What is my Song Title? A Songwriter’s Litmus Test

I once heard a songwriter friend of mine say that, before he would call a song “finished”, he would ask his teenaged daughter to tell him the title of the song.  It was a test of how effectively he had chosen to spotlight the central message of his song, and there were times when she sent him back to the drawing board to figure out what had gone wrong.

The title of your song doesn’t come by accident.  And, as much as you can stand your ground and tell the audience that they’re not properly listening to the song, chances are that if your audience can’t guess the title of the song, you’ve missed an opportunity to focus the song toward your intended emotional response.

What’s in a Title?

Every song has a reason for its existence, and the most powerful songs exist for the purpose of making the listener have an emotional response, typically to a message contained within its lyric.  We can, and usually do, have an emotional response to the music which accompanies the lyric, and we can have emotional responses to instrumental music, but for the purposes of this discussion, let’s stick to the lyrics.

The central message of a (powerful) song is contained in a single nugget.  That nugget could be “let’s make the world a better place”, or maybe “let’s spend this night together”.  A song which attempts to contain both of these messages together will have a terrible time evoking an emotional response from a listener, unless you believe the world benefits by seeing two people spend the night together…

Everything in the song’s lyric will tell a story, providing imagery and details to set the scene for delivery of the central message.  A powerful song will serve up a cohesive set of details to prepare the listener for that central message, and will focus the attention of the listener on the important nugget that delivers that message.  The ultimate Song Title will remind us of the central message, and so is repeated throughout the song to reinforce the central message.

Where Should My Title Be?

Whether you’re writing from a great title, or writing a song whose title you’ll decide upon later, there are a few characteristics of song form that will either support your chosen title or choose another one for you.

Just as a job interview has two obvious power positions – the first impression and the last impression, there are certain lyric positions, in any given part of a song, which will naturally land more powerfully with a listener.  Not surprisingly, I’m talking about the first line and the last line of a section in your song.

If your song has a repeated Chorus section, its job is to focus and repeat the central message of the song each time it comes around, supported by evolving story in the verse sections.  It follows that the Song Title, chosen because of its supernatural ability to reinforce the central message of the song, will appear in either the first or last line of the Chorus, maybe even both.

  • “Since U Been Gone”, Kelly Clarkson
  • “A Natural Woman”, Aretha Franklin
  • “Hit The Road, Jack”, Ray Charles
  • “Tiny Dancer”, Elton John

If, however, you’re writing a song that doesn’t use a Chorus, then your Verse sections need to contain and reinforce the central message of your song.  Again, this means that your Song Title should appear in the first or last line of each Verse section in your song.

  • “Yesterday”, by The Beatles
  • “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”, The Eurythmics
  • “Over The Rainbow”, Judy Garland in “The Wizard of Oz”
  • “Into The Mystic”, Van Morrison

It’s Not Just About Repetition

While it’s true that you may have written a lyrical phrase into your song that repeats many times, that doesn’t necessarily equate to a song title.  A repeated phrase (or a repeated musical motif) can often be an effective “hook” for your song – a tool to catch the ear of the listener.  And while a song title could be (and naturally wants to be) one of the song’s hooks, you can employ other hooks to support the catchiness of the song.  Maybe you have a lyric in which you repeat “Hey You” many, many times, in support of the story of the song.  While that may be useful to make the song stick in your listener’s mind, it’s not much of a concept onto which you can hang an entire song.  It can be a great hook, but that repetition doesn’t make it the destination of your song’s journey.

Checking Your Work

These are not hard and fast rules, by any stretch, but notice that placing your song title in these power positions is effective in drawing attention to the song title.  Your teenaged daughter would likely be drawn to name the song title the way you intended it, if you followed these patterns.

Write On!

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