“Who cares what it’s called? It’s just gotta be a good song right?”
Well, yes and no.
Imagine this article was called “3 Song Title Tips”. Would you have started reading it?
Tl;dr? Rather watch a video instead? Here you go:
A good title needs to fulfill a couple of crucial criteria to get attention.
To understand this, consider how you hear music every day:
- You hear it in the club
- It auto-plays in a youtube or spotify playlist
- It comes on in your car on the radio
- A friend shows it to you
- You remember an artist, song or album you like and put it on
- You find it through the “you may also like” sections of youtube or iTunes
- It pops up in your facebook or twitter newsfeed
In other words, you consume music in one of two ways:
- You first hear the music, then you learn the title
- You learn the title before you hear the song
In both cases, we want to make the transition as quick and painless as possible. Music and title should be strongly connected in your audience’s mind within seconds.
Let’s see how we can take advantage of both of these situations to find a great title for your next songs.
Or, if you’re just interested in a long list of song titles, check this.
The “Been-A-While” Factor
Our first goal for our title is for it to be memorable.
If a friend told you of a cool new song you need to remember the name. Make it easy for people who tell each other about your music to recall your titles.
In other words, go simple. Don’t use complicated words people never use. Go for the words your audience uses everyday and you may even get the “been a while” factor.
I read about the “been a while” factor in a songwriting book a long time ago. The author had to think of Staind’s “it’s been a while” every time someone used that phrase in conversation.
This is a good thing! The more you’re in your audience’s mind, the better, so use phrases they use anyway.
Consider “Let’s Get It Started”, “Call Me Maybe” or “What Do You Mean?” – they all have the “been a while” factor.
Secondly, don’t go too long. 1-3 words is best, with most hit song titles being 2 words.
And third, don’t make your individual words too long. “Attraction”, “Destruction” and all the other “-ion”s make for terrible song titles. Keep your words to 1-2 syllables each.
The “Duh!” Factor
Wouldn’t it be a shame if thousands of people heard your song on the radio or in the club but would not be able to find it again online?
The key here is to form an unbreakable connection in your audience’s mind between your song and its title.
How do you do that? You use the “Duh!” effect!
After your audience has listened to your song there should be no question as to what your song title is.
Make it that one line that repeats over and over, or the beginning of your hook. Think of Mark Ronson’s Uptown Funk (title repeats over and over in the bridge) or Rihanna’s Bitch Better Have My Money (chorus).
Whatever is the most memorable lyric in your lyric (ESPECIALLY if it repeats), make that your title.
Instead of using this technique, some songwriters like to use words in their title that don’t appear anywhere else in the lyric or are tucked away somewhere insignificant (Damien Rice – Blower’s Daughter, Deftones – Romantic Dreams).
If you want your music to spread quickly, I think this is a mistake (from a stylistic point-of-view, there’s nothing wrong with it, of course). Think about what you’re trying to achieve, especially if you’re a beginning songwriter with minimal reach.
Make every listener count. Use clear titles with high recall value that don’t confuse your listeners.
The “WTF” Factor
This is for those people who find your music in their facebook newsfeed or “you may also like” sections.
These people just have a bunch of song titles to decide which song to play next, so give them a good reason to click on yours.
If factor 2 allows it, make your title an emotional one. Grab your listeners by the throat. “Wrecking Ball” is just so much better than “Love Song”, don’t you think?
The key here is to use power words (which I discuss here) or strong combinations of words (I Can’t Feel My Face).
Whatever your title, your audience should be inclined to learn more about your song. Give them a WTF moment (This Summer’s Gonna Hurt Like A Motherf****r). Peak their interest with paradoxes (I don’t Like It, I Love It; Hot n Cold), repetitions (Bang Bang) or alliterations (Walk On Water).
Other Do’s & Don’ts
If your song uses a very distinct sound, you can call it that (Machine Gun), although this is only recommended if the sound is truly remarkable. You risk sounding superficial or bland.
- Do NOT call your song what it IS. “Drum Song”, “Cool Grooves” or “5/4 Mashup” are all terrible, terrible titles.
- Do NOT use abstract words or number your songs (Song 2, 4039) unless they ALSO have emotional value (Think Swift’s “1989”).
- Do NOT use acronyms unless they’re pronounceable (B.Y.O.B., A.D.I.D.A.S). Says advertising legend David Ogilvy in his book “Ogilvy on Advertising”, “Whatever you do, for goodness sake, don’t change the name of your corporation to initials. Everyone knows what IBM, ITT, CBS and NBC are, but how many of the following can you identify: AC, ADP, AFIA, AIG, AM, AMP, BCC (brown boveri AND british broadcasting), CBI, CF, CNA, CPT, CEX, DHL, FMC, GA, etc. Yet this is how 37 corporations sign their advertisements. It will take them many years and many millions of dollars to teach their initials to their publics. What a waste of money”. The same goes for songs. Initials are hard to memorize, keep your hands off ‘em.