Songwriting Basics For Beginners
Start With A Title
I recently became a member at Singorama and wanted to give you these free tips. Hope you enjoy!
Hi I’m not going to be talking about dumbing down your song or trying to sound like someone else. I want you to write the best songs you can. And at the same time connect with listeners and make them want to hear yours again and again. That's real commercial appeal.
So let’s get going. The best place to start is at the beginning. Because if you start your song well, you’ll have a lot less trouble down the line. You’ll know where you’re going and you’ll have plenty of raw material. When you sit down to write, you may only have a vague idea or a feeling about what it is you want to express. You know you want to write a song. And that means words, a melody and chords. But which one comes first? Is it the lyrics, the melody or the chords? My answer is none of the above. There are a lot of ways to start and you could start with one of those. But I’m going to suggest that you start your song with the title.
The title is the heart. It sums up what your song is about. It will be your guide, the idea you come back to over and over to keep your song in focus. Think of your title as the peak of a pyramid. The rest of the song is made up of the building blocks that support the title. Short phrases make good titles because they grab attention and they’re memorable. The ideal length for a title is one to five words. The Beatles’ song Help! has a one word title. Every Breath You Take by the Police is a good title that’s four words long. Adele’s hit Set Fire to the Rain is five words long. Titles that are longer than five words are harder for listeners to remember. And you want them to remember yours.
List the titles of some of your favorite songs or check out the music charts to see current hit song titles. You can find the charts at www.billboard.com. Just click on the tab where you see the word “Genres”. Genre means musical style. Choose the style you like best. Look at the titles on the chart. How many words are in each title? Which titles grab your attention and make you want to hear it?
Write A Great Title
A good title is one that catches your attention. It’s one that feels interesting, real, and emotional. It makes you say “I wonder what that song would be about” or “I’ve got something to say about that”. You’re going to spend some time with this song so make the title something you want to write about. Keep a notebook of title ideas, that way when you feel like writing a title, you’ll always have ideas to get you started.
But how do you find title ideas? Sometimes a good title would just pop into your head, write it down and say “Thank you”. But I want you to have a whole list of titles to choose from. So here are a few ways to do that.
Keep a little corner of your mind alert for the title ideas at all times. When you’re watching TV or a movie, especially one with a lot of emotion, listen for short dialogue phrases that might work. Reading a book or cruising the internet; keep your eyes open for ideas. Conversations with friends can provide ideas too.
Remember short phrases of one to five words make the best titles. They grab attention and they’re easy for listeners to remember.
Here are a few titles on my list: A Dream on the Edge; Hiding Again; What You Can’t Change; Slipping Away. These are phrases that I found interesting, they drew my emotional attention, I wanted to know what they were about.
If you really want to make listeners notice your title; do a little re-writing. Add an action word to your title, use an image or a compelling situation or character. Let me show you what I mean. The Beatles song title Help! is a good action word. It implies lots of urgency and rushing around. Action words add energy to your title. Kelly Clarkson’s hit Catch My Breath is another good action title. It makes you feel like taking a breath. Moving Mountains, a hit from Usher, has an action word – moving and an image –mountains. When you use an image you get inside the listeners head where you create a picture. This gets the listener involved and interested. Adele’s hit song Set Fire to the Rain has two images: fire, rain. But how can you set fire to the rain? This is another good way to involve listeners; they want to know the answer. Taylor Swift’s song I Knew You Were Trouble describes a character. Right away you want to know more about this person; what kind of trouble? Locked Out of Heaven by Bruno Mars suggests a situation. What will happen? What does it mean to be locked out of heaven? It also includes an action – locked out, and an image – heaven.
Now let’s take another look at my title list. Two of the titles on my list had action words in them. Hiding Again and Slipping Away. Maybe I could strengthen Slipping Away by adding a character. You’re Always Slipping Away. Or I might add impact to Hiding Again by using an image. Hiding in the Shadows. If I don’t like the change I can always go back to what I had.
If you’re writing songs to pitch to film and TV the best titles are the ones that suggest a common emotional situation you might see in a TV drama: falling in love, breaking up, friendships and family relationships and celebrations. All of the titles on my list could work for this use.
Start your title list right now. Pick up a magazine or book, watch a TV drama or movie and see if you can find some good phrases. Or just write whatever phrases pop into your head. Remember to aim for one to five words in length. Write down at least five phrases. Then try pumping them up. Replace a “ho-hum” word with a vivid action word or add an image, a character or a situation. Keep adding to your list and re-writing until you have at least one phrase that makes you want to write a lyric. Draw a big circle around that phrase – it’s the begging of a great title.
The next step in your songwriting process is developing your title into a lyric. I’ll show you some fun and easy techniques for doing that.
Build A Lyric On Your Title
Now, let's begin to turn that title into a great lyric by simply asking a few questions: the questions suggested by your title.
If you use these questions as a guide when writing your lyric, you’ll be able to finish every song you start, keep listeners with you all the way through, and make sure your song says what you want to say. Some of the questions will be ones that you want to explore, others will be questions that listeners might have.
Let me give you a few examples. Take a classic song title like Heartbreak Hotel, some of the questions you might want to answer are: what is a Heartbreak Hotel? What happens there? Where is it? Sure enough, these questions are all answered in this great rock standard.
Here’s another example. In the song, I Knew You Were Trouble by Taylor Swift, listeners will want to know who was trouble? What kind of trouble? And how did things turn out? In a big country hit like You’re Gonna Miss This recorded by Trace Adkins, we want to know what it is we’re going to miss, why will we miss it? Check out the lyric. You might be surprised by the answer. That’s the sign of a good lyric. It draws you in with questions, then answers them in a fresh way. In other words, every title suggests questions to be answered. You can choose the questions you want to answer, just be sure to include the questions that listeners will ask and answer those too. If you were a listener, what would you want to know?
Here’s a list of questions that work for many song titles. What does the title mean? How do you feel about that? Why is it important? What caused it to happen? What do you think or hope will happen next? As you work on your song, you’ll probably think of more questions. Just add them to your list and keep writing. You’re going to answer at least one question in each section of your song. I’ll give you more information about the different sections of a song in the next video, but for now, it’s important to remember that your list of questions will help you keep your song focused, write a song that’s interesting to listeners, and give you plenty to write about.
At the top of a piece of paper, write the song title you want to work with. It can be your own title or one of these: A Dream On the Edge, Hiding In the Shadows, What You Can’t Change, or Slipping Away. List three or four questions the title suggests and you want to answer. Think about what you want to say, what emotion you want to express in your song? what questions do you think listeners will have? Will they understand what your title means? Remember, listeners don’t know anything at all at the beginning of your song. What do you want them to know by the end? Add those questions to your list.
The next step in writing a strong song is laying out a path for your song and putting song sections in the order that listeners like best.
For more song writing videos and lessons, click the link at the top of the page and check out Singorama's songwriting course.