by Robin Frederick Check out Robin’s books on Amazon.com.
Some songwriters spend a lot of time waiting. Waiting for inspiration. Waiting for an idea. But why waste time when you could be writing right now? Or any time you want to?
One of the things songwriters wait for is a big idea that will launch them into a new song, something that is emotionally interesting, something they want to write about. Sometimes life hands it to you, When that happens, say “thank you” and go write your song. But life doesn’t always cooperate, so a writer can end up in a long dry spell.
You don’t need to wait around hoping an idea will magically appear. You can use a trick that professional songwriters use and keep your creativity in gear all the time.
A theme is the central idea of a song
Think of your theme as the bones of your song, the central core that holds the song together. There are some song themes that have proven appeal. They explore what it means to be human, to deal with emotions and situations that occur in all of our lives. There are endless ways to approach these themes which is what makes every song unique. Here’s a brief list:
- Love: Falling in love, falling out of love, breaking up, getting back together, searching for love, celebrations of love.
- Life and Self: Finding oneself, facing challenges, growing up, reaching for dreams, spiritual experiences, seeking fulfillment, goals & achievements.
- Family & Friends: Family relationships, best friends, conflicts, forgiveness, milestones.
Look for themes all around you
You can (and should) write songs from personal experience, expressing the feelings and ideas that are important to you. But it’s sometimes good to take a break and practice writing from the “outside.” Getting a little distance on your theme can help you learn to connect with listeners who know nothing about what happened. What details do you need to give them so they’ll understand what happened, get involved with the characters, and feel the emotion?
Film & TV: You might have noticed that songs use many of the same themes that drive other types of entertainment, especially movies and TV shows. While hit songs tend to focus on relationships and emotions rather than car chases and shoot-outs, they share many of the same dramatic elements: Who is involved? What will happen next? How does the main character feel about it?
You can use popular movies and TV shows to lead you to themes that pack a big emotional punch both for you and your listeners. Keep a notebook handy whenever you’re watching a TV show or movie. Look for romantic or emotional scenes. Try to find two or three sentences that sums up the relationship between the characters. Write down a few lines of dialogue. Add some ideas of your own. Which character do you identify with? What is he or she thinking and feeling. Chances are you’ll come up with the start of a good song that will appeal to a lot of listeners.
News shows and documentaries: These real life dramas can be inspiring, scary, joyful, or dark. Choose a news story or real life drama that moves you, something you want to write about. Then look for the central idea. What is the emotion behind the story? What drove the person to do what they did?
For a wonderful example of this type of theme, listen to the Country hit “I Drive Your Truck” recorded by Lee Brice. Read the lyrics here. The story is based on an interview on a news show with the father of a soldier killed in Iraq. Notice the physical details that the writers imagined, and how they changed the singer from a father to a brother.
It’s important for you to put yourself emotionally into these situations, just as these writers did, imagining what it feels like and how it looks. Be on the lookout for situations that draw your emotional attention.
Keep your themes universal
By looking outside yourself for themes to write about, you can overcome the tendency we all have to write about ourselves from a very individual, self-oriented point of view. We assume that other people know us and care about our lives. But, truthfully, if you want to be a successful songwriter, most of your listeners will be complete strangers. They want to hear something they can relate to, feel, and identify with. That’s the great power of a popular songs.
There’s nothing wrong with writing songs that are very personal. They’re important because they express something you want to say. But when you want to reach out to a wider audience, consider choosing a theme and expressing it in a way that many people can relate to.
Songwriting techniques to try
Choose an emotional scene in a TV show, film, or news program and try to sum up the theme in a few sentences. Choose one of the characters and imagine yourself in their shoes. What is that person feeling? What happened? How are they dealing with it? Try writing a song that communicates a similar idea or emotional message.