What Should Songwriters Write About?

Do you want to start writing songs, but you're not sure what to write about? In this article, we will explore how to solve this problem. We will also discuss some of the more common subjects to write about.

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The question of what to write about is a classic challenge to new songwriters. It's something that can plague experienced writers as well. In this article, we're going to answer this age-old question and explore some of the most common songwriting themes.

Some of the things you want to take into consideration are the genre you're writing in and the overall mood of the song. However, the answer to this question is actually rather easy. As writers are often told, you simply write what you know. In many ways, discovering your songwriting voice is about knowing yourself. So answer these questions:

What is it that's most important to you?

What makes you feel strong emotions?

What do you spend most of your time thinking about?

What would you change about the world if you could?


There are no wrong answers to these questions. Odds are, the answers will point you in the right direction. Now let's take a moment to talk about some of the more popular subjects to write about.

Love Songs

As I'm sure you already know, this is the most popular subject there is in songwriting. It occasionally gets a bad rap these days, but there's really nothing wrong with writing a love song. Afterall, it's something virtually everyone feels at one time or another. Take a moment to think about your significant other. How do they make you feel? Why do they make you feel that way? Why are they important to you? Is there anything about them that's physically striking? Answering these questions should help you get started.

The biggest issue with writing love songs is because they're so popular, it's easy to fall into worn out clichés. Try to keep words like "love," "heart," "pain," "forever," and other such words to a minimum. Focus on what makes your relationship with this person unique. Also, avoid making your feelings too obvious. You want the audience to know what you're talking about, but you don't want to hit them over the head with it.

Although it probably goes without saying, one thing you definitely don't want to do is have your significant other's name as your song title. This is the king of all songwriting clichés. I'm sure you can already think of several examples off the top of your head.

Topical Songs

This is a classic rock 'n' roll songwriting topic, and possibly the reason you became interested in songwriting in the first place. Many people become songwriters because they feel they have something to say. The main problem with these types of songs is that it's difficult to write them without sounding preachy. No one likes to be told what to think. Obviously, compromising your beliefs is not the solution to this problem. I'm a firm believer in not pulling punches when it comes to songwriting. You're writing about something you're passionate about, so let the listener feel that passion.

The way to around this problem, as Bob Dylan once said, is to, "show people a side of themselves that they don't know is there." In other words, you need to write in such a way that the listener feels they already agree with you. People have more in common than they do differences, regardless of what their beliefs might be. You want to find the common ground between you and your audience and relate to them on that level. Although this isn't always the case, it's sometime easier to write about more general topics than specific issues.

Emotions

Unfortunately, it's necessary at this point in the article to state that it is okay to write about what you're feeling. The word "emotion" has gained a certain stigma in the past few years due to recent trends. However, songwriters from every generation and every genre have written on this topic. The blues singers wrote about it, the Beatles wrote about it, Bob Dylan, etc. Writing about what you are feeling can be a very cathartic experience. It can also be cathartic for your audience if they relate to what you're writing. The bottom line is, you're the songwriter, and you can write about whatever you want to write about.

Like the other topics, you want to employ a certain degree of subtlety. Part of the reason for the stigma around this topic is because songwriters are sometimes too heavy-handed with it. If you're not careful, you run the risk of coming across as immature. Again, the key is to relate to your audience. Remember, the more personal a problem is, the more universal it is. Anything you have felt, you will find others have felt as well.

Find what you have in common with your potential audience and explore it.

Another interesting trick is to personify what you're feeling. You can make the emotion into a character in a story. For example, anger may be a demon inside you or confusion may be voices in your head. These in themselves can become ideas for songs.

Having Fun

When it comes to rock music, this one is almost as universal as love songs. A song doesn't necessarily have to have a deep meaning behind it to be good. In fact, if you're writing lyrics to a song that's very upbeat, a song about cutting loose might be the best option.

Again, the difficulty with this topic is that you run the risk of coming across as superficial. The solution is to make it funny. Regardless of anything else, people love to laugh. Inside jokes between friends can become ideas for songs, and double entendres always work well in rock music. However, you need to make sure you're actually being funny. You may want to have another band member or an honest friend review your lyrics. If you don't know how make someone laugh, it may be best to avoid this subject altogether.

