Songwriting Topics

writeI have written about this before, but thought I would do so again after reading another songwriting blog that suggested what the five “most successful” songwriting topics are.  They were listed as “love, country, religion, nature, sports”.  I want to take each of those topics and discuss them a little further.  These are my opinions, of course, you might want to argue with me in the comments section below :-).

First of all, I’m assuming that the writer is talking about “success” in some sort of commercial way, or least in terms of popularity on YouTube or other digital means. Success can be a pretty relative thing, but I’ll go by that assumption.

I can certainly agree with “love” being a successful topic.  I don’t think I’d be exaggerating if I guessed that probably 75% of the songs you hear on the radio are about some aspect of love;  new love, lost love, jealous love, old love…the list goes on and on. You can’t go wrong using love as your songwriting topic.

The second, country, was actually described as “about the country”, basically describing songs about patriotism. I don’t think you’ll find too many songs on YouTube or on the Billboard Top 100 on a REGULAR basis, that are patriotic.  So I would broaden that topic to “places”.  Places can be anything from a city (there have been lots of famous and successful songs over the years about cities!), to a spot where you used to meet someone (okay,  that’s bordering on a love song, I know), to a neighbourhood you grew up in, to your room or even a job place.  Patriotism might feel good to you, but it can often become cheesy, so be careful with that topic on its own.

The next topic was described as religion and religion is a subject that is rather audience specific.  For instance, there are Christian songwriting websites and messageboards out there, so I am certainly aware that there are songwriters who write solely in that genre, and it is indeed a genre.  Within the Christian community there are radio stations with hit songs and big name artists.  I do remember a time when gospel songs were occasionally on the playlists of mainstream radio, but that doesn’t happen any more.  Country radio often has its share of songs with religious overtones, so a person might have some success with a country audience.  So I’m on the fence as to whether this topic can be potentially successful outside of its specific audience.

Nature is the next topic.  Oddly enough, the first song that comes to mind is an old one written by Eddie Rabbit and performed by Elvis Presley.  I don’t know why, but “Kentucky Rain” just popped into my head!  It’s really not about rain, though, or Kentucky.  It’s an excellent title, but it is…guess what?  A love song!  Nature in and of itself seems a rather benign topic.  Another one that comes to mind (sorry, these are all old!) is “Rocky Mountain High” by John Denver.  It takes place in the Rocky Mountains, but it is really a coming-of-age song.  So I think that nature is probably used more as a metaphor for something else, rather than a topic in and of itself.

Here are the most recent (as of 8/20/14) Billboard  top 5 hot pop songs and their topics:

  • Rude! by Magic – love song about a guy asking a girl’s father for his daughter’s hand in marriage
  • Stay With Me by Sam Smith – love song
  • Am I Wrong? by Nico and Vinz – about trying to stand up for what’s right, a philosophical song
  • Latch by Disclosure – love song
  • Boom Clap by Charli XCX – love song

And the hot rock top 5 songs:

  • A Sky Full of Stars by Coldplay – love song
  • Habits (Stay High) by Tove Lo – love song
  • Pompeii by Bastille – believe it or not, a song about Pompeii.  Imagine that!  You could put this under my category of “place”
  • Come With Me Now by Kongos – a song about overcoming obstacles
  • Ain’t It Fun by Paramore – a “you’re a jerk” song

The hot country top 5 songs:

  • Burnin’ It Down by Jason Aldean – love song
  • Dirt by Florida Georgia Line – well, it’s about dirt, but as a metaphor for “this is where I grew up and want to come back, get married and build a house” .  I like the lyrics. This fits in with my idea of “place” as a topic.  It’s a bit of a stretch calling it a “nature” song.
  • American Kids by Kenny Chesney – now this one definitely has religious references and patriotism like “We were Jesus-save-me, blue-jean-baby, born in the USA”, but it’s mostly about the past and growing up.
  • Drunk On A Plane by Dierks Bentley – a breaking-up type love song
  • Bartender by Lady Antebellum – a “pour me a drink so I can forget him” love song

Okay, so let’s compare with the original list of five topics.  Out of the three genres with fifteen songs in total, I’ll see which topics are included:

  1. Country (patriotism) – 1 (well it wasn’t the actual topic, but because it was referenced to, I included it.
  2. Religion – 1 (I counted that too, in the same song)
  3. Nature – 0
  4. Sports – 0
  5. Love – 9!
  6. Other – 6

So what do we learn from this?  First my statistics were off a little.  I said that 75% of the songs out there are love songs.  Nine out of fifteen songs makes it closer to 60%.  But you’re pretty safe writing a love song.  Religion, country, nature and sports, not so much.  And, there are a lot of other topics to write about…even Pompeii!  So push the envelope, be imaginative, write about what you know (or make it up!) and don’t restrict yourself.  Your idea might be better than any other song idea on the charts!

IJ

 

Five “Secrets” To A Great Chorus

I actually read an article elsewhere on the web which had a similar theme to this, so I decided to write my own.  No plagiarism here :-), just some of my ideas on what makes a great chorus.

1. The Lyrical Sum of the Song

Lyrically, the chorus of a song is its focal point, its summation, a kind of wrap-up of what the song is about.  In pop and country/pop especially, the chorus is everything.  You’ll notice that many songs in these genres have choruses that are longer than the verses, and sometimes they are inserted at the beginning of the song just to let you know that this is what the song is all about!

