7 Thoughts on Choosing a Song Topic

Is choosing a song topic more difficult than writing the song itself? Here are some ideas to help with that.

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Lady Gaga - The Fame Monster - TelephoneIt’ll be clear to anyone who spends even 3 minutes studying song topics that love still sells. Depending on what day you check, songs at the top of the Billboard charts feature love as the basic topic 9 times out of 10. But choosing love as a topic is too vague. You need to dig down deeper than a simple top-level topic, no matter what that subject is, and find something meaningful to say about it. And that’s the snag. Is there anything more creative or innovative that can be said about… anything?

For many songwriters, choosing a song topic is the biggest problem they face. Yes, love sells, but doesn’t necessarily help, since it’s not going to work to simply write a song telling everyone that you love someone. Audiences are looking for something specific. Being jilted by a lover often works, but how many times can you write about that?

There’s no clear or easy way to simplify the challenge of choosing a song’s topic, because what you sing about needs to be personal and, at least on some level, real. And no one can tell you what that is.

But here are 7 thoughts about choosing a topic for your next song that might help you:

  1. Choose an overall topic, and then ask yourself, “What about that?” In other words, dig down deeper. If you choose a topic “love”, ask yourself, “What about love?” Once you’ve decided it’s really about your lover, keep asking, “What about him/her?” Keep digging. Eventually you’ll get to something that has a unique spin on the topic.
  2. Repeat step 1 several times. Don’t be satisfied too quickly with what you’ve come up with. Start again, and bore down through song topics that get more and more specific. Occasionally what happens is that your imagination will take a left turn somewhere and you arrive at a different final topic, something much more creative or poignant.
  3. You don’t have to say anything new or innovative. In fact, a song will speak to more hearts and minds if it’s based on a topic that everyone identifies with. Love as a song topic never seems to get old. The very fact that your particular words, melodies and lyrics will be different from every other song out there may be all the innovation you need.
  4. Of the roughly 10% of hit songs that aren’t about some sort of love, you’re looking at songs about social life. Whether that means partying, a call for world peace or social justice, or anything else, your song’s topic needs to be something that taps into or creates a community of like-minded people.
  5. Write 1- or 2-sentence descriptions of familiar songs. Take a song that has been meaningful to you, and describe the basic topic as succinctly as you can. If you’re wondering how to do this, Wikipedia is a great site to do your research. You can get short 1- or 2-sentence descriptions of songs through quotes of well-known reviewers. For example, regarding Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”, the Wikipedia article quotes a reviewer as saying that it’s about “…fantasies of revenge against a lover who has done her wrong. (see article).
  6. Dig down into your topic, finding related topics for your song to explore, and put them in a proper sequence. For example, your song may explore the anger toward a lover who has tossed you aside, but that may only be part of the story. It may then proceed to other related areas, which, when you’ve got them in the right order, look like this: 1) Jilted by lover; 2) find someone new; 3) go to a party with new lover; 4) see old lover; 5) old and new lover turn out to be friends… what to do?
  7. Get the emotional sequence right: details first, emotional response second. People will relate to your emotions if you lay the groundwork first. In other words, it would be ineffective to start by singing simply about how you’re feeling without giving any details. Start with some details. Most of those details will cross over into the emotional realm, but the real emotional text should happen in the chorus. For a great model on how to finesse emotions with details, check Lady Gaga’s “Telephone“.

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Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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8 Comments

  1. What about the rare few songs that are not about love or social life?
    Mirror – Lil Wayne feat. Bruno Mars
    The Lazy Song – Bruno Mars
    Morphine – Michael Jackson
    River Of Dreams – Billy Joel
    Captain Jack – Billy Joel

    • Any song, regardless of topic, needs to connect emotionally to the listener. To connect emotionally simply means that someone can hear the lyric and claim that they “know the feeling.” The lyric needs to be able to generate a response. Love songs are traditionally the easiest and most popular way to do that, but whether you address social ideas directly, or obliquely, as in most of the songs you’ve mentioned, they all cause the audience to feel something.

      -G

      • Mr Ewer,
        Thank you for your reply. I do not understand, however, how “The Lazy Song”, “Mirror”, and “River of Dreams” address social ideas. “The Lazy Song” is about taking a break from socializing (Don’t feel like picking up my phone), Mirror is about how it is very difficult to connect with others (Mirror on the wall, here we are again. Through my rise and fall, you’ve been my only friend.), and “River of Dreams” is about…well I’m not exactly sure what it’s about. Sorry if this is stupid, but could you please explain to me how they address social ideas.

        • Bobby- I think I see the confusion. The point of the lyric of a song (and the point of a song, itself), is to connect to that part of us that generates an emotional response. Most songwriters achieve this by writing about love, since situations involving love tend to produce the most intense emotions. But anything that causes an audience to empathize (and thereby draws out an emotional response) works.

          To write about social situations (yes, even “taking a break from socializing”, and/or finding it difficult to connect to others) qualifies as a song about the social aspect of being human, and will connect with the listener.

          That’s why you’ll find lots of songs about love, friendship, parties, and even the lack of these, and not so many songs about cutting firewood, buying groceries, polishing furniture, or painting doors, as these don’t typically connect to the emotional side of the listener.

          Hope that helps,
          -Gary

  2. You seriously sent me to the worst lyrics every written man, Telephone, damn. It doesn’t even deal with emotional sequence in a effective way.

    • Well, they aren’t profound, are they? But if you consider that the person speaking the lyric is wasted on a dance-floor, those would be the kind of words you’d hear. In fact, I find that the juxtaposition of a serious situation (the break-up) while in a noisy club where she can barely hear is actually pretty effective.

      An effective lyric isn’t always the one that words thoughts in the most profound way; it’s often the one that words things in the most “real” way, as if someone was about to say those words, but chose to sing them instead. And though industry accolades aren’t necessarily the yardstick for measuring songwriting success, that song (Telephone) is often touted as one of the strongest tracks on “The Fame Monster.” I doubt it’s the lyric that makes it great, but in my opinion, that lyric does exactly what it’s supposed to do.

      Thanks for your thoughts, Sam.
      -Gary

      • Hmm you may be right about that. I’m not familiar with todays pop lyrics. If this is one of the best in one of the top artist’s album, then I’m speechless. Anyone can write 10 songs like this everyday.

        The problem is, when you guys refer to such songs in lyric writing guides and books, its very easy to lose respect/trust as a reader. Book authors almost always use cheap pop songs and light country songs as examples. No one ever uses songs like Sting’s Fragile, songs with profoundly poetic lyrics. Maybe most wannabe songwriters are looking to write cheap hits, so I don’t know who to blame for this.

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