Sam Cooke

Coming Up With Fresh Song Topics When You’re Out of Ideas

Deciding what your next song could or should be about can stop your creative process in its tracks if you let it. You’ll be happy to know that great songs don’t need to be profound. True, some of the songs we acknowledge as being the greatest ones are about deep, philosophical/social issues:

  • “Like a Rolling Stone” – Bob Dylan
  • “People Get Ready” – Curtis Mayfield
  • “A Change is Gonna Come” – Sam Cooke

But other songs have been strongly influential and trendsetting, but based on topics that are comparatively lighthearted and anything but serious:

  • “Tutti Frutti” – Dorothy La Bostrie, Richard Penniman, Joe Lubin
  • “I Saw Her Standing There” – Lennon & McCartney
  • “Be My Baby” – Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich, Phil Spector
  • “That’ll Be the Day” – Jerry Allison, Buddy Holly, Norman Petty

What makes a song work from a musical point of view is its feel — the mood and rhythmic attraction of the performance. Beyond that, it’s the lyric, and how it connects to the listener.

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And so it’s important to know that your choice of words is far more important than your choice of topic when you hope to write a song that makes a connection to your fan base.

Having said that, it’s going to throw a wrench in the works if you just can’t come up with anything to write about. Even lighthearted “Be My Baby” kinds of songs are about something, and what do you do if nothing is coming to mind?

There are many ways to come up with song topics when you’re drawing a blank, so take a look at the following list of four methods and see what interests you:

  1. Using the “dig deeper” method. Try this: write down a word that represents a category or large, overall topic: like love for example. Then dig deeper and ask yourself, “What about love?” If it’s love, it’s about someone, so write down who the song might be about. Then dig deeper and ask yourself, “What about him/her.” Keep digging. As you dig further and ask yourself more questions, a story will start to emerge, and though you likely don’t have your lyric yet, you’ve got a topic.
  2. Read the papers. If you read the front pages, your going to find a lot of politics, but every online paper or journal has sections that are more likely to contain interesting people-based stories. Find stories that have the potential for emotional moments, or stories that are likely to be the kind that others might say, “Yeah, I’ve been there.”
  3. Find quotes. Grab a novel off the shelf, open it and find a random line that’s a quote from a character in that book. I have a book on my shelf called “A Month in the Country” (J.L. Carr). Opening randomly to several pages, I found these partial quotes that seemed to have possibilities. Any one of them will get your creative juices flowing:
    1. “Just off to praise my Maker…”
    2. “More than I can tell…”
    3. “Mustn’t mind my asking…”
    4. “Say what you’ve come to say”
  4. Write a short story that starts with one of the following phrases. Don’t think too hard, just start writing. You can do this one over and over, taking your improvised story in any number of directions:
    1. Though I didn’t know it at the time…
    2. I couldn’t tell at the time if I was feeling anger or regret. But now that I look back…
    3. I stood on the street corner, taking in something I didn’t expect to see…

Remember that the topic itself is rarely the part of a song that creates the emotional connection to the audience. It’s almost always the way you word things. Once you’ve got your topic, remember that casual, every day words, the kind you’d use in conversation, are the ones that will make a listener feel something.

And that’s the goal of every song, no matter what the topic is.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter. Hooks & Riffs“Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” shows you how a good hook can make the difference between songwriting success and failure. With great examples from pop music history.Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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