How Taylor Swift Writes Her Songs

I remember being nine years old and staying up past my bedtime to watch Taylor Swift win the Album of the Year Grammy for her second studio album, Fearless. Despite other iconic albums nominated that year such as Beyonce’s I Am… Sasha Fierce and Lady Gaga’s Born This Way, Taylor became the youngest person to win Album of the Year because she wrote each of her songs. Fearless was the first album I ever bought on iTunes. It was the first album I listened to from top to bottom, memorizing the words and internalizing the stories of Taylor’s adolescence. Listening to Taylor’s lyrics taught me to deeply appreciate music. If I hadn’t listened to her fourth studio album and lyrical masterpiece Red, I wouldn’t have listened to Joni Mitchell’s Blue with the same attention and care.

Taylor at the 2009 Grammys

 

Until recently, I didn’t know why watching her become the youngest person to win the prestigious Grammy™ award stuck with me all these years. I know now how rare it is for the music industry to take a young woman seriously who acts her age, and they did this because critics appreciate good, truthful songwriting. Despite her media image, Taylor has always proven herself to be one of the best songwriters of this generation. She writes her lyrics with care and attention to detail, telling confessional stories in a way that speaks to greater truths about navigating the world as a young woman.

As I grew interested in her songwriting abilities, I tried to find articles about her techniques. Instead I found articles about her personal life, her songwriting abilities written off in favor of gossip extrapolated from her lyrics. In the few articles that do discuss her music, the fact that she writes her own lyrics is often glossed over rather than treated as a rare gift. In a world where the 2018 Grammy for Album of the Year went to a man who didn’t write any songs on his record by himself, appreciating Taylor’s songwriting is needed now more than ever.

In order to understand Taylor’s songwriting, I compiled all of her lyrics here and listened to all 102 songs she has released on her albums during her 13 year long music career. In a table, I kept track of recurring themes, imagery, and songwriting techniques that she uses to better understand how she crafts her lyrics and hopefully to inspire others to write their own songs.

  • Structure

Although Taylor experiments with pre-choruses and repeating bridges, she often sticks to this classic and simple form when structuring her songs.

Verse 1

Chorus

Verse 2

Chorus

Bridge

Chorus

She occasionally uses an intro and an accompanying outro along with this structure. When she uses an intro, she often writes it as a short, specific anecdote to introduce the story she is about to tell, and she repeats this anecdote in the outro. Her debut single “Tim McGraw” uses this technique. She begins by singing “He said the way my blue eyes shined/put those Georgia stars to shame that night/I said “that’s a lie.” She repeats this phrase as an outro, bringing her epic story of first love back to a small, personal detail.

Taylor writes her verses as mini-stories within the larger message of the song. Writing verses to be more specific with choruses being more general is a common songwriting technique, but Taylor takes this idea to the extreme. She has the ability to tell a story in just a few lines. “She wears short skirts/I wear T-Shirts/She’s cheer captain/and I’m on the bleachers” tells a story of exclusion and heartbreak in only four lines.

Taylor’s choruses are often more general, either explaining the general feeling of the song, commonly heartbreak or longing, or teaching her audience a lesson from something she experienced.

Taylor’s bridges are unique. Often times in pop music, the bridge is the highest point of emotional intensity which is sonically reflected by the most intense percussion and backing vocals on the track. While Taylor’s bridges build to intensity, the instrumentation often peters off into nothingness. She makes use of what I call a “quiet bridge” or a quiet post-bridge 60 times in her entire discography. Her unreleased song “I’d Lie” that she wrote when she was only 13 years old, to her most recent #1 hit “Look What You Made Me Do” both make use of a bridge that is practically a capella. Taylor strips away the instrumentation during these emotional moments of her songs in order to draw attention to her lyrics, lyrics she wrote herself.

  • Building a Chorus

Taylor has the rare ability to write songs about her personal experiences that make the seemingly mundane details of her life memorable. The chorus is meant to be the most memorable part of a song, summarizing the idea behind the specificity of the verses. In 60 of her choruses, Taylor uses what I call an “action line.” These are lines that start off the chorus with a subject and a verb rather than a description of an event. Her first person action lines are highlighted in purple in the table below.

Song

Action Line

I’d Lie (2006) I could tell you, his favorite color’s green.
He loves to argue, born on the seventeenth
Come in With the Rain (2008) I’ll leave my window open
‘Cause I’m too tired at night to call your name
Hey Stephen (2008) I can’t help it if you look like an angel
Can’t help it if I wanna kiss you in the rain
Forever and Always (2008) I stare at the phone, he still hasn’t called
Story of Us (2010) I’m standing alone in a crowded room
And we’re not speaking
Mean (2010) I’ll be living in a big old city
And all you’re ever gonna be is mean
State of Grace (2012) I never saw you coming
And I’ll never be the same
I Knew You Were Trouble (2012) I knew you were trouble when you walked in
New Romantics (2014) I could build a castle out of all the bricks they threw at me

 

Some of her second person action lines include:

Song Action Line
Tim McGraw (2006) When you think Tim McGraw, I hope you think my favorite song
You Belong With Me (2008) If you could see that I’m the one who understands you
You’re Not Sorry (2008) You don’t have to call anymore
I won’t pick up the phone
Begin Again (2008) You throw your head back laughing like a little kid
Style (2010) You got that James Dean daydream look in your eye
You Are in Love (2010) You can hear it in the silence
You can feel it on the way home
You can see it with the lights out

 

The verb of the action line, “telling,” “feeling,” “knowing,” “seeing,” “thinking,” drives the chorus along with Taylor when it is in first person or the object of her affection when it is in second person. These dynamic action lines are charged with direction, moving the chorus forward towards the emotional bridge.

