If you look at an article from a newspaper, the first thing you see is the headline. Headlines are written to grab a reader’s attention. It’s fair to say that newspapers will gain or lose readers based on the quality, accuracy and attractiveness of a headline.
In the news world, the headline gives a summation of what the article is about, but it does even more. It normally takes the most relevant point of the article, and then phrases that point in such a way that it’s difficult to ignore it.
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In songwriting, a title is a headline. It tells the listener — even if just in vague terms — what the song is about. But like a news headline, it does even more. A good song title usually does any or all of the following:
- it includes the most relevant bit of chorus lyric: “Paparazzi” (Stefani Germanotta, Rob Fusari), “Rolling In the Deep” (Adele Adkins, Paul Epworth);
- it tells the audience roughly what the song is about: “The Girl Is Mine” (Michael Jackson); “Say You Won’t Let Go” (James Arthur, Neil Ormandy, Steve Solomon);
- it stimulates the curiosity of the listener with an intriguing word or phrase: “Imagine” (John Lennon), “Radioactive” (Alexander Grant, Ben McKee, et al).
A good song title can be important for another good reason: it’s a great way to start the songwriting process. Whether you write songs on your own, or you do collaborations with bandmates or other songwriters, you can come up with a great title as a starting point, even if you have no idea where that title is going to lead.
If you try a title-first process, you’ll need to make sure that, in the end, it’s relevant to the song. Just as an enticing headline that has nothing much to do with the article makes people cynical or even angry, an irrelevant title can turn people off.
By starting your songwriting process with the generating of a long list of possible titles, you’re concentrating on the bit that audiences will see first, and that may have more significance than you realize.
We always advise songwriters to avoid clichés when they write their lyrics, but the title is that one element of a song that can tolerate the use of a catchy phrase, even if it’s a cliché. That’s why titles like “Over My Head” (Christine McVie), “Knock On Wood” (Eddie Floyd, Steve Cropper), “Rags to Riches” (Richard Adler and Jerry Ross) and so many others are quite acceptable as song titles.
Knowing how important a good title is to an audience is all the reason you need to try a title-first songwriting process. Try a brainstorming session where you come up with ten to twenty possible titles, and then take some time to look at each one and see where it leads.
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