Finding A ‘Big Idea’ To Focus Your Song

Starting in August 2016, about once a month, I have been leading an evening workshop for Oxford Songwriters Meetup. We are gradually working through some of the main topics in my Oxford Songwriting Syllabus. The meeting on 25 Sept 2016 was called ‘Finding a ‘Big Idea’ to focus your song’. We divided the evening into two sections:

  1. What is a Big Idea? (And how does it effect how you write your song, as well as the impact on the listener?)
  2. What makes a good Title? (And how does it relate to your Big Idea, songwriting process, and impact on the listener?)

These are the teaching notes that I gave out that evening. If you were there, these notes should make complete sense. If you weren’t at the workshop, I hope you still find these notes useful – and you could always come to our next meeting!

Big Idea

1. A single idea

  • Davis p.125 “For the lyricist, simplicity translates to: keep to one idea and eliminate sub-plots. A lyric is a miniature, not a mural.” “One idea per song is enough.”
  • Davis p.126 “It is impossible to communicate in a lyric what you cannot express in one simple sentence.”
  • Davis p.127 “Make your lyric emit one clear-cut emotion and make that one emotion build.”
  • Is there more than one Big Idea in your song? If so, you probably have material for more than one song.
  • Make sure there is only one Big Idea, regardless of the form (AABA, Verse/Chorus, AAA, Blues)

2. Big Idea as organising principle for writing a song

  • Stephen Sondheim: “An important principle I’ve always believed is: Content dictates form.” What we want to say should govern how we say it. If we start with form, it can force us into saying something different from what we really want to say. However, starting with form can be a creative stimulus and discipline.
  • Davis p.285 “A first-rate lyric is an organic whole: all sections are related, each being indispensable to the central purpose of the song.”
  • Alexander Massey: “It must be immediately clear what the song is about. The song must have what I call a clear and strong ‘emotional centre of gravity’ and purpose.”

3. Purpose / Path / Payoff

  • Davis p.22 “A well-constructed lyric … goes somewhere.”
  • Jimmy Webb: “I feel that building a whole song to the end, you have to draw someone conclusion for the person listening to it, and it you don’t, there’s no reason to write it in the first place.”
  • Jimmy Webb “The amateur songwriter’s greatest single failing and one that is immediately obvious to the listener is that the lyric writer does not know exactly where the song is going.”
  • Plan to have an end point the song is aiming for (Structure) – have a beginning (a strong first line), a middle and an end. Begin your writing with the end in mind.

4. Clarity

  • Cleanth Brooks: “A thought vaguely expressed is a vague thought.”
  • “What appears to be a sloppy or meaningless use of words may well be a completely correct use of words to express sloppy or meaningless ideas.” anonymous civil servant quoted in Sir Ernest Gowers (1987) The Complete Plain Words, HMSO.
  • Has the song contradicted itself?
  • Is the tone muddled?
  • Is perspective muddled? Whose point of view is given in the song? If there is more than one, is this clear on first listening?
  • Some (successful and well-known) songwriters don’t always care if they don’t understand their own lyric. Do you care if your song doesn’t make sense to you? Do you care if it doesn’t make sense to your listeners?

5. Personal and universal

  • Davis p.128 “Your prime objective as a lyricist is to write songs that will speak for others as well as for yourself.”
  • What makes the lyric particular or personal, and what makes the lyric universal?

6. Sources for Big Ideas

  • Aschmann, Lisa (2008) 1000 Songwriting Ideas, Hal Leonard – superb!
  • Davis, Sheila (1992) The Songwriter’s Idea Book, Writer’s Digest, USA
  • Rooksby, Rikky (2006) Lyrics: writing better words for your songs, Backbeat – an amazing compendium of ideas – topics, themes, title guidance, interviews, sources of inspiration
  • Stolpe, Andrea, with Jan Stolpe (2015) Beginning Songwriting: writing your own lyrics, melodies and chords, Berklee Press – some good writing exercises, including how to bounce ideas off a working partner

7. Exercises for Big Ideas

  • Exercise BI.1 (Can a listener identify your Big Idea?): Read your lyric out to someone (ie don’t let them see the words written down), and ask them to paraphrase or summarise it in one sentence.
  • Exercise BI.2 (Summarise any song’s Big Idea): Choose any song (your own or someone else’s) and summarise its Big Idea in one sentence. Can you find a song that doesn’t seem to have a clear Big Idea? How well does the song ‘work’?
  • Exercise BI.3 (Does every song element fit the Big Idea?): Find an element in a song that feels that it doesn’t quite ‘fit’ or ‘work’. Check whether this ‘rogue’ element is working against the Big Idea.
  • Exercise BI.4 (Personal & Universal): Pick a song and identify the lyric elements that make it a) personal, b) universal.
  • Exercise BI.5 (Analyse a song): Using Davis’ ‘Focussing Quiz’ (see below), analyse a song. (In this workshop, we used Eric Bogle’s ‘And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda‘.)
  • Exercise BI.6 (Develop a Big Idea): Using Davis’ ‘Focussing Quiz’ (see below), develop the framework and details for a ‘Big Idea’, starting with a Title, such as a) ‘Easier Said Than Done’, b) ‘Fight With Me’, c)  ‘Don’t Shut Me Out’, or d) ‘Too Little, Too Late’.


Special note: Write down and keep all your Title ideas

1. What is a Title for?

  • The Title is the ‘advert’, ‘shop window’ or ‘calling card’ for the song. The Title is the first thing the publisher, producer, and listener sees – often before they choose (or don’t choose) to listen to the song. It can inspire the listener.
  • Don’t leave it too late in the songwriting process to decide the Title. It will anchor the Big Idea, inspire your writing, and needs to be positioned in the Lyric; it may determine the last line of the Verse or Chorus, and often define the Chorus.
  • Make sure your Title is what the song is about. However, the Title might not identify the Big Idea (e.g. And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda; Eleanor Rigby).
  • Irving Berlin “If the Title and tune are tied together … [it] enables the listener to remember the song.”

