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!



Good Things Come In Threes

There’s an expression that people often speak of when bad things happen;  bad things come in threes.  Whether that’s true or not, I suppose people tend to look for and count “bad things” when they happen in order to prove it to themselves.

I am also finding more and more evidence that when it comes to songs, good things also come in threes.  Let me explain.

I wrote in another article years ago called Self-Indulgence about repetition; how some songwriters repeat things too often, and others not enough.  At the time I didn’t come to any particular conclusion other than the fact that I often would repeat things three times and that seemed to be enough.  The elements that I referred to were things like melodic phrases, or lyrics that repeated, often in a chorus, but also in other parts of the song.

Lately I’ve been paying attention to how many times certain things are repeated in popular songs, especially melodic phrases since most of us tend to be drawn to the music first.  When I was playing a song with a young guitar student last week, Coldplay’s “Paradise”, it occurred to me that this song had that very type of repetition:

Dreamed of para- para- paradise
Para- para- paradise
Para- para- paradise
Every time she closed her eyes

The “para-para-paradise” is repeated three times in this chorus before it changes in the last line.

I recently posted in my I Like Songs blog about a song that was a recent Academy Award nominee, “Happy” by Pharrell Williams.  I think it’s a great song and should have won, but what do I know?  🙂

Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you know what happiness is to you
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do

Ah, but Irene, you’ll say, the line is repeated FOUR times.  Yes, but.  The melody isn’t quite the same in each repetition, is it?  You have to listen to the song to see what I mean if you don’t know it.

Repetition is an interesting phenomenon.  You’ll notice it with very young children, the desire to have something repeated, especially something that makes them laugh.  Human beings are wired to want to experience something that gives us pleasure over and over again.  And there’s a psychological reason for that!  It’s called “Mere-Exposure Effect”.

Wikipedia describes the effect this way: “The mere-exposure effect is a psychological phenomenon by which people tend to develop a preference for things merely because they are familiar with them. In social psychology, this effect is sometimes called the familiarity principle. The effect has been demonstrated with many kinds of things, including words, Chinese characters, paintings, pictures of faces, geometric figures, and sounds.”  The emphasis is mine.

Pop music is notoriously repetitive…the choruses in pop are meant to be memorable and originally titles (or the “hook”, if you will) were specifically placed in the chorus so you would remember the name of the song in order to either request it on the radio, or buy the record.  Yes, manipulative, right?  But people wanted to hear those songs again and again, and the mere-exposure affect partly explains why.  We like what we know.

But how much is too much?

Today I saw an article about another remix of the Academy award-winning song “Let It Go” and the article began with “You’re probably sick of ‘Let It Go’ remixes, but…”.  We’ve all had the nausea-inducing effect of hearing a song or something in a song, once too often.  Even Taylor Swift chooses the songs she’s going to include on her next album by weeding out the ones she gets tired of first.

The Perfect Three Effect, which I am now going to call it just because I can, refers to how many times in a row something can safely be repeated without tiring the listener.  This includes lyrical and/or musical phrases.  If you look at your own songs, can you find any that include this phenomenon?  Sometimes these things come out of us without much thinking, and that’s the way it should be when you’re first sitting down to write.  But when you go back to re-write a song, that’s when you have to scrutinize it for elements that have to be fixed.  Watching out for how many times you repeat something, is an important part of that process.


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 🙂


Recording Tips



Not every songwriter is meant to be a performer, a producer, or an engineer. Many of you would probably go the route of having your songs demoed in a reputable studio, and avoid the frustration of the do-it-yourselfer. Me, I’m just a masochist I guess 🙂

I started out in 1985 with a 4-track recorder, one of the first ones out there designed by Tascam. I had no idea what I was doing, so my husband took the place of engineer, while I just did the playing and singing. Not a good thing for a marriage 🙂 Eventually, I got frustrated with how “slow” he was, and I realized I was just going to have to learn to do it myself! I armed myself with knowledge AND I saved my marriage at the same time.

However, it took a lot of trail and error, mostly error, in order to understand the whole process of getting a song to sound good on tape. Even saying the word “tape” shows you how long I’ve been at it! In the beginning, I had no understanding of the very basics, so my education came from trusting my ear as to what sounded “right”, and though I do know a lot more now, I still tend to fall on that same rule in the present. I trust what sounds right to me. If you ask the question, you will get PLENTY of opinions as to how to set up your studio, which equipment to buy, blah de blah de blah. You’ll get SO MUCH that you will have no idea where to start and who to trust. This series of tips is really designed for an absolute beginner, so the rest of you audio hounds take your know-it-all somewhere else :-)!! Continue reading “Recording Tips”

Ralph Murphy’s Law

Songwriting veteran, Ralph Murphy, recently gave a few eager songwriters some writing tips at his recent talk during ASCAP’s Expo in Hollywood. Here they are:

    • The importance of writing for women: “Women physically buy 50% of all records made — and make men buy the other 50%,” joked Murphy.
    • Seeking feedback from unbiased listeners: “Your friends and family are your worst critics because they love everything you do. Forget you even have a family.”
    • The power of pronouns: “You” is a trigger word that really pulls in the audience and makes the song relatable to them.” Murphy cited Zac Brown Band’s “Keep Me In Mind,” for example. “The first line is: ‘How come all the pretty girls like you are taken baby?'” Murphy highlighted the strategic use of ‘you’ and ‘pretty.’ “It isn’t rocket science you know!”
    • Ease of singing: “All the first songs you grew up loving as a child were easy to sing.”
    • Don’t leave things unexplained: “If you start out a song with ‘Driving through Oklahoma,’ you better address why you are in Oklahoma. Don’t say you have a loaded gun in the car and then never tell the listener what you do with it.”
    • Rhyme scheme as a tool: “Don’t change your chord till you change your thought. Avoid contrived rhymes.”
    • Expectations: Establish the premise of the song early on and fulfill the listener’s expectations. Make the song believable and write for the singer. Don’t write a song about children, for example if the artist you are pitching it to doesn’t have kids. It won’t be believable when they sing it.”
    • Before heading out to do a signing of his “Murphy’s Law of Songwriting” book, Murphy bestowed his “best bets for going forward” upon the crowd, divulging the recipes that would give his students the best chance of selling a hit:
    • Pop song: 100 bpm or more featuring a woman as the artist; an 8 second intro; use the pronoun ‘you’ within 20 seconds of the start of the song; hit the bridge middle 8 between 2 minutes and 2 minutes 30 seconds; average 7 repetitions of the title; create some expectations and fill that expectation in the title.
    • Country: 100bpm or less for a male artist; 14-second intro; uses the pronoun ‘you’ within the first 20 seconds of the intro; has a bridge middle 8 between 2 minutes and 2 minutes 30 seconds; has 7 repetitions of title; creates an expectation, fulfills it in 60 seconds.

Certainly some things to think about, even if you don’t believe in “rules”!


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