I think we all know the cliché of the song writer sitting at a piano stool staring at her manuscript book, the empty pages staring back at her. Eventually she starts bashing her head against the keys, wailing and generally taking herself extremely seriously because she finds it impossible to come up with anything that can start her song. Thankfully, we’re going to avoid this situation by using a simple technique that is very popular with professional writers.
Start with the title
This can be almost anything; it can be the title of another pre-existing song ‘My Girl’, ‘Another Day’, it can be the way you are feeling at that exact point ‘Happy to be Here’, ‘Frustrated with You’, it can be a newspaper headline; ‘Jordan and Andre Forever’, ‘Never Had It So Good’; it can be a phrase you overheard someone say on the bus or train; ‘Whatcha gonna do?’, ‘Who does she think she is?’; maybe someone’s name; ‘Michelle’, ‘Daniel’.
Sometimes it can be a good idea to use a current ‘buzz word’ in your title. When Catatonia released their song ‘Road Rage’ in 1996, the phrase was new and fresh, sounding trendy and current. They had tried the same trick the year before to great success by calling their first hit single ‘Mulder and Scully’ after the lead characters in the then-popular science fiction series ‘The X Files’. ‘Road Rage’ was the band’s biggest hit.
One good place to find these ‘buzz words’ can be in lifestyle magazines such as GQ, Cosmopolitan and the like. You can often get great song titles from the captions used under photos and headings over articles. Here’s some examples I found in the magazine Marie Claire:
- “Could You Go Without?”
- “In the Closet”
- “Get the Look”
- “Larger Than Life”
- “Be My Light”
- “Bright Young Thing”
- “Feeling Guilty”
We’re not breaching anyone’s copyright by copying titles. If we were copying whole lines from articles to use as our lyric then we could be in trouble, but titles are safe. Having said that, you can avoid a whole load of problems by avoiding titles like ‘Harry Potter’, ‘Lord of the Rings’ or ‘Coke is it’! As an exercise take a couple of minutes to find some buzzwords and phrases in magazines you might have lying around. If you can’t find any, write a couple yourselves!
There’s plenty of other ways of finding a good title, and plenty of ways of making it ‘hooky’ or ‘memorable’. Here’s one well-tried idea, popular in the 1960s and to the present day:
Adjust a well-know phrase
- I Second That Emotion – Smokey Robinson & the Miracles
- Stop in the Name of Love – Diana Ross & The Supremes
- Love in the First Degree – Bananarama
- The Closest Thing to Crazy – Katie Melua
- Unfinished Sympathy – Massive Attack
These titles are ‘hooky’ as the audience is already aware of the original phrases, the small changes appear almost like gentle jokes or puns and are memorable because the slight change in the phrase comes as a surprise.
Use a popular phrase
Of course, a variation on this would be to use a popular phrase and just leave it at that:
- You and Whose Army? – Radiohead
- Prince Charming – Adam and the Ants
- I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind of Thing – Pet Shop Boys
- Take Me Home – Sophie Ellis Bextor
- Livin’ on a Prayer – Bon Jovi
- Wish You Were Here – Pink Floyd
Here’s another way of making a memorable title; unusual combinations of words. This is called juxtaposition.
- United States of Whatever – Liam Lynch
- Thug Love – 50 Cent
- What time is Love? – KLF
- Darts of Pleasure – Sophie Ellis Bextor
- Novocain for the Soul – Eels
So far so good, but don’t labour for too long over your song title as you can always change it later. The reason why we use this technique is that it gets us off the blocks and gives us a focus for everything else that we need for our song; we can use the title to help inspire the lyric, and we can also use it to mold the first notes of our melody to build a motif.
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Editor’s Note: This is an old article and things have moved on considerably since the original publication date 🙂
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This post is included in Tips & Tricks