Taylor similarly uses a command to start a chorus. She does this a total of 22 times. The command functions in a similar way as the action line, to add tension and direction to the chorus. She employs a command more often when her songs have a clear moral message. In the case of “Never Grow Up” she uses the title of the song to start the chorus as she tells her younger self and her audience to enjoy your childhood while you can. Her commands are highlighted in pink in the following table.

Song Command
Mary’s Song (2006) Take me back to the house in the backyard tree…
Take me back to the creek beds we turned up…
Take me back to the time when we walked down the aisle…
Love Story (2008) Romeo, take me somewhere we can be alone
Speak Now (2010) Don’t say yes, run away now
I’ll meet you when you’re out
Of the church at the back door
Don’t wait or say a single vow
Never Grow Up (2010) Don’t you ever grow up, just stay this little
Wildest Dreams (2014) Say you’ll remember me
Standing in a nice dress
Staring at the sunset, babe
Don’t Blame Me (2017) Don’t blame me, love made me crazy, if it doesn’t you ain’t doing it right

 

  • Imagery

After understanding the structure of Taylor’s songs, we can look at how she colors her stories with details. She often does this with very specific imagery. She has certain images that recur most often in her songs, such as crying imagery occurring 32 times, rain imagery occurring 55 times, and imagery of specific seasons/months occurring 26 times. She mentions a specific time of day when the story takes place 22 times, often late at night. Taylor uses these descriptions to craft a setting for her stories, making her songs more emotional by depicting believable scenarios.

Crying Imagery Rain Imagery Specific times of year Specific times of day
I ran out, crying, and you followed me out into the street – “Mine” Wait there in the pouring rain – “The Other Side of the Door” I don’t know why all the trees change in the fall – “The Best Day” You said it in a simple way 4 AM, the second day – “Come Back… Be Here”
What do you say when tears are streaming down your face in front of everyone you know? – “The Moment I Knew” I miss screaming and fighting and kissing in the rain – “The Way I Loved You” I ran off the plane that July 9th – “Back to December” The lingering question kept me up 2:00 AM, who do you love? – “Enchanted”
When you started crying, baby, I did too – “Out of the Woods” Rain came pouring down, when I was drowning, that’s when I could finally breathe – “Clean” Once you’re already flying through the free fall, like the colors in autumn, so bright just before they lose it all – “Red” It’s 2:00 AM, in your car, windows down, you pass my street, the memories start – “I Wish You Would”

 

Taylor performing in the rain in Chicago, 2018

 

  • Motifs and symbolism

Taylor does not use motifs often, but some of her best-written songs make use of a specific object to tell a greater emotional truth. In the second verse of “Tim McGraw,” a bittersweet story looking back on a first love, Taylor introduces the motif of a letter. She sings in a box beneath my bed/Is a letter that you never read/From three summers back.” In the bridge she mentions this letter again, singing I’m back for the first time since then/I’m standin’ on your street/And there’s a letter left on your doorstep/And the first thing that you’ll read is..”  This anecdote about the love letter carries the song into the final chorus. Taylor sings that the first thing he reads is a letter from her, saying When you think Tim McGraw/I hope you think my favorite song…” Tim McGraw is subtly meta in that Taylor is aware that the song itself is a love letter, so she uses a motif of an actual letter in her lyrics to prove this point. In a way, all of Taylor’s songs are love letters, to a love, to a friend, to her mom, to her fans. Tim McGraw, the first track on her very first album, perfectly sets up Taylor’s continued ability to craft a lyrical love letter through its motif of a literal love letter.

Taylor used a similar technique in a song she wrote six years later, “All too Well.” The cornerstone of her lyrical masterpiece Red, “All too Well” is the best example of a Taylor Swift Breakup Ballad. Complete with linear storytelling of a fierce love gone wrong, imagery of seasons changing with sentiments, and one line zingers like “you call me up again just to break me like a promise/so casually cruel in the name of being honest,” “All too Well” also employs a motif of a scarf, first mentioned in the opening verse. Taylor sets up the scarf symbol with I left my scarf there at your sister’s house/and you’ve still got it in your drawer, even now.”

Taylor, The Guy, and The Scarf

 

After the emotional climax of the bridge, Taylor connects the idea of the scarf in the following verse, singing “you keep my old scarf from that very first week/’Cause it reminds you of innocence and it smells like me/You can’t get rid of it, ’cause you remember it all too well.” Before this moment, Taylor spoke only of her experience in the relationship, how she was so deeply in love and then so deeply alone. Using the scarf motif, she turns this feeling around, saying it was as real to him as it was to her. Taylor symbolizes her loss of innocence and shared heartbreak through her use of a recurring motif.

