Singer - Songwriter

Choosing Topics Versus Choosing Words

It would be silly for me to try to say that the topic you choose for your song isn’t all that important. Of course it is. But audiences don’t connect easily with topics.

And by “connect,” I mean feel something. Some topics come loaded with emotion, mind you, even by the mere mention of it: the death of a loved one, or the birth of a child, for example.

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But audiences connect with words and phrases, not topics. The words you choose are far more important than the topic you choose. In that sense, you can choose a topic like birth or death, but get it all wrong when it comes to actually writing the lyric.

Getting the Audience to Care

The words you choose for your lyric will determine if your audience actually cares about the song. Often a listener has to hear the entire song a few times before they start to notice that they really feel something from the song.

It’s nice when a listener feels the love of a particular song increasing with each listen. It means that they’re making more and more sense of it, rather than it all being obvious with that first listen.

Building a Song’s Vocabulary

I’ve always felt that one of the best ways to craft a good lyric is to do the following:

  1. Come up with a topic.
  2. Create a list of words and phrases that pertain to that topic. Some of the items in your list may only have a vague connection to the topic, but write them down anyway.
  3. As you work, you will start to notice that a story is starting to emerge. That’s the magic moment, because as you keep working on your list of words, you can focus in on not just a topic, but a specific event or state of mind.
  4. Once you’ve got a lot of words and phrases, rearrange them into two lists: ones that seem narrative or “unemotional observances” in nature, and then ones that are more emotional. The unemotional ones will work well in a verse, and the emotional ones will work well in a chorus.

As you keep working on this, you’ll notice that your sense of the backstory increases. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself shifting direction with your word choices as what you’re writing about becomes clearer.

It’s all About the Words

You may feel quite good about your song’s topic, in the sense that perhaps you’ve chosen something that’s unique, a topic that looks at something in a way you’ve not heard other songwriters do with their songs.

But remember, it’s not really about topic; it’s about word choices. Take some of your favourite songs and come up with a 1- or 2-word description of what the song’s topic is, and you may find yourself feeling surprised by how uninteresting that topic seems.

But that’s just your reminder that it’s not so much about topic… it’s about the words you use to generate an emotional response from your listeners. Any time I talk about this, I love mentioning the old 1954 jazz standard “Fly Me To the Moon” (Bart Howard). The topic? Love. But the words!

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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