How I Wrote the Song Piece of the Puzzle!

While I was living in New York City I spent several years teaching songwriting. Knowing that I was teaching songwriting, people would often ask me: “Which comes first, the words or the music?” My reply was that this is like asking which part of an airplane is built first: the front or the back? In other words, the question isn’t constructed in a helpful way.

Asking whether the words or the music comes first doesn’t get to the bottom of how to write a song because it assumes that a song is made up of just those two things. From a songwriter’s perspective, it makes far more sense to think of a song as consisting of many parts, including the melody, chord progressions, a concept, lyrics, a “hook,” the title, the rhythm, and so on. If you then ask which of those comes first, the answer is: any one of them.

One of the most interesting ways to begin creating a song is with a unique concept. If you start with an unusual premise and you do a good job of putting together a song based on that premise, the song will stand out just because the idea behind it is unique.

That was the case with Piece of the Puzzle. I’ve been a fan of funny/insightful/inspiring quotes for many years, starting when my wife and I got in the habit of posting quotes on the back of our kitchen door in New York. At some point it dawned on me that I couldn’t recall ever hearing a song made up of quotes. I decided to remedy that!

Narrowing the Possibilities

Once I decided to write a song based on this premise, I started by looking at the 100 or so quotes we’d collected on our kitchen door. As an experienced songwriter, it quickly became obvious to me that only one or two of them would work in my song! The reason: Most of the quotes were too long; most required that you think about them for a few seconds in order to get the point; some weren’t saying the sort of things that would fit in the kind of song I wanted to create…and so on. In short, I was going to have to do a lot of homework to find the right quotes for the song. I had to start from scratch.

Since my initial premise was to base the song around quotes, I started by trying something simple: collecting quotes that included well-known cliches from Shakespeare and Hollywood movies (“A rose by any other name…” “Go ahead, make my day”). But I quickly decided that this made the song pretty skimpy in terms of meaning and content. I didn’t want to write a gimmicky song with no redeeming value.

Eventually I settled on a more stringent list of criteria for the quotes I would include in the song. The quotes would have to be:
— short
— preferably not too well known
— insightful and truthful
— funny, if possible
— from a well-known person, if possible
— in line with my persona and philosophy
— easy to understand on a single quick hearing (VERY important).

And of course, each quote would have to rhyme with another quote to be usable.

The nature of this song idea also set limits on the type of music that would work in the song:

— Since it would be a wordy song, the music couldn’t distract from the words too much. So, the music would have to be straightforward, not complicated or highly emotional. I also knew the rhythm and tempo would have to be upbeat and catchy to hold the listener’s attention, given that it would be a wordy—and possibly long—song.

— Because the quotes would be of different lengths and meters, the music would have to be able to accommodate almost unlimited variations in wording.

— Because even a brief, straightforward quote would require some amount of thought to grasp, I’d have to leave some space at the end of each line so the words could sink in. This also would solve the problem of quotes being different lengths. (A catchy rhythm would help by holding the listener’s attention during the pause.)

Finding the Quotes

Over a period of eight months I waded through nearly a dozen quote books, reading about 15,000 quotes(!). It took a long time to find quotes that were usable, and even longer to find others that rhymed with the ones I liked the most. (Although it sounds like a tedious task, it was actually pretty entertaining!)

In terms of finding quotes that would work in my song, which quote book I was reading made a difference. I never used Bartlett’s Quotations; it contained too many antiquated quotes and not enough short, pithy observations. The best resource turned out to be an old Reader’s Digest quote compendium!

Eventually it became clear that I couldn’t manage to create this song at all unless I rearranged the wording of many of the quotes. For example, the quote I wanted to open the song was from Einstein: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” But I had to make a joke out of another quote to create something that ended with “college,” and the result was … well … lame.

However, it occurred to me to restate the Einstein quote backwards to capture the same idea in different words: “Knowledge is less important than imagination.” I found a great quote to rhyme with this, from Mark Twain: “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

Fortunately, I’ve always been a writer or editor as my “day job,” and my editorial experience was just what I needed to make this song work. Since I was slightly altering the wording of many of the quotes, I did my best to make sure I maintained the author’s intended meaning. For the same reason, I decided to drop all quote marks from the written lyrics.

