One of the hardest questions we writers can ask each time we sit down to write a song is, “what should I write about?” It seems almost ridiculous, with there being so many experiences, events, ideas, beliefs, values, hopes, discouragements, struggles, etc. to write about. After all, no-one is more equipped to write about our own experiences than us, and no-one else can give the song the personal perspective we can.
I think the real question lying behind the question ‘How do I come up with themes to write a song?’ is ‘How do I narrow down my ideas to write one, singular and strong theme?’
When I’m staring at an empty page and coming up blank, it is not usually a lack of ideas that prevents me from putting pen to paper. It’s that I am grazing the surface of so many choices that no one choice seems worthy enough to follow. To combat this problem, there are a few things we can do.
First, we can start a daily journal using Object Writing and Destination Writing. With this kind of writing, we’re coming in through the back door of an idea. We’re letting our journaling lead our creative minds to ideas that are worthy of songs, instead of starting with the idea and trying to conjure up angles that make that idea really shine. By choosing an object at random as we do with Object Writing, the pressure is off to start with anything remarkable. The same is true for Destination Writing, where we start with a person or a place as our topic. Then, we just write for a few minutes using sensory language, letting the ideas flow where they will. For more detail on Object Writing and Destination Writing, see Writing Better Lyrics and Popular Lyric Writing: 10 Steps to Effective Storytelling. These types of journaling are the currents running through the two songwriting courses, Lyric Writing: Tools and Strategies and Commercial Songwriting Techniques.
Other ways we can hone in on a song theme is by starting with a title. Instead of choosing such a broad theme like ‘love’, or ‘letting go’ or ‘schooldays’, we can make a quick list of words associated with a broad theme and let it take us to title phrases. For instance, with ‘schooldays’ I might list the first nouns, verbs, and adjectives that come to mind:
Tardy bell bus note from the doctor homeroom homework empty locker gossip bag lunch milk money ring teenager golden days naive having fun football games
As I’m making this list, experiences I had come to mind. I remember what it was like to walk into a classroom of faces I don’t know. I remember eating the same bag lunch 5 days a week, sitting with a group of friends, counting down the 30 minute break like waiting for execution. I remember some things vividly, and they all paint a picture of how I perceived that time in my life. Now, if I step back and sum up how I think and feel about that experience in just one statement, it might be:
Though my schooldays were doused with excitement and spiked with horror, I will always keep them close to my heart, as the time I was learning to be me.
Looking back over that list of words and my simple statement here, there are more specific song directions emerging. If this tune were uptempo, it might be a light and fond look at those schooldays now that I’m an adult. If it’s a slow, melancholy tempo, it might be a look at how I’ve changed since those days, learned hard lessons from those days, or perhaps need to recapture something I’ve lost since those days. As a country tune for a male vocalist, maybe the idea is about my rebellion during that time of my life and the feeling I could carry on like that forever. As a female country vocal, perhaps the tune is a bittersweet remembrance of a coming of age.
Setting the theme in context of a specific genre can help to narrow the idea. With this process, we’re going with what our gut knows is typical of that genre, and what fans of that genre are accustomed to. Of course, we can certainly push the limits of a genre, providing we’re still relevant to the fans who listen.
As I hoped to clearly express in my book, Popular Lyric Writing: 10 Steps to Effective Storytelling, what makes our songs unique is our perspective. In songs in which the lyric takes a major role, ‘what’ we write about isn’t nearly as important as ‘how’ we write it. We can all write a love song, but what makes that love song believable and heartfelt are the details each of us brings based on our personal perspectives. So write your next song boldly, and infuse it with experiences that matter to you. And when you don’t know what to write about, ask yourself if you’re getting specific enough. Choose a major theme, and think of a time in your life when that theme became real for you.