How do you choose a song topic? There are lots of ways to do it. I’ve known songwriters who gather ideas from the newspaper. Others who make notes after interesting conversations. Or they convert ideas from their latest favourite novel.
There’s no right way, and though it may surprise you, I don’t believe there are any wrong topics. Because though the topic of a song’s lyric is important, there’s at least one other aspect of a song that’s more vital:
Does the lyric create an emotional response in the listener?
I’ve joked in the past that you don’t ever see a song about the periodic table, no matter how interesting that might be. That’s because how interesting a topic is will always take second place to how much of an emotional response it can generate in an audience.
It’s not that the topic of the periodic table is wrong, it’s just that it can’t really get a typical audience member excited.
The importance of a topic might even be surpassed by the importance of a song’s title, which can be a crucial part of pulling an audience’s attention in your direction. In the end, it’s always going to come down to how much a listener feels from your song.
The Power of Love
Love still sells in the songwriting world. You’d think we’d be tired of it, but we aren’t, and I doubt we ever will be. Of all the emotions that we have at our disposal as writers, love is the best one for the immediacy of its effect on the listener.
Love is a category, not a topic, but if you take a close look at love songs, hoping to find something unique, you’re likely to be disappointed. Failed love (“Somebody That I Used to Know”), spontaneous love (“Shape of You – Ed Sheeran et al), disinterest in love (“Don’t Need Love” – Diesel)… It’s all been done, and done many, many times.
So does that mean that song topics aren’t important? Not necessarily. Sometimes, a good song is good because the topic is just a little off the beaten track, something that’s not done frequently, but still pulls a strong emotion out of audiences:
- “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You” (Bee Gees – love song from a man on death row.)
- “Magdalene Laundries” (Joni Mitchell – song about life in a women’s institution of confinement)
- “One For the Vine” (Tony Banks (Genesis) – song recounting a fictional story about a man who has been declared a Christ-like religious figure by a primitive race of followers)
- “Stairway to Heaven” (Jimmy Page, Robert Plant – song about… well, it’s complicated.)
In each of those songs, the end result is that the listeners always feel an emotional rise, and it’s what keeps bringing them back. Even for songs where the topic is obscure, like “Stairway”, it’s individual lines and the power of the performance that causes the emotional reaction.
So a song’s topic can be an important part of what connects the music to the listener, but when all is said and done, if your song isn’t causing a powerful emotional reaction in the audience, you’ve missed the opportunity to build on your audience base.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle includes“Writing a Song From a Chord Progression”. Discover the secrets of making the chords-first songwriting process work for you.