  • Dialogue

Taylor has the ability to tell a story like a novel in the format of a song. She achieves this realism through dialogue, creating characters whose speech brings them to life. In some cases, the entire song or chorus is dialogue. In one of the first songs she ever wrote, “Mary’s Song”, about an older couple who knew each other since they were children, the song begins with “She said, I was 7 and you were 9…” Taylor then speaks in the first person throughout the entire song, even though the song is her neighbor telling her a story. She uses this again “Our Song”, the first verse ends with the exchange “He says, “Baby is something wrong?” I say, “Nothing, I was just thinking How we don’t have a song” And he says…” which leads to the chorus. She uses dialogue a total of 110 times, often more than once in each song. Here are some more examples.

Song Dialogue Lyric
Tim McGraw (2006) He said the way my blue eyes shined put those Georgia stars to shame that night.
I said, “That’s a lie”
Mine (2010) You said, “I remember how we felt, sitting by the water, and every time I look at you, it’s like the first time. I fell in love with a careless man’s careful daughter. She is the best thing that’s ever been mine”
If This Was a Movie (2010) Flashback to the night when you said to me
“Nothing’s gonna change, not for me and you”
We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together (2012) Then you come around again and say
“Baby, I miss you and I swear I’m gonna change; trust me”
Starlight (2012) He said, “Look at you worrying too much about things you can’t change
You’ll spend your whole life singing the blues if you keep thinking that way”
Style (2014) I say “I’ve heard that you’ve been out and about with some other girl”
He says “What you heard is true, but I
Can’t stop thinking ’bout you and I”
I said “I’ve been there too a few times”
Wildest Dreams (2014) He said, “Let’s get out of this town
Drive out of this city, away from the crowds”
I said, “No one has to know what we do”
His hands are in my hair, his clothes are in my room
Call It What You Want (2017) Holdin’ my breath, slowly I said
“You don’t need to save me
But would you run away with me?”

 

  • Literal vs. Metaphor

Despite Taylor’s specific, picturesque storytelling, she also speaks in metaphor in order to create a general message or theme of the song. She walks the line between literal imagery and metaphor so well that sometimes she even makes the transition in a single lyric. One of the best examples of this duality is in the song “Story of Us,” a vivid depiction of Taylor’s ex avoiding her in public. After she tells a specific anecdote to depict her anxiety, saying [I was] “nervously pulling at my clothes and trying to look busy” she ends the verse with the punchy line “you held your pride like you should’ve held me.” The metaphor that encapsulates the entire song, holding one’s pride instead of reconciling, is paired with the literal image of holding on to the person he loves. The literal imagery is highlighted  in yellow, and the metaphor is highlighted in blue in the following table.

Song Lyric
White Horse Baby I was naive, got lost in your eyes
And never really had a chance
My mistake I didn’t know to be in love
You had to fight to have the upper hand
Sparks Fly I run my fingers through your hair and watch the lights go wild
Just keep on keeping your eyes on me, it’s just wrong enough to make it feel right
Last Kiss So I’ll go sit on the floor
Wearing your clothes

All that I know is
I don’t know how to be something you miss
Treacherous I can’t decide if it’s a choice
Getting swept away

I hear the sound of my own voice
Asking you to stay
All too Well Your mother’s telling stories ’bout you on the tee ball team
You tell me about your past thinking your future was me
New Year’s Day I want your midnights
But I’ll be cleaning up bottles with you on New Year’s Day

 

  • Summary
  1. The structure doesn’t have to be complicated. Start with two verses, one chorus repeated, and one bridge. Add an intro if needed and repeat it for the outro.
  2. Be specific in the verses. Think about the story you want to tell. Where did it happen? What time did it take place? Who said what to whom? Try to include every possible detail.
  3. Start the chorus with either an action line or a command. Make sure to use a strong verb that fits with the overall feeling and message of the song.
  4. Find a story from your own life to tell. “Hold on to the memories,” as Taylor said in “New Years Day”, as well as 64 other times in her discography when she sung some variation of the word “remember.” Choose a memory.  It could be as simple as when your mom took you to the pumpkin patch when you were five, and write about it.
  5. Look for a naturally occurring symbol or motif in your story. Is there a sentimental object like a necklace or a scarf coloring your memory? What feeling does the postcard you sent to your family at home evoke? Use this motif as a plot point in the story and connect it to the overall feeling you are trying to convey.
  6. Don’t shy away from making yourself the subject of your songs. These are your stories. It’s okay to include yourself in your lyrics.

What I find most compelling about Taylor’s songwriting is that she doesn’t apologize for her feelings. Too often I find myself feeling guilty about being heartbroken over things that won’t matter in ten years. I try not to take myself too seriously as a way to avoid the shame that comes with being vulnerable. Taylor doesn’t do this. Instead of apologizing for her feelings, Taylor channels them into precise, beautiful lyrics. She takes herself seriously so that she can make art, and I think we can all learn something from that.

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