Pharrell Williams - Happy

The Importance, Or Not, of a Song Topic

Songwriters spend a lot of time thinking about what their next song is going to be about. They certainly spend more time thinking about a song’s topic than listeners do. There is a good reason for that. Audiences take in the entire sonic experience when they listen to a song. The actual topic is but one often small part.

In short, everything you hear is what a song is about. That’s why a song’s lyric can be interrupted in the middle with a guitar solo, and it doesn’t sound like an intrusion. In fact, a well-played solo adds to the apparent meaning of a song. A vocalist singing “oh, woah, woah, woooooaaaah…” can sound just right, even though the words and sounds are technically meaningless.

If you take the time to dig down into a song’s lyric to find out what inspired the writers in the first place, you might be disappointed. Songs in the pop genres, certainly on their surface, don’t offer much beyond a superficial parsing of a topic. And those topics all have similar matters-of-the-heart themes:

  • “When I Was Your Man”: Topic: love that didn’t work out.
  • “All of Me”: Topic: I love you… all of you.
  • “Thinking Out Loud”: Topic I love you, and always will.
  • “Happy”: Topic: I’m happy.

For each of those songs, and in fact for any song, you can dig down deeper and find more, but the more often isn’t really as important as what we pick up on that first listen — the first impression we get from a lyric.

You might think audiences are tired of yet another love song, but they aren’t. There are as many songs about love being written today as there ever were. The way that sentiments are expressed change, but not the sentiments themselves.

As it’s always been, the best song topics and lyrics are ones that:

  1. express a universal emotion. That’s why love still works in a song. Everyone still feels love, wants love, and hates to lose at love. And if they do lose at love, they want to sing about it, and hear others sing about it so that they can feel it, too;
  2. create images in the listeners’ minds. The best lyricists can generate complete thoughts and images with remarkably few words. So metaphor, simile, and other poetic devices all play a role in generating complete images in the mind of the person listening;
  3. avoid overuse of clichés, or other kinds of hackneyed phrases. For every cliché you use, the listener perceives your words as someone else’s, something that many other songwriters have used. In that way, a cliché can de-personalize a song lyric;
  4. consider melody and chords an important part of developing a song’s meaning. It’s not just lyrics that convey meaning. How the melody moves up or down, whether you choose a major or a minor chord… these are important “add-ons” to a song’s lyric. They can enhance lyrical meaning.
  5. use instrumentation to support the lyricNo lyric stands on its own. For every word of lyric, the instruments you choose will either support or damage the meaning you’re trying to convey. It’s a strong songwriting principle that all song elements work together as partners;

This is not a plea for you to think less about what you’re choosing for song topics, or writing for lyrics. Good songwriters need to think deeply about everything they write. But if you ever wonder why a simple song topic, such as love, always seems to work, it’s because of the partnership between that topic and every other element within the song.

A song, if it is well-constructed, well-produced, well-performed and well-recorded, will make the simplicity of the topic far less of an issue.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer.

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