2. What should a Title be like?

  • Make the Title ‘hooky’, memorable, clever, characterful, relevant, unique, easy to locate, and easy to remember.
  • Davis p.64 “To be on the safe side, make your Title, through repetition, immediately recognisable to your listener on one hearing.”

3. Positioning the Title

  • In AABA form or its variants, the Title comes at the start, on a distinctive melodic shape.
  • In AAA form, the Title is in the 1st and/or the last line of each verse, which might also include a refrain.
  • A refrain usually becomes the Title – the listener will assume the refrain is the Title even if you try to make something else the Title.
  • Strongest placement is the start of a chorus. Don’t make the listener wait longer, or it strains their patience and attention – they may ‘tune out’.
  • ut it where it will be heard, and repeat it.
  • Preview the Title in, for example, the last verse (e.g. After the Ball)
  • Reserve Title words until the actual statement of the Title
  • 1) At the start 2) at the end 3) at the start and the end 4) start, middle and end.

In the very first line.
The Title might not come again;
Once can be just fine.

2. Line one must catch attention;
A good beginning’s vital.
Then, to drive your message home,

In the first words of the chorus.
Hit ‘repeat’ – it’s really neat:

That’ll start things well.
So the Title rings a bell.
You can never ring that bell too much, so

4. Sources for Titles

  • Titles come from anywhere
  • Davis, Sheila (1985) The Craft of Lyric Writing, Writers’ Digest
    • antonyms (Night and Day); alliteration (Magic Moments); rhymes (Tutti Frutti, Good Golly Miss Molly); places (California Dreamin’); calendar (I don’t like Mondays, April in Paris, Autumn in New York); colours (Lady in Red, Blue Moon, Yellow Submarine); conversations (My Heart Stood Still); colloquialisms (Now Or Never); maxims, adages, epigrams (Easy Come Easy Go); word switches (The High Cost of Loving); film dialogue (Peel Me A Grape); text from a book (I Never Promised You A Rose Garden); poetry (Sigh No More); one word titles
  • Rooksby, Rikky (2006) Lyrics: writing better words for your songs, Backbeat – an amazing compendium of ideas

5. Exercises for Titles

  • Exercise T.1 (Use the Title as a song seed): A Title can be an excellent ‘seed’ from which to grow a song. Get your Title first, and then work from there to create a Big Idea, Lyric and music.
  • Exercise T.2 (Placing the Title in your Chorus): Create a Title, and then write four different choruses, using the different Title placement patterns (see section 3, above). For example, try a)  ‘Don’t Shut Me Out’, b) ‘Too Little, Too Late’, c) ‘Easier Said Than Done’ or d) ‘Fight With Me’.
  • Exercise T.3 (Analyse good song Titles): Examine some song Titles, and analyse what makes them work: $200 Tattoo; (You’re the) Devil in Disguise; 5 Minutes; A Line in the Sand; Accidentally Like a Martyr; Bad Habit; Black Eyes, Blue Tears; Dancing in the Dark; Don’t Let Me Get Me; Eight Days A Week; It Only Hurts When I’m Breathing; Mary Danced with Soldiers; Nothing Can Stop Us Now; Nothing Else Matters; On the Sunny Side of the Street; Rare, Precious and Gone; Rock Around the Clock; Semi-Charmed Life; Zungguzungguzungguzeng
Focussing Quiz

(Sheila Davis, The Craft of Lyric Writing, pp.287-8)

Who is singing?

  1. Male / female / either / potential duet
  2. What is the relationship of the singer to the singee?
  3. Is the singer addressing: a particular ‘you’ / a universal ‘you’?
  4. Is the singer: thinking the lyric / talking to someone? / works as a either an interior monologue or one side of a conversation.

What will be the singer’s one consistent emotion or attitude towards the subject matter? For example:

  1. Self assertive (I will survive)
  2. Puzzled (What are we doin’ in love?)
  3. Grateful (Come what may)
  4. Ironic (I’m not in love)
  5. Pleading (Help me make it through the night)
  6. Resentful (What about me?)
  7. Resigned (Just one of those things)
  8. Confused (Your love is driving me crazy)
  9. Tongue-in-cheek (Nobody)
  10. Self-pitying (Crying)
  11. Wistful (Can’t smile without you)
  12. Inspirational (You’ll never walk alone)
  13. Apologetic (I’ve been a bad boy)
  14. Lighthearted (Let’s go dancing)
  15. Affirmative (It’s my turn)
  16. Thoughtful (Imagine)
  17. Romantic (Endless love)
  18. Proud (I am what I am)
  19. Hopeful (I just can’t help believin’)
  20. Other ….

What other element do you plan to particularise?

  1. The circumstances. What are they?
  2. The setting. Where is it?
  3. The singer. Who is it?
  4. The singee. Who is it?
  5. A story or vignette. Briefly sum up.

What is the setting?

  1. Is there a specific setting? Yes / No. Where?
  2. If there is more than one, how will you make the transition clear?

What is the time frame?

  1. Is the action taking place now? Yes / No
  2. Is the action over? Yes / No
  3. Is the clock moving? Yes / No
  4. Is there a flashback? Yes / No. A flashforward? Yes / No.

In what song form will you write?

AAA / AABA / Verse-Chorus / Other

Can you summarise the idea your lyric expresses in a short prose sentence?

With what universal element do you expect your audience to identify?

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