The chorus should be the very centre of the song.  Make it stand out musically and lyrically (contrast) to the rest of the song.  Think about it as being the sun, with the verses representing the planets spinning around it.  Hmmm…I must be a songwriter…

2.  The Chorus is the Part They Remember!

When you’re writing a chorus, you’ll want to pay special attention to its memorability.  Often, the chorus contains the title of the song, and in many cases the title is repeated a number of times.  Often, the title is at the very beginning or end of a chorus which certainly helps people to remember it.  And if there’s a melodic hook, the chorus is where you’ll often find it.  How many times has someone had to sing a song to you all the way to the chorus before you suddenly recognize it?  Think about that!

3. Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

I talk about repetition a lot in this blog because it’s a critical point.  The number of times you repeat a melodic phrase or a lyrical one can make or break a song.  If it’s too much, it gets boring, if it’s not enough, it’s meandering.  And how many times you repeat a chorus is also important.  Having the chorus after the verses is obvious, but how many times should you repeat it at the end?  The chorus is one of those places where you can effectively use repetition to drive the point of the song home.  Let me repeat:  the chorus is one of those places where you can…you get my drift 🙂

4.  But The Chorus Doesn’t Have To Repeat Itself!

If you’ve never heard of it, get to know the term “progressive chorus”.  For the most part, a progressive chorus is one that reflects the verse before it…for instance if you are going from past to present to future in your verse lyrics, the chorus might also reflect this tense change with different wording:  “was”, to “is”, to “will be”.  And sometimes to carry a song lyric along, the chorus needs to “update”, if you will, according to whatever is happening in your lyric.  This can be a very effective tool in writing a great song lyric.

5.  Sometimes There Is No Chorus

Not every song requires a chorus.  In fact, a lot of song have simply what is considered a “refrain”;  a line or a phrase that gets repeated at the end of each verse.  A good example of that is “The Times They Are A Changin'” – an old Bob Dylan song.  And guess what?  The refrain is the title of the song!  That’s because it is repeated, and because it is the whole point of the song, so it does the job of a chorus without actually being one.  If you’re more of a folk songwriter, you already know this.  Folk is one of the oldest song forms, with only verses:  A, A, A, A.

And those are my five “secrets”.  Not secrets at all, of course, but they might make you think more about how to construct a chorus in future.

A little background when it comes to choruses for those of you young punks :-).  Up until only a few years ago, songs were discovered mainly on the radio.  In some cases the DJ would either introduce the song and/or artist before or after it was played.   But sometimes you would catch a song in the middle and not hear the introduction, or songs played back-to-back so they weren’t identified.  If you really liked a song, it became particularly frustrating if you didn’t know its name or the artist’s name.  Songwriters paid a lot of attention to this, which is why popular songs often had a lot of repetition especially in the chorus, or at the very least, something very memorable that could be identified by listeners when they were going to a record shop to try and find a song, like a powerful melodic hook.

The digital era has made it a lot easier to identify songs as you’re hearing them, but the old idea of a hook and a powerful chorus is still relevant.  If your plan is to pitch your songs, or at the very least, write memorable ones, then spend a lot of time working on the chorus, if there is one.

One last point:  you probably already know that the dictionary also defines a chorus as a “group” of singers.  So why not think of your song chorus in terms of what it sounds like when a group is singing together, and the verses as the soloists?  Just another way to think of it 🙂

IJ

Stupid

No, it’s not a title for an article, it’s just the title of one of the songs on my CD Shades of Grey:

Happy 2013! Tips From Others

I was flipping through my most recent copy of SOCAN’s Words and Music and found some interesting songwriting tips from Matt Mays, a Canadian songwriter who finds himself on the road quite a bit.  Check out his website.

Here is his list of tips:

1. “One thing that has really helped me is to be moving – whether it’s on a train, boat, or car, or even walking around my apartment while I’m writing, instead of sitting in one spot.”

2. “Try writing lyrics on newspaper.  It rather distracts you because there are other words underneath.  That means yours don’t seem so final.  The words underneath may spark something else too.”

3. “Always change the key up.  Learn the song in other keys, and that helps keep you from getting bored.”

4. “Change instruments.  I’ll go to a ukulele, or piano, or try open tuning.”

5. “There is one tip from John Lennon:  never leave a song until it’s done.  You may never get that spark, that excitement, back.  If you get an idea, finish the song, even if you have to miss your best friend’s funeral.  Finishing that song is more important than anything else.”

Some excellent tips here…some of which I’ve encouraged myself, but some new ideas too.  The newspaper idea is a good one, I’ll have to try that some day!

On a more personal note, I have come back to my old way of writing;  on paper and without any technology (i.e. a computer) around.  This was my “old” way of writing and it seems to be working again.  Also, I’ve moved around the house to write in different places;  not quite the idea of being on a moving train or boat as Matt suggests above.  But changes places seems to have helped me too!

Best wishes to all of my blog followers for the New Year!

IJ

Lyrics Are Important As Cold Ice Cream

It's the picture of Italian ice-cream in a sho...

I was in the car on the way home today when I heard a singer/songwriter on the radio sing these lyrics:

I like ice cream when it’s cold
I like old time radio
It’s funny but it’s true
These things I do

The last two lines I’m not exactly sure of the wording, I was trying to remember them because they got me to thinking about writing lyrics and how we need to pay attention to detail.

I’ve been working on music all summer, but not lyrics. I spent the late spring and early summer working on theme music and tracks for one TV series, and all of August on music for another series. I consider myself lucky to have the opportunity to have my music on television, even if in a small way, and even if it doesn’t amount to much of anything money-wise. The biggest bonus for me was that it got me into writing again. Well, I shouldn’t come to any conclusions, I’ve only started on one song, but hey, for somebody who has had nothing but a dry well to draw water from the last three or four years, it’s something!

And that’s why the above lines struck me today. You should read them again before I go on and see if you can spot the inconsistencies.
Continue reading “Lyrics Are Important As Cold Ice Cream”