How do you choose a song’s topic? For some, figuring out what to write about is one of the toughest parts of the process. There are lots of ways to approach it, and you might have several methods that you use interchangeably.
Song Topics That Lead to Conversational Lyrics
In one way, choosing a song’s topic might be similar to having a conversation with someone you’ve just met.
If you’re talking to a new acquaintance, you may find yourself thinking quickly every time they say something to you. You don’t want to just stand there, so you immediately try to say something that tags onto what they’ve just said. Then they respond to you, you say something back… and so it goes. When your conversation is done, you’ve hopefully had an entertaining few minutes.
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So these kinds of topics might be the kind that lead to story songs, or other uncomplicated expressions or observations:
They’re usually harmless, fun, and not the kinds of songs that elicit strong opinions or arguments.
Song Topics That Define Who You Are and What You Think
But then, there are ways in which song topics aren’t really like that at all. In a conversation with someone you’ve just met, you’re likely unwilling to unload — to tell them how you really feel about something. You’re not going to tell a stranger about how you just broke up with your girlfriend, for example.
But many songs do just that. In those kinds of songs, you’re not really conversing; it’s more a case of treating the song as a magnifying glass on the soul, and you invite others to observe and feel what you’re feeling. Love songs are like this.
In the same way, you might tell a stranger how you feel about the environment, or what you think of the politics of the day, if you’re also willing to accept the fact that they won’t agree with you. Because it’s not so much a conversation you’re having, it’s more an expression to the universe of who you are as a person:
- Imagine (Lennon)
- Addicted to Love (Robert Palmer)
- Hello (Adele Adkins, Greg Kurstin)
- This is America (Donald Glover, Ludwig Göransson, Jeffery Lamar Williams)
Most songwriters will do a bit of both, and I have always believed that the best writers are those who easily express who they are and what they think without a lot of worry.
There’s no one good way to choose a song’s topic. Topics lead to lyrics, and that‘s what connects to audiences. Audiences just want to feel something, and so whether it’s a song with “Penny Lane”-type lyrics, or one where you bare your soul, about the only thing that really matters is: did you cause your listeners to feel something?
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