Eventually, I accumulated 50 or 60 quotes, with enough rhyming ones to form 20 or more rhyming pairs. (I deliberately picked out more than I could actually fit in the song so I could choose the best ones.)

Creating a Chorus

One of the really big problems was coming up with a chorus for the song (the part of the song that’s repeated periodically). The chorus always needs to capture the main point of a song; in this case, it would need to state the reason I was quoting all of these people. Since I didn’t begin writing the song with a title or chorus or even an emotional premise, I would have to come up with all of that now. That turned out to be tricky.

A “gimmick” song like this could easily be written as a throw-away funny song, or one that’s impressive just because of the “laundry list” factor. But without a good chorus, it wouldn’t have much heart. A great example of this is two songs I’ve heard that list the countries of the world in the lyrics. One of them simply recites all the countries and makes them rhyme. The other song, Picnic of the World, with words written by Tom Chapin, does the same thing but returns to a wonderful chorus that makes the point that we all live together in a small environment, sharing our food, our problems and our resources. Having that chorus in the song makes it far more memorable and satisfying. I wanted to make sure my quote song had heart, like that song.

For a long time I struggled with different ideas for the chorus. One major direction I tried going in was basing the chorus around the phrase “25 words or less.” This never really worked, because it seemed too flippant; riffing on the fact that these were short quotes just didn’t get to the heart of the matter. (However, I liked the phrase so much that I kept it in the song; it’s now the last line of the introduction.)

Later, I tried basing the chorus around the phrase “the last word”… but that never lead anywhere useful. Then, because each line of the verses started with “so-and-so said,” I tried basing the chorus around “But you don’t have to say anything.” This was an interesting direction to go, but it made the song a personal statement to someone else. It just seemed too far away from what the rest of the song was doing.

Eventually, the solution came to me. Instead of writing about communication or the advantages of a short quote, I needed to write about the fact that all these people were insightful observers of life. This thought had been in my mind all along, but somehow I didn’t get clarity on the point until then. Within minutes I had a chorus that worked, based around the thought that “Everybody has a piece of the puzzle.”

Cutting Words, Building Music

Up until this point, I hadn’t done much in terms of creating the music. The chorus lyrics are so pivotal to a song that creating the music without them can end up being a tremendous waste of energy. Now that I had words for the chorus, I had a framework for both editing the quotes and creating the music.

I had already settled on a “feel” that I liked. I knew the rhythm and tempo had to be catchy, so that people who didn’t get into the words would still have a payoff for listening. The “feel” that I settled on was one similar to the one used by the Counting Crows in their song “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby” (a song/recording I consider a classic).

As I began to develop the music, I had to pare down the rhyming quote choices. I went through a number of “weeding out” sessions. First, I eliminated choices simply because I didn’t like one (or both) of the quotes enough. Then I eliminated a lot (including several of my personal favorites) because it was necessary to “think twice” in order to understand them, which simply wouldn’t work in a song. (Actually, I tried to avoid these in the first place, but I found that I still ended up with several quotes that required extra thought to be understood. This point was driven home when I recited a few over the phone to a young friend. She clearly didn’t “get” some of them without stopping to think about them.)

Finally, I went over the remaining quote pairs with my wife (my most reliable feedback person), and she provided very useful information about which ones didn’t work for her, and why. This enabled me to eliminate a bunch more, and move a few others into the “questionable” category.

Further Refinements

The next problem I faced was trying to make the remaining quotes work in some kind of order. Some sounded related, some didn’t. I couldn’t really set up a totally coherent series, but it made sense to try and group them in some logical way.

I also realized that the whole song needed some kind of opening explanation in order to make any sense, so I decided to write an introduction. This is unusual for a contemporary song, but I knew it was necessary to make the song work. (Besides, it was already an unusual song!)

As this point I began bouncing the song off friends to get more feedback. I dropped a few quotes from the song, added others, then changed my mind and put some of them back in. I also rearranged the order of the quotes. (For example, at one point I realized the third verse started with quotes from two unknown people. Up to that point in the song, almost every quote had come from well-known individuals. So, I rearranged the order of the third verse so that it started with well-known individuals.) It was a lot of work, but I really wanted to get it right.

I continued to polish the music, which I wasn’t too happy with initially. However, my primary feedback person (a.k.a.: my wife) liked it fine, which is always a good sign, so I kept going. It took me a long time to decide how the melody and chords in the chorus should work together, but eventually I settled on something that I thought worked.

