In considering the many ways that songwriters start the songwriting process, working from a title is, in my opinion, one of the best. The reason comes down to one word: focus.
To tell you more about what I mean, consider one of the other common ways to get the process started: working from a chord progression. Starting with the chords has a couple of things going for it:
- It establishes a mood quickly. Chord quality (i.e., major, minor, etc.) brings a kind of feel to the music, and it’s something we can use to affect our audience right from the start.
- It helps in the developing of a rhythmic groove. Once you’ve got the chords, you can start working on the elements of music that mean a lot to listeners: tempo and rhythmic feel.
There are, however, potential downsides to starting with chords, such as a melody that lacks direction, but I believe that as long as you’re aware of those problems, it’s possible to make the chords-first process work well for you.
There is another downside to starting with the chords, which, in fact, is a potential problem for almost every other possible process: you don’t necessarily know where you’re trying to go. And you’ve likely experienced that, where your song ends up sounding rather different from your initial plan. Sometimes that’s a good thing, of course.
Starting With a Title
But starting with a title has one major advantage over most other processes, particularly if the lyric is something that you intend to be meaningful: it provides the point of focus — and in many cases the all-important pay-off line — for everything else in the lyric.
It can also establish a mood. The country hit “God, Your Mama, and Me“, (Josh Near, Hillary Lindsey, Gordie Sampson) was composed by establishing the title first, and then working back from there. Once you’ve got that all-important catchy line toward which everything moves, you’ve got a way of finding pathways in the lyric toward it.
And when you look at the lyric for the chorus, remembering that the title was written first, you get a fuller appreciation for how the process can work:
Never gonna run dry, never gonna come up empty
Now until the day I die, unconditionally
You know I’m always gonna be here for ya
No one’s ever gonna love you more than
God, your mama, and me
A Title-First Process
So give it a try: make a list of potential song titles. You may not have any idea what those titles even mean yet, but get as long a list as you can. As you add to your list, think of the following:
- What mood does each title convey, if any? Consider the fact that someone clicking to listen to the final track will see the title before they hear the song.
- What do you want to listeners to take away from the title? Is there a message implied? Does it feel like the start of chorus, or the end of it?
- What kind of tempo and rhythmic feel do you pick up from the title? Experiment with it, and see how the mood of the title changes as you try different tempos.
To work from a title, try composing lines of lyrics that lead into it. Then try experimenting with lines that might follow it. You’ll quickly get a sense of where this title belongs. As you get that kind of line pairing working, improvise melodic ideas that bring the title to life.
Once you’ve gotten to that stage, you’ll probably find that switching to your favourite process (mainly chords, mainly lyrics, mainly melody, etc.) will take things even further. But having the title established gives you a goal to work toward.
And it has the strong benefit of giving purpose to your song lyric, and helps eliminate the situation where lyrics sound a bit like aimless wandering.