How Do I Choose a Topic for a Song? Part 1:
DIY Tips and Tricks for Starting a Song When You Don’t Feel Inspired
Inspiration doesn’t always strike like lightning. Sometimes it patters out like a spotty drizzle on a late spring afternoon. In those situations, you may need an extra jolt of inspiration to bring your creativity back from the dead. To that end, I’d like to share with you a comprehensive guide on all the ways you can (A) pick a topic for your music and (B) generate song ideas around that topic.
These approaches have been compiled from both my own experience and from researching what actually well-known artists do to kick-start their songwriting sessions. They include tips for intentional topic ideation and actions you can perform that may inadvertently give you a shot of lyrical adrenaline.
This is Part 1 in a 4-part series about choosing song topics; in this first article, we will discuss:
- Three techniques for picking a topic when you aren’t feeling inspired by anything in particular
- A brief look at the most common themes for songs you can use as a starting point
The Full Series of Articles includes:
- Part 1: DIY Tips and Tricks for Starting a Song When You Don’t Feel Inspired
- Part 2: Using Art to Inspire Your Lyrics
- Part 3: Cheats and Tricks for Generating Song Ideas
- Part 4: Pulling Pop Topics from the Billboard Charts
How Do I Choose A Topic for a Song?
Having a core theme to your song will help you to form a coherent message. Lyrics that lack a central topic may wander and end up as a word salad; verses that sound tangential to the chorus may cause the song to feel disconnected between sections.
So how do we pick a topic or theme to write about when we are feeling uninspired? Three of the most common approaches for lyric ideation are:
- Borrow topics from popular songs and other artists
- Write what you know (journal your thoughts/experiences but in verse rather than prose)
- Use a writing prompt
Technique #1 – Borrow Topics from Popular Songs
If you cannot think of a theme for your songwriting session, a great way to start is by seeing what other musicians are writing about. You could do this in one of the following ways:
- Pick a song that you like and copy it’s theme and tone, or
- Survey what songs are popular right now and copy their theme
Copy a Favorite Song. I’ve used this technique for both generating lyric themes and for emulating melody lines in different genres/styles (but we’ll talk more about melody composition at another time). Just choose a song you really like and pull up the lyrics so you can read them;. Try to decipher what the overall theme is, and maybe make a mental note of any overarching metaphors they use to illustrate the theme figuratively. Near the top of your notebook (or whatever you’re writing songs in) jot down the core theme so, if you lose focus at any point during your free-write, you can refer back to what the song is supposed to be about.
Copy some Hit Songs. If you rather get a survey of several popular songs, a good place to look is at the Billboard charts. These are weekly rankings of what songs are getting the most streams and downloads. Billboard has a primary list of the currently-popular songs regardless of genre—it’s called the “Hot 100” chart—but there are also lists filtered by genre. Either approach will work; if you only want to see what fans in your particular genre are into right now, here are some quick links to the separate lists:
A Pop Topic Analysis Cheat Sheet
Of course, evaluating the themes of charting songs could take a while and some may find the task needlessly tedious. For that reason, I have already compiled a master list of hit songs and analyzed the most popular topics…so you don’t have too!
If you want to reference my Pop Topic Analysis, skip ahead to Part 4 in this series.
Technique #2 – Write What You Know
Another approach to picking song topics is to let your own life inform your art. That is, just write about what you know. You can approach this from several angles:
- Journal about what you’re feeling today, but write it in verse rather than prose
- Recall an experience you’ve been through and express it like a poem
- Choose something you are currently passionate about (a person, an object, an activity, anything) and express how you feel about it in verse format. For example, if you really love going on road trips: write a road song!
Regardless of the personal theme you choose, remember to add some notes explaining what it is at the top of your songwriting page. It will help to keep your writing focused. And, if you’re like me and forget what you were even talking about too easily, it can act as a memory aid should you want to revisit and rewrite verses later.
Technique #3 – Writing Prompts
The final approach for picking topics is to use a writing prompt. Prompts are pre-written scenarios or topics often employed by beginners as a method of building confidence and developing a consistent writing habit. The goal is to force a writer to just write, without worrying about rhetoric or grammar. To try this technique you would:
- Pick a prompt (you can find lists of these online by starting with a Google search)
- Set a timer (any amount of time you want, but if you want specifics try the Pomodoro Method)
- Continuously write anything about the topic until the timer goes off.
The stream of consciousness that comes out onto the page may not be viable in that unfiltered format, but afterwards you can glean specific phrases, thoughts, or metaphors from the stream and use them as a basis for a structured lyrical rewrite.
Common Themes for Songs
Now that we’ve explored way to select a topic, let’s look a little closer at what topics yield the best results for songwriters—that is, what themes are most popular. Clearly, some subject matter is more fashionable than others; it’s unlikely many people would want to hear a song about you’re extensive entomological collection.
The most common song topics are “evergreen”–that is, they remain popular regardless of time and resonate with a wide variety of people regardless. These are themes that practically anyone could relate to somehow, often expressing universal experiences and emotions. This is opposed to seasonal or regional topics, such as a Christmas single or a country’s national anthem.
In my Pop Topic Analysis, I surveyed and categorized hundreds of Billboard-charting songs over the span over a year to see what recurring themes showed up. From there, I extrapolated the most common subjects for songs. These evergreen topics were:
- Falling in and out of love
- Internal conflicts and self-destruction
- Getting down to business (if you know what I mean)
- Enjoying life
If you want to explore this lyrical analysis in-depth, jump ahead to Part 4 in the series.
Onto Part 2: Finding Inspiration
Now that you have the premise about song topics, please continue onto Part 2 where I explore inspiration tips for fueling your lyrics creativity.