Chuck Palahniuk’s book, Consider This, uses the term “clock” to describe something that limits the length by designating an end time. He points out that many novels have pregnancy as the clock. The story takes place for about 9 months, when the baby is born, it’s time to wrap things up. In his novel, Survivor, the clock is the failing engines of the plane. He made the decision to accentuate the time passing by using reverse numbering of pages, like a countdown until full failure and crash. They don’t have to be a countdown. He uses Scarlet O’hara’s waste as an example. Throughout gone with the end, her waste gets larger and becomes a method of measuring time.
He talks about hearing Billy Idol talking about why so much punk music sounded similar. Typically, the song starts at full throttle, goes for 2.5 minutes, and ends abruptly. Starting with a jolt, telling a quick story, then falling off a cliff.
The clock can give your analytical mind a break, you know how or when something will end, so the emotional mind can take over and enjoy the ride.
In the context of songs, we probably have to look at things a little differently. But, I think it is a useful concept to play with. It is kind of a specific type of foreshadowing, where you tell the listener something that is going to happen imminently.
The truest form of a clock that I have run across is Okkervil River’s John Allyn Smith Sails.
The song starts out with these lines:
By the second verse, dear friends
My head will burst, my life will end
So I’d like to start this one off by saying
Live and love
You can’t get much more “Clock-y” than that. You know the song’s main character is going to die in the second verse. So your analytical mind can just enjoy the first few verses. A fun thing is that the song is more than two verses, so your analytical mind jump-starts mid song to try to figure out what else there is to say.
There are other, more subtle clocks in songs as well.
Amanda Shires - Break Out the Champagne:
This is subtle. Each verse is only around three lines long, and tells you that each event is ending: The world ending (verse 1), a plane losing its engine (verse 2), and a relationship ending (verse 3). Each one ends with the chorus saying let’s just enjoy the ride.
Johnny Cash - One Piece at a Time
At the beginning, he devises a plan to steal parts for a car from the factory he works at, in his lunch box. The rest of the song, goes through each thing he steals, until the end when he has a full car.
Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin - Long Black Veil (These are the writers, the song was made famous by the likes of Lefty Frizzle and Johnny Cash).
Here, the song starts out with these lyrics:
Ten years ago, on a cold dark night
There was someone killed 'neath the town hall light
There were few at the scene, but they all agreed
That the slayer who ran looked a lot like me
So, the rest of the song tells you about the sentencing and execution, and kind of a ghost love story. Again, kind of a stretch, but telling the listener upfront “I was wrongly accused and executed” takes the sting out of that, so you can just enjoy the rest of the tale.
The clock is each day of the week. Each line begins with a day of the week, in order. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday Sunday… Then back to Friday for a little surprise.
All I see
In my infancy
Red and yellow then came to be
Reaching out to me.
Lets me see
To look through to these
As below so above and beyond, I imagine
Drawn outside the lines of reason
Push the envelope
Watch it bend
Here, the clock is not in the lyrics, but in the way syllables are delivered according to the Fibonacci sequence, up then down ( 1-1-2-3-5-8-5-3-2-1-1-2-3-5-8-13-8-5-3). The time signature of the song modulates between 9/8-8/8-7-8. 987 is a number in the Fibonacci sequence as well. To the “overanalyzers”, this acts as a clock as well.
While the clock is not for the full song, there is a definite clock for the chorus. The second verse ends with a line that tells you how long the chorus is going to be:
In four short steps we can erase this
Step one: slit my throat
Step two: play in my blood
Step three: cover me in dirty sheets
And run laughing out of the house
Step four: stop off at Edgebrook Creek
And rinse your crimson hands
You took me hostage and made your demands
I couldn’t meet them so you cut off my fingers
One by one
For this exercise, play around with the idea of setting a “clock” in your song. Whether it tells you how the song will end, whether it is a more subtle clock like Lateralus, or whether it might just be a clock for a part of the song (like Alkaline Trio above). You do not have to write a song, or even part of a song. It is enough for the exercise to simply put an idea that might use a clock. Remember, we are trying to stick to under 10 minutes. So, think about how to insert a clock in a song and write it down.