Coming Up with Concepts for Songs
Songwriting can be a rewarding experience, but there’s more to it than just writing down song lyrics as they pop into your head. Before you set your pen to paper to write the words to your song, it’s good to have a concept that points the way to your final destination — a finished song. If you can write out one sentence that explains what your song is about (this sentence is called a thesis), you’re on the right track to the kind of clarity and focus needed in a good song. Refer back to your thesis sentence often to make sure the words you’re coming up with still support your initial concept. If your words start taking you in a different direction, it could be a sign you need to change your thesis. You may have two separate songs to write.
Make sure each song that you write has one cohesive idea that flows through the song and that all of the lines support that idea. If there is more than one concept fighting for life, no one concept will win.
Here are just a few of the subjects that have provided concepts for songwriters since the day the very first song was written — the headings are general, but the emotions you harness and the situations you create around these subjects is what will set your song apart from the others:
- Love: The most universal of all feelings is surely the gold standard when it comes to subject matter for your song. Refer to “Love Is the Answer” (written by Todd Rundgren, John Wilcox, and Roger Powell; performed by Utopia), “Love Me Two Times” (written and performed by The Doors), “Love Is a Battlefield” (written by Mike Chapman and Holly Knight; sung by Pat Benetar), and “I’m Not in Love” (written by Graham Gouldman and Eric Stewart; performed by 10 cc). Take a week off from work and make a list of the couple of thousand more you can think of on your own!
- Friendship: As a subgenre of love, the bonds of friendship can bring out some of the strongest, sweetest emotions known to man. Refer to “You’ve Got a Friend” (written and sung by Carole King), “He Was a Friend of Mine” (written by Roger McGuinn; performed by The Byrds), “Friends” (written by Mark Klingman and William Charles Linhart; sung by Bette Midler), and “Can We Still Be Friends” (written and sung by Todd Rundgren).
- Family: The family unit and its members has been the springboard for countless great songs. It’s easy to see why. Your family most likely supplied you with some of your first memories. The nature of those memories will probably determine whether your song will be filled with joy, sorrow, regret, love, hurt, admiration, disdain, the desire to distance yourself from them, or your commitment to get closer. Refer to “Mother” (written and sung by John Lennon), “Ghost Story” (written and sung by Sting), and “Butterfly Kisses” (written by Bob Carlisle and Randy Thomas; sung by Bob Carlisle).
- Conflict: Songs of war, strife, struggle, and broken hearts have helped countless generations deal with and heal the wounds of conflict. Verbalizing the feelings common to the heart of mankind is one the songwriter’s most sacred privileges and responsibilities. Refer to “War” (written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong; sung by Edwin Starr), “Building the Bridge” (written by Kevin Cronin; performed by REO Speedwagon), “Separate Ways” (written by Steve Perry and Jonathan Cain; performed by Journey), “Lost Horizon” (written and performed by Burt Bacharach and Hal David), and “We Just Disagree” (written by Jim Krueger; sung by Dave Mason).
- Winning: The winning spirit has long provided inspiration to countless songwriters. Refer to “Eye of the Tiger” (written by Jim Peterik and Frankie Sullivan; performed by Survivor), “While You See a Chance” (written by Steve Winwood and Will Jennings; sung by Steve Winwood), and “We Are the Champions” (written by Freddie Mercury; performed by Queen).
- Loss: When the pain and sometimes devastation of loss and the deep disappointment of losing can be put into a great song, you have a very effective delivery system for an all-natural cure. Your song will become as popular as the number of people who can see themselves in your song and the ones that can draw healing from the sentiments you’ve expressed. Refer to “The Day America Cried” (written and performed by Johnny Van Zant and Jim Peterik), “I’m Losing You” (written by Cornelius Grant, Eddie Holland, and Norman Whitfield; performed by The Temptations), and “The End of the Innocence” (written by Don Henley and Bruce Hornsby; sung by Don Henley).
- Music and song: Because of every songwriter’s inherent love for what he does, writing about the object of his affection has been very popular since time immemorial. Refer to “I Write the Songs” (written by Bruce Johnston; sung by Barry Manilow), “Let There Be Music” (written by John Hall and Larry Hoppen; performed by Orleans), “I’ve a Strange New Rhythm in My Heart” (written and sung by Cole Porter), and “Piano in the Dark” (written by Brenda Russell, Scott Cutler, and Jeffrey Hall; sung by Brenda Russell).
