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 SongsAs 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 SongsThis 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.
EmotionsUnfortunately, 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 FunWhen 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.
PoetryThere 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.