With previous topics, I recommended employing subtlety. This time, I'm going to recommend the exact opposite. Feel free to get as outrageous as you want with this one. Remember, having fun with the audience is key.

Poetry

There are a lot of common threads between writing poetry and writing song lyrics. In fact, many songwriters begin by writing poetry. The obvious difference is while the most common medium for poetry is the printed page, song lyrics have to fit an actual song. As such, you want to make sure your words flow with the music. Once you've written your words, sing along with the music to make sure the two don't clash with each other. This is something you should do regardless of what you're writing.

It's also a good idea to think about what you want your audience to take away from the song. Poetry doesn't necessarily have to have a specific meaning. However, if you want your listeners to gather a particular message from your song, you have to remember that reading poetry and listening to a song are two different activities. When reading poetry, the reader has time to think and ponder the meaning of your words. They're not able to do this while listening to a song because the song is still playing. That doesn't mean you should avoid abstraction completely. It simply means that you may want to be careful about hiding your message behind too many layers of symbolism.

Of course, this is only a small sampling of some of the more popular subjects that songwriters write about. It's always good to explore topics that are less common. Again, the key is to write what you know. If you're passionate about something, that passion will come through in your songs.

It's also worth mentioning that these are good rules of thumb, not unbreakable laws. For every piece of advice I've mentioned, you can find examples of songs that have successfully broken them. The main purpose of this article has been to help provide some creative inspiration and make you aware of some of the more common mistakes songwriters make. Have fun, and good luck in your own songwriting.

About the Author:
Jes Johnson is a songwriter, guitarist, singer, teacher, and writer. He has been writing songs for over ten years and offers a lyric writing service for those that are interested. He currently sings for the punk rock 'n' roll band the Fatalities. To learn more, visit www.thefatalities.com.

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31 comments sorted by best / new / date