- Geography and travel: All of the world’s natural wonders are always good stepping off points for a songwriter. Trekking, hiking, biking, flying, and driving can supply you with endless reasons to write. Refer to “Route 66” (written and sung by Bobby Troup), “Rocky Mountain High” (written by John Denver and Michael Taylor; sung by John Denver), “Rocky Mountain Way” (written by Joe Walsh, Joey Vitale, Ken Passarelli, and Rocke Grace; sung by Joe Walsh), and “Wichita Lineman” (written by Jimmy Webb; sung by Glen Campbell).
- Protest: To register their feelings of disagreement with something; some people picket; some cause destruction; and some participate in parades, bed-ins, be-ins, marches, demonstrations, and strikes. We as songwriters usually grab a pen, run to a piano, and attempt to express our frustration through song. Refer to “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” (written and sung by Pete Seeger), “Blowin’ in the Wind” (written and sung by Bob Dylan), “Change the World” (written by Gordon Kennedy, Tommy Simms, and Wayne Kirkpatrick; sung by Eric Clapton), and “What’s Going On” (written by Marvin Gaye, Al Cleveland, and Renaldo Benson; sung by Marvin Gaye).
- The future, the past, and the present: Some songs look back upon a bygone day or even just yesterday. Some look hopefully, pessimistically, or presciently into the future and some are rooted in the good old here and now. Whatever your vantage point, a lot of material can be stitched together from the fabric of time. Refer to “Time in a Bottle” (written and sung by Jim Croce), “Night Moves” (written and sung by Bob Seger), “Yesterday” (written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney; performed by The Beatles), “Right Now” (written and performed by Van Halen), “When My Ship Comes In” (written by Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson; performed by George Hall Orchestra with Allen Church vocal), and “Space Oddity” (written and sung by David Bowie).
- States of mind: This ever-popular subject, which ranges from sanity to insanity, elation to depression, and all stops in between has always provided some good therapy for writer and audience alike. Refer to “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” (written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin; sung by Elton John), “Soak Up the Sun” (written by Sheryl Crow and Jeff Trott; sung by Sheryl Crow), “Crazy” (written by Willie Nelson; sung by Patsy Cline), and “Walking On Sunshine” (written by Kimberley Rew; performed by Katrina and the Waves).
We have, of course, only touched the surface of the subjects that may inspire you to create a song. Anything in life is fair game to write about. It’s up to you to find unique and compelling ways of presenting these ideas and concepts through your words and music. Finding the subjects you’re most passionate about, the ones that “strike a chord” in you will make it easier to write a song you’re satisfied with and that’ll connect with others.
Musical friends, I'm a competent writer of all forms of prose, dialouge, screenplays, and so on. But I have a secret desire ... I've always wanted to be able to write songs, that is to say song lyrics - catchy pop songs! :)
Now for example, people sometimes ask, are there any good books or advice on writing screenplays. In fact yes, there are a couple of well-known books along the lines "how to write a screenplay!", or how to write a novel, and indeed some of these are quite good and offer excellent insights. Sure, you can't read one of those and suddenly make millions in Bollywood, but they exist, they have useful ideas.
I'm basically wondering if there are any famous or otherwise books, essays, writers on the topic of "how the hell to write song lyrics"? What do you think?
I appreciate that most people on this site are genuinely musical - for you songwriting means writing a whole song, the lyrics and the music, and you can sing. I can play a couple instruments somewhat competently (which as you know is nothing, I'm not musical - I work with real musicians all the time and its a whole other thing!), and I can't sing a note. So I'm asking more about essentially writing lyrics as such.
(It's quite depressing for someone like me that, let's say, Bernie Taupin, who is "not a singer", but is a famous amazing lyricist .. is indeed quite a competent singer! Maybe, it's basically impossible to "make up lyrics" unless you basically sing; I don't know - maybe there are simply no examples of lyricists, who, were really non-singers?)
I've really thought about pop song lyrics deeply for a long, long time. I've got to the point of realising it's all about time (not rhyme or other issues) and simplicity as an art, extreme simplicity. But, uh, that's all I worked out :) so musical friends, fill me in, are there any magic books on this topic that have come to us through the years? Cheers
NB, I later found on the site this fantastic reference to https://music.stackexchange.com/a/22213/20814 some comments by Sondheim. Good one.