Why almost everyone is completely wrong about what makes a good song title… and why this is a tremendous advantage for anyone who knows the secrets.
Most people – and shamefully, most so-called experts in songwriting – wouldn’t know a good song title if it bit them on the ass. The fact is, there is more incompetence in songwriting than any other field except, perhaps, advertising.
Lesson number one: Great songwriting – the kind that will grab your listener by the throat and force them to give you every ounce of their attention – has more in common with…
P.T. Barnum And The National Enquirer
Than With Britney Spears and Ashley Simpson
Barnum was the circus man (Barnum & Bailey’s “The Greatest Show On Earth”) who made a fortune by never underestimating the allure of sensationalism. A genius at marketing impossible-to-ignore sideshows – the one-horned goat billed as a unicorn… the bearded lady… the human pretzel. He was a man of the people, and knew what punched their buttons. He created such an urgent sense of curiosity that crowds fought to get into his shows.
And did you know that more people read the National Enquirer every week than read Time, Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal all put together? That raunchy little checkout-stand weekly sells out across the land… and yes, even people you know read it.
The hook is the headlines on the cover. The guys who come up with them are among the highest-paid writers in the world. When they hit a nerve, the publication flies off the shelves. (My favorite headlines are “Preacher Explodes On Pulpit“ and “Boy Eats Own Head“.)
Barnum and the writers at the National Enquirer understand human psychology. The unrelenting power of curiosity to pull us in. The sheer pleasure in being shocked and titillated. How to create…
That Has To Be Scratched!
I’m assuming that you’re somewhat tech-savvy. You are reading a blog, aren’t you? You might even be reading this blog in your RSS reader. And if you’ve read this far, I can tell you why. It’s because of my title – the headline.
And if you’re one of the many songwriting underdogs (translated: you don’t have a major label deal) and you’re actively marketing your music on the internet, then what’s the first thing people see when they’re poking around iTunes looking for some new music?
Exactly. Your headline – Your Master Salesman-In-Print – Your Title.
A master salesman has a solution to the most pressing problems in your life. He possesses secrets that will make you richer, or happier, or better looking. He knows how to tease your “hot buttons” to just the right level of distress… and only then offer you sweet release through the wonders of what he is selling.
Then how, you ask, can you apply this to songwriting? Well, it’s simple, really.
What direct response song titles have in common… is that they grab the attention of their target audience (California Girls – actually, guys interested in girls)… make an irresistible offer (Please, Please, Please)… and then ask for action (I Want To Hold Your Hand). For a listen. A download. They invite you to click on the link, listen to a free sample, download a 99 cent song. And do it…
They ask for a response from the listener. That’s where the term “direct response” comes from.
This request for action is what sets effective, money-making songwriting apart from the glut of mediocre songwriting out there. If the appeal works, people download the song and the song is a measurable success.
One final thought: Rejoice in the fact that most people haven’t got a clue about what makes a good song title (let alone how to write a direct response song title). This puts you in rare company when you finally do understand the secrets to getting your song played in this blood-thirsty competitive market. Let the rest of the world go about their foolish ways. You’re about to be very busy keeping track of your increasing song downloads 🙂
More titles to get your creative juices flowing. Think of who the target audience is and the action involved:
Pump It Up
Gimme Some Lovin’
Baby I Need Your Loving
Let’s Stay Together
Rock and Roll All Nite
Girls Just Want to Have Fun
Lively Up Yourself
Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker)
There’s many time-tested techniques for writing song titles – and some of them are great – but I’m giving you a technique to put in your arsenal that will help at least some of your songs grab people’s attention (especially useful for the internet). Use it with taste. 😉
Steve Jones says
This is relating to Hit Songwriting Tip #1. I grasp your idea and agree with the analogies you make but what concepts make direct-response song titles? “Please walk home with me” or “Walk home with me”??? Do they make an irresistible offer THEN ask for action or just simply make a request for action. Can you give some examples of how to write one; to show the process of turning a phrase into one? are there templates on which to base my own
Graham English says
Here’s the questions I ask myself:
Is the target audience clearly defined in the title?
Have I determined what action fits the psychology of the listener?
Remember that the objective of a ‘direct response title’ is to get a potential listener to click on your song title. Once they do that, then it’s up to the song to keep them listening. So the obvious ‘direct response title’ would be “Broken Hearted (Click Here)”. But that’s pretty crude so let’s look at it further.
The target audience can be implied. But it needs to be clear who the target audience is. Are you writing to someone who just broke up with their lover? Is your listener a man, woman or a group of people? Are you writing to a teenager who’s fighting with his/her parents?
*Notice how I said writing “to” someone. Never forget that you are writing a song “to” a listener.
Now, what action can you put in the title? Think verbs. Many titles are adjective+noun, as in Yellow Taxi, Harvest Moon, Purple Rain. These titles pique your interest and that works. But they’re also written by famous stars and don’t require the entrepreneurial spirit of an underdog songwriter. You could write great song titles like those too, but let’s write at least a few titles that can hook new listeners.
Back to verbs. Think of words that command or request action, i.e. Jump, Let’s Pretend We’re Married, Take The A Train, Tell It Like It Is. If you’ve done a good job of getting into the mind and psychology of the listener, then you can continue the conversation that’s going on in their head. If they’ve just quit their job, “Take This Job And Shove It” will speak directly to them. If your listener just got a promotion, “Celebration” could do the trick.
Give me some examples of titles you’re working on and we could work on them together right here.
Thanks Graham, this is good advice.
I find myself often judging a band by its song titles – especially on sites like emusic or iTunes when I’m looking for new, unknown music.
I’m most likely to download songs with intriguing titles – or ones that indicate a similar worldview between myself and the artist.