Songwriting titles

Working Out a Song Title as a First Step

Starting a song by coming up with the title first can be a great way to get your musical imagination working. The title of a song is usually part of the lyric, and it’s often an integral part of the hook.

When song titles occur as a prominent part of the chorus — either at or near the start (“Believe” – Cher, et al), or at or near the end (“Shake It Off” – Taylor Swift, Max Martin, Shellback) – they’re usually part of an important hook.

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If you’ve never started a song with a title, here are some things to consider:

  1. Song titles can be clichés. You’ve probably heard it said that you should avoid clichés in your lyrics, but song titles usually get an exemption from that bit of advice.
  2. Choose a song title that’s fun to say. If it’s fun to say, it increases the odds you’ll be able to create a hook that’s fun to sing.
  3. Choose a title that conjures up an immediate story or situation. You do have to write lyrics that lead to this title, after all.

The best way to start the title-first process is, quite simply, to sit and write down lots of short, catchy phrases. Don’t worry if you don’t know why it appeared in your mind; just write them down. And do them in a hurry, without much second-guessing. Remember, there’s no rule that says you have to use every title you come up with.

So eventually you’ll come up with two or three that seem like possibilities, and now the job is to pick one and work out a short catchy hook that incorporates that title.

There are lots of ways to do this, but if you’re stuck, try the following. Let’s say that this wound up being in your list: “I Want You With Me”. Here’s what you can do:

  1. Say the title over and over, thinking about the subtext. “I want you with me” might be part of a story, where the person you’re singing about is with someone else. Or maybe you’ve traveled somewhere, and you’re missing your significant other. Get the makings of a story going. What would make those words appear in your song?
  2. Say the title with some rhythmic energy. Find the rhythm and tempo that seems to speak to you. This is an important part of mood.
  3. Imagine that it’s a first line of a chorus… create an answering line (“I want you with me, I want you with me/ The stars, the moon, don’t mean anything to me…”)
  4. Now imagine that it’s the end of a chorus, so create a line that leads into it. (“Wherever I happen to be/ I want you with me.”)
  5. Make a decision regarding whether you’re going to start the chorus or end it with that line.
  6. Start working out a chord progression and melody for that title line. This will take lots of experimenting, and also a bit more fleshing out of details, as you’ll want to start filling in the rest of the chorus.

This is the kind of process you can move forward and backward through. If you find that what you’re writing is leading you down a path to a dead end, back up to the first step and start again. Don’t fall in love with your idea until you’re sure it will work.

The title-first process works because, like the chords-first method, it tends to conjure up a mood right away. Once the mood is established, many songwriters find the creative floodgates opening, and the rest of the song follows relatively quickly.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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