    shosh-jort
    as an experienced songwriter, I believe that lyrics should be written about anything that plagues your mind, whether its a news story, an encounter you've had, or a person you love/hate. great article man
    Shadow914
    "Anything that plagues your mind." This is the ultimate definition of poetry/lyrics.
    NorthernLord
    I really like songs like The Islander (Nightwish), Count of Tuscany (DT), Hallowed be thy Name and Over the Hills and Far Away because they are songs that make you day dream of distant shores and long gone times.
    Rebel Scum
    Songwriters should write about everything and not pigeon hole themselves to writing only cliche drivel love songs, songs about how the girl doesn't love you or how your internal thoughts are so dark that no one gets you. One trip to the Songwriting forum and you'll see nothing but the above and its really depressing.
    R3ap3r_Tokyo
    I'm a songwriter and 90% of my songs are NOT about me or my feelings. I'm writing about my friends' stories and love life and it's 10000 times easier than writing about yourself, because your friends TELL you what happens, which basically means they give you the lyrics and the story and the context, and "all that you have to do" is to put it into a song form. Telling people to write about themselves can be a hindrance. There are many songs about other things than the singer's feelings. My advice, though, would be to always write as if it was your story until you get comfortable with writing lyrics. Then you can write about other people without being part of the story and do stuff like that :
    tcrono
    I don't think it matters what you're writing about. If it reads well it may also so sing well. However not everything that sounds great in a song is nice to read.
    jfsjr67
    Death and Sex are the 2 best topics. Like Jim Morrison and The Doors
    damillion
    I tend to find it easier to convey what I want to say through the medium of stories. It also makes for a great dynamic. For instance I wrote a song about a character I borrowed from the Shannara universe by Terry Brooks - Uhl Belk the Stone King. If you want to read it as criticism of conservatism you can do that. If you want to read it as a bad ass story about a paranoid king who rules over a dominion of stone you can do that. I think it's my way of writing without sounding too preachy. As far as language is concerned there's a world of great litterature to draw from, but strictly looking at lyrics I'd recommend having a look through Savatages back catalogue and taking a detour around TSOs "Beethovens Last Night" . Paul O'Niell is a master.
    milesak
    I tend to write all the music first. And usually while I'm playing a rhythm, some words will pop into my head as to what fits the rhythm. It'll usually be something to do with how I'm feeling or something that's going on at the time. I'll write down these couple of lines and think to myself what it is it could be about. And then write the rest based on that! I think if it's "meant to be", it'll just come to you. (Obviously if those lines I come up with are jibberish or don't fit the mood I'll just discard them. XD
    babysmasher
    I've tried writing lyrics first and music first.. But my best songs have come from a similar method.. Usually I will start with a guitar progression and play it while I experiment with lyrics that can either act as a chorus or a hook and then try to decide what the song should be about from there.. To me it feels like both the lyrics and music are written simultaneously this way and I find I end up with a more cohesive song that way... I see where the song takes me as I write lyrics and most the time the story of the song ends up far different from what I imagined at the start, but it works for me
    Funnyname99
    They should write about their feelings.. Their deep painful, mournful feelings... About that girl... You know... The one... Then they should write more, and add a song about how the world doesn't understand them.. Then brand it as Rock music and be the next Linkin Park.
    elliehowells45
    [deleted]
    elliehowells45 · Dec 11, 2015 09:18 AM
    JimBonJovi
    [deleted]
    JimBonJovi · Dec 11, 2015 09:44 AM
    vikingman369
    why not an article about writing melodies? now THAT would be a worth-while article
    R3ap3r_Tokyo
    Writing melodies should be something you hear in your head. Nobody can teach you that. Listen to the music you like and ask yourself "why ?" and "how ?". Check the chords and the melody and see what matches and what doesn't and ask you why and how. That's the most efficient way to "learn" it if you don't already have melodies in your head. No bullshit about chords and scales can teach you how to build a melody. With the same chords and scale every musician may come up with a different melody, because melody is the expression of one's taste. You have to develop that.
    vikingman369
    subject matter has never been an issue. whether it's vikings, history, women, nature, politics, life, fantasy, what have you. but when you're circumstantially a one-man band, coming up with melodies that can be sung while playing is difficult (especially when you aim high for song lyrics that flow more naturally, like Rush).
    R3ap3r_Tokyo
    One thing I use, is that first there is a story and then I get inspired by a music GENRE. I never try to cram lyrics into a music just because I already have some unused riff. Once you have the genre you want to write in, you get a general music in your head, right ? Kind of chords and rhythm. And then you can have the lyrics fit into the rhythm. once you have that structure, listen to the music in your head and get a melody that gets well with the flow (= rhythm and lyrics you already have). Usually, you have to finetune the lyrics at that point so they can fit your vocal flow. If you're at that point, the melody usually follows. Some times you even get several melodic options and you have to chose, you can have one for the first verse, another one for the second verse, etc. My point is : it's a bit pointless to have melody without content, so first you get a genre, then rhythm and lyrics, and then melody. Man, I wish we could meet IRL and work on your stuff... (^o^)
    benthegrunge
    Just keep the melody going and record it for a start. We'll add lyrics if it gets through the filter
    cgnomusicnolife
    I would personally just think about who I'm taking influences from. What do they sing about? Why do I like it? And other things such as repetition, is it necessary? When is it necessary? When is it too much? And I think most importantly, the people I get influenced by, are they REALLY good writers? Or are they very generic? Why? I think that if you put enough thought and emotion and have your meaning in your head while you're doing something, it'll come out good. And unless you're really unsure about something and you genuinely don't like it.. keep it! It's a capture of your mind from that very moment, whether you release it as a song, or just keep it in your notepad, keep it.
    jhensman73
    I personally find writing the words to a song the hardest part of the whole songwriting process, and coming up with a vocal melody is almost impossible for me, but put my guitar in my hands and I'll make that sing
    russellfvckingcrowe
    Sooooo.... sing what your guitar would play. Paul Gilbert teaches how to steal guitar licks from vocal melodies,i reckon' it works vice versa
    taylorsophia468
    [deleted]
    taylorsophia468 · Jan 04, 2016 10:10 AM