Songwriting: Working From the Title

Enrique IglesiasThere are numerous ways to write songs, and there is certainly no one correct way. Many songwriters like to start with a chord progression because it can inspire melodic shapes and general mood. Starting with a melody, or at least with a melodic fragment, will help to ensure that melody plays an important part in the song, and so I like the melody-first approach. Here’s a reliable way you can start with a piece of melody, and spin a song using that fragment: begin with a title, and then work forwards and/or backwards from there. Here’s how it works.

A song’s title needs to be catchy and meaningful. Most songs have several hooks – repetitious ideas – that draw the listener in, and the title probably rates as the most important. Titles either appear as the first words of a chorus (“I Like It” – Enrique Iglesias; “She Loves You” – The Beatles), the last words of the chorus (“Just the Way You Are” – Bruno Mars), the first words of a song (“I Gotta Feeling” – The Black Eyed Peas), or scattered throughout the entire song (“Around the World” – Daft Punk).


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Except for a few cases in hit song history, the title of your song is going to be what people remember. (Some song titles never appear, like “A Day in the Life” by the Beatles, and “Sympathy for the Devil”, by the Rolling Stones.)

So try this exercise:

  1. Develop a song title. This may take a few tries, and I recommend keeping a list of everything you come up with. Some will be lousy, but some will get your attention, and as you work at it you’ll find yourself combining one idea with another.
  2. Improvise melodic shapes and harmonies using your title. Sing your title in as many different ways as you can, and don’t be afraid to experiment. Try to find that one melodic shape that really suits your title.
  3. Compose a line that might follow the title. I might recommend singing your title twice, then invent a third phrase. (You might imagine, for example, that Tom Petty could have done this for the opening of “I Won’t Back Down.”)
  4. Compose a line that might precede the title. This may still require you to sing your chorus first, then try creating a phrase that moves smoothly into the chorus. (As a good example, imagine writing “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” this way.)

Starting the songwriting process in this way makes sure that your title gets special prominence in your song. It also ensures that lines preceding your title really feel like they’re moving toward the title, and lines moving away from the title feel natural.

Do you have a favourite way that you start songs? Why not post your comments below.

-Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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  1. I know that writing from the title and sometimes writing from the beat works as well. This is evident in hip-hop which revolves around sampled material. When I receive beats from beat makers I often ask them what they envisioned when they created the beat. Most of the time I get no response. Sometimes I will think of a concept in my head (the Title) then scan my beat folder to find something that matches that concept.

  2. Most of my songs happen at the piano. I start with a phrase and sing it while playing. Trying several styles, tempos, melodies and harmonies. To me this is the foundation upon which the rest of the song is written. It’s amazing what happens after the foundation is established.

  3. Cool post.

    I start with titles 90% of the time. Even more important, though, is a technique I cribbed from my career in advertising. Namely, a brief.

    In advertising, the brief describes what the creative team needs to create and the key component is what’s usually called the Key Thought or Insight. It says in one sentence what the ads need to convey. For songwriting, I always write the line “This song is about: _______” at the top of the page. Then I fillin the blank and as I write I can always refer to the top of the page to keep myself on track. Works for me, at least!

    • That’s a great idea, because it keeps the songwriter focused, and ultimately making sure that lyrics, melody, chords, and anything else that affects mood is working toward that goal.

      Thanks for sharing.

  4. Another great post! I start with the title many times, then I find a chord progession that fits with the general feel of the song I want to write. Lately I have been wanting to start with the melody an title first, just to change things up and get some different feels. I love your ideas of the pre- and post – chorus lines. What a great step by step to building a better song!
    Thanks, again, Gary.
    – Chad

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