Tech Tip:Writing Lyrics, Song Titles.
by John Braheny
A strong title can go a long way toward ensuring that industry people and the general public will remember your song. Of course, you don't have to have a great title to have a hit song. Look at any list of Top 10 songs and you'll see titles that are dull and ordinary, as well as titles that are imaginative and intriguing. Some very intriguing titles have failed to live up to their promise in the body of the song musically or lyrically.
For the most part, if you're searching (as you should be) for a way to say something in a fresh and unusual way, you're likely to arrive at an imaginative title in the process. Concept and title are so wedded that, particularly in Country music, many writers don't even begin to write a song until they have a great title/concept. It's a very common and practical way to start. Sometimes, if you have the right title, the song practically writes itself.
Pretend you're a publisher, producer or artist with two demos in front of you, one called "I Love You" and another called "Silent Partners." Which one do you think you'd be most interested in hearing? You've already heard "I Love You" twenty times this month. You've never heard "Silent Partners," but it's an interesting concept that makes you start guessing right away what the song's about. If it's interesting to you, it might also interest a radio program director.
If you can come up with a short title phrase that embodies a concept, it's easier to focus your lyric from the beginning. Here are some hit titles that are intriguing in themselves: "She Talks to Angels," "Tears in Heaven," "Cleopatra's Cat," "Standing Outside the Fire," "Kryptonite." "Girls Lie Too" "Live Like You Were Dying" "Talk Shows On Mute" Some titles stick in the mind because of unusual word combinations: "Mandolin Rain" and "Silent Lucidity."
Not only is the concept of the title important, but you'll increase its memorability if it sounds "catchy." A "catchy" title has a combination of a pleasing meter and some poetic device like alliteration (a repetition of consonants): "We Can Work It Out," " I Need to Know" or assonance (repetition of vowel sounds): "Achy Breaky Heart," "Boot Scootin' Boogie," Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely" (both) or rhyme: "Okie from Muskogee."
Common phrases from everyday language also become more memorable in songs: "It's Always Somethin," "Knock on Wood," "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," "She's All That" "Tougher Than Nails." Twists of common phrases also work: "Stop! In the Name of Love," "You Ain't Hurt Nothin Yet."
Aside from the benefits derived from a phrase that's catchy, clever, and conceptual, in most successful songs the real magic of the title comes from the way it fits with the music and is supported by the rest of the lyric. That combination can make an otherwise mundane title seem profound. City and state name titles are a good case in point. Randy Newman's "I Love L.A.," Billy Joel's "New York State Of Mind" could make someone feel nostalgic whether they'd been there or not. Hoagy Carmichael and Stewart Gorrell's classic "Georgia on My Mind" does the same.
Sometimes a musical figure or the emotional intensity of the music itself suggests a title. This is a spontaneous process that resembles a sort of musical Rorschach test: "What does this chord, riff, or melody make you think of?" It's a process in which you shut down that very practiced intellectual approach and gets very close to your emotional core. A good groove can be hypnotic, put you in a mood, and trigger ideas and phrases that you might never come up with while you're staring at a piece of paper.
MORE COMMERCIAL CONSIDERATIONS
Place that good title in the strategic first or last line of your chorus (or verse, depending on the form), ensuring that it will be repeated several times during the song. You can then practically guarantee it will be remembered. If it's easy to remember, a potential record buyer knows what to ask for online, at the record store or on the radio request line. This is an important commercial consideration. Many potential hits may have been lost for lack of an obvious title in the right place.
Another commercial reason to craft a unique title is that, occasionally, a common one like "I Love You" gets mixed up with another song called "I Love You" and someone else gets your royalties through computer or human error. That's a fate neither you nor the other writer deserves.
Set a timer for 3 minutes. Write 10 titles without thinking too much about it or being judgmental.. Just write down whatever short phrases come into your head. The time crunch tends to make your inner critic get out of the way. Do this at least once day for a month. After that you'll find you've trained your brain (Hey, how about "Train Your Brain"?) to look for titles everywhere.
About the Author:
This excerpt from John Braheny's book, The Craft and Business of Songwriting (2nd edition, 2002, Writers Digest Books) has been edited for length. It's available at bookstores everywhere. For info about John's critiquing and consulting services, go to www.johnbraheny.com.