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