How to Develop Your Song’s Back Story

How to Develop Your Song’s Back StoryThe secret behind song delivery is determining the story behind your song.

Tom Burke is one of New York City’s top speech-language pathologists and singing teachers.

He believes that the secret to a powerful performance is for a singer to get into the story behind the song.

While this might be easy with a deep and meaningful song such as “Let it Be”, not all songs can give one easy access to a story.

Always know what you want the audience to feel, think or do

So, I asked Tom how he would deal with a simple, “let’s party” type of song:

“The story could be that you are singing to an awkward dancer, and you are trying to give them permission to shake their booty.” says Burke.

This might lead you to put a little flirt in there and entice your audience with that “come on, baby…” vibe.

Know the Intent of Your Performance

“Always know what you want the audience to feel, think or do,” says Burke.

In an emotional song, for example, your intent may be to comfort someone in the audience, by letting them see your own pain and showing that they are not alone in theirs.

In a jazz song from the 1940s, your intent may be to transport the audience back in time.

Judging by the number of American Idol finalists who have backgrounds in the Baptist church, the church seems to be a great training ground.

Expressing emotion through song

Singers are expressing a universal experience that is filtered through their body

Burke explains that this is in part because a church soloist learns from a young age that singing is about serving the community and helping others worship God. The intent of their singing is clear.

“The best performers read as generous,” says Burke. “You are expressing a universal experience that is filtered through your body.”

If worship is not your thing, consider songs like “Party in the U.S.A.” by Miley Cyrus. Not exactly a ‘deep’ song!

“This song is about letting yourself (and your audience) enjoy a guilty pleasure,” says Burke.

“You are supposed to feel like it is a hot day and you are having a beer with your friend at the beach.

You even allow yourself to do some awkward dancing. The stupid lyrics remind you of that kid part of yourself that used to dance around the house making up stupid songs.” The intent is to make people feel good—make them happy.

Map out Your Song

Mapping out the story tells you where to do what.

The WHY informs what you do musically, vocally.

If you look at almost any Pink song, you can see a clear arc: she starts off contemplative, then starts to get angry, wails and then her tantrum is over.

Emotional development

A story can have a range of emotions.

“It is the same in real life,” says Burke.

“In real life, you wouldn’t just scream the whole time. You might mumble under your breath at first if you were mad about something.

Then you might hyperventilate, or freak out. Then you might cry or laugh or feel better or walk away.”

Whether your song is a party song or a worship song or anything in between, the story behind it is the framework for all your musical decisions.

With a strong sense of story, and a clear intention for your audience, the rest of your musical work as a performer will be much easier.


Tom Burke

Tom Burke, MS CCC SLP, provides voice training and rehabilitation services to professional singers and actors. http://www.tomburkevoice.com/ His work has been featured on MTV, The Oprah Winfrey Network and HBO. Based in New York City, he is a certified course instructor of Estill Voice Training and trained in several voice and bodywork traditions including Alexander Technique. He also coaches for Google as a “Story Doctor” working with several teams and executives at large events such as Google’s Executive Partner Summit.