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What Happens When You Discover Your Title? Focus Happens.

Irving Berlin’s classic songwriting advice to “repeat the Title as often as possible so people know what to ask for when they go to buy it” doesn’t hold nearly as true anymore (as I discuss here). But there are still a lot of other good reasons to write Title-based songs… I’m going to concentrate on one of those reasons here.

One of the biggest problems in songwriting – or any writing for that matter – is defining and maintaining focus. I see and hear it in the songs of many songwriters I work with as well as in the process of writing my own songs.

There’s no one way to find and keep this focus – it seems that each song has its own inner logic, its own lock for which the key has to be found.

So, though there are songs that are focused and effective without a Title as their central idea, having a strong Title helps enormously. It gives the song a focal point: everything needs to contribute to the Title phrase’s power and to make sense with it – or against it, as Waylon Jennings put it. If an element, lyric or music, doesn’t do that in some way, it’ll probably have to go.

But the Title doesn’t just tell me what not to do; it also provides ideas. Contained in the Title’s words, and notes, when you have them, are ideas for the other sections of the song. And thinking ‘How do I get from here to there?’ – there being the Title phrase, which is usually in the Chorus – defines the challenge of the rest of the song while also suggesting possible solutions… if I look hard enough.

I think the many continuing benefits of working with a Title – though I don’t usually start with one – are why, though my writing has changed and evolved in other ways, I’ve mostly stayed with writing Title-based songs.

Let me know your thoughts, additions, disagreements in the Comments section below:

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7 responses to “What Happens When You Discover Your Title? Focus Happens.”

  • Great article!

    The band Squeeze used to keep notebooks of just great titles – and that formed the basis for their songs… I suspect that they did a lot of what you’re talking about – ‘How do I get from here to there?’

  • Good article. I would add that in my experience songs are not written, they are re-written in phases. The first phase for me involves allowing a flow of ideas to happen, lyrically, harmonically and melodically without overthinking. Think of Paul McCartney’s first draft of “Yesterday” being “Scrambled Eggs”. Following that I revisit every line to remove unnecessary words and find shorter and better ways of stating ideas. I think especially with younger writers impatience causes them (us when I was young) to accept less than we are capable of.

    1. I just read your article on forward motion and realized that my comment here is redundant on this blog. Sorry for the newbie mistake but this was my first exposure to your site. Keep up the good work and please forgive my “Captain Obvious” comment.

  • I used to waitress in an Italian joint. The owner and his pals would read the racing form and play the ponies. I would ask for the racing form when they were done, thinking a horse’s name might make a good title. It never happened.

    I found my best title in a short article in The Onion.

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