Meanwhile one friend had a bad reaction to part of the chorus lyrics. The first version of the chorus went:

“Everybody’s got a piece of the puzzle
Everybody learns a thing or two
Another heartbreak, another sweet victory
Another piece of the puzzle for me and you.”

She didn’t like the third line, which I realized might be too much of a conceptual leap for people to see the connection. In addition, I actually didn’t like the way the fourth line worked, because in addition to the final words of lines two and four rhyming, “victory” rhymes with “me,” which I found awkward.

So, I tried lots of alternatives, and finally stumbled on a different approach to the chorus that worked a lot better:

“Everybody’s got a piece of the puzzle
Everybody’s learned a thing or two
Good times, hard times, you never know when you’ll find
Another piece of the puzzle waiting for you.”

This solved both problems, while adding the idea that the kind of wisdom captured in the quotes can be learned at any time in life—whether things are going well or not so well.

Finishing Touches

With the song beginning to come together, I spent several weeks learning the music and memorizing the words in the quotes part of the song (the verses)—which wasn’t easy. By the time I’d almost learned it, with the music for the introduction still missing and no real ending, I tried playing it for a few friends. The reaction was electric, so I was very encouraged.

Still, one friend complained that he didn’t like the sentiment of the existing introduction. At this point the introduction went:

Sometimes the world just doesn’t make sense
Life seems like a joke at our expense
Then someone says something that cuts right through the mess
In 25 words or less

I didn’t really agree with my friend’s complaint that the first lines seemed wrong for the song, but his comment got me thinking about it. Then it dawned on me: Whether these lines were wrong or not wasn’t the issue. The real problem was, I needed to set up the premise of the song—and the hook—by establishing that life is a puzzle!

After several attempts, I settled on:

Sometimes life is like a puzzle, where the pieces don’t fit
And you need a little help to make sense of it . . .
Then someone says something that cuts right through the mess
In 25 words or less!

Trying it out in the real world

At this point I had a complete song. I was scheduled to appear on WDVR’s The Lowdown radio program that week, so I sang the song live on the air. I didn’t get any exceptional reaction from the host or engineer, other than comments that it was a good song. But later in the same week I sang the song while performing at a local bookstore that featured live music, and two people picked it out as their favorite song of the evening. (When a new song is liked better than songs that have been fan favorites for years, it gets my attention!) One guy who worked behind the food counter in the store carried on about how I needed to demo the song immediately, insisting that it was going to make a million dollars.

Needless to say, I took this to be very positive feedback. At the same time, it crossed my mind that I had met these people in a bookstore; maybe their musical tastes would turn out to be more intellectual than the average guy on the street. Nevertheless, I concluded that the song was going to be a hit with at least some people. The question remained: how many people? A few, or a lot?

In the meantime, I was having a terrible time learning the lyrics. Remembering the order of the quotes — and sometimes the quotes themselves — turned out to be an even harder challenge than learning Tom Chapin’s song (mentioned earlier) which lists 80 different countries in the course of the song.

Eventually I began playing Piece of the Puzzle for more people, and the positive reactions kept coming. Playing it around the campfires at the Philadelphia Folk Festival I received some of the highest compliments of my career.

It ended up taking me a whole year to be able to sing the entire song without forgetting a line. (Even now I sometimes slip up!) But listener reaction continued to be extremely positive, so when Michael Stock, a DJ from Florida, heard the song at the Philly Folk Festival and said he’d play it on his show, I knew it was time to make a good recording of it. (Since writing the song, my wife and I had renovated two houses and moved 200 miles, so I hadn’t recorded anything for two years.) I threw together a respectable (albeit simple) recording and sent it down to Michael, and he did indeed play it. Other DJs I knew also played it, and a DJ I had never met heard about the song and requested a copy.

As compliments continued to come in, I knew I had to build an entire album around the song and create a more fully-produced version of it. Circumstances made that difficult, so a number of years went by. But eventually I started working on the album Piece of the Puzzle. As in the past, with no corporate financial backing I had to make up for a lack of money by taking my time recording the album. But the album finally did get made, and I’m very proud of the result.

Then we decided to make a video of Piece of the Puzzle…. But that’s another story!!
Copyright 2013 by Christopher Kent. All rights reserved.