news." Once you isolate - and clearly communicate - the "Nut," you'll be welcome at any fire in any cave in the world.

So, on those notes, I'm out of here...

Ralph Murphy

© Copyright 2003 Ralph Murphy