DJ groovin' on a love song in a club

Popular Themes for Songs to Guide Your Songwriting

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Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

As long as humans have been making music, they’ve been writing songs to express the feelings inside them. Most songs fall into similar thematic categories, as the North Carolina State 2014 study on American popular music found (12 common themes to be precise).

If you are stuck on music production or experiencing songwriter’s block, one way of breaking through can be to work backwards by starting from a theme and crafting a song from the outside in. Here are some insights into popular themes for songs to help get your creative juices flowing.

Exploring timeless songwriting themes

In case you never studied themes in English class, a theme is a universal idea, lesson, or message explored through a written work — in this case, a song. The NCS study found that the themes of popular songs don’t change in general through the ages, though the different ages lend themselves to different thematic focus (’60s and ’70s: rebellion; 2000s and beyond: pain, desperation, and inspiration). So, when exploring song themes, you can time travel and write that ’60s-flavored protest song or you can stay current and explore your inner angst. Let’s dive into common themes for songs to help you find musical inspiration.

Love and heartbreak

The most timeless theme of all! From Louis Armstrong to Taylor Swift, popular music has dealt with affairs of the heart. Since there are so many love songs — be they romantic ballads or bitter hymns to breaking up — it may feel hard to create something new in territory that has been so thoroughly explored by such great artists and songwriters.

But no one else has your specific background! Use imagery from your life and focus on the details and particulars of your own experiences to tread new ground. Examples of famous songs that break the traditional love song mold include “This Is Not a Love Song” (Public Image Ltd.), “The One I Love” (R.E.M.), and “Marry You” (Bruno Mars).

Personal struggles and triumphs

Everyone loves a winner, but what they love more is a winner who has overcome great personal adversity. Or maybe the hero loses but wins our hearts, like Rocky Balboa. Hit songs like “I’m Still Standing” (Elton John), “Don’t Stop Believin’” (Journey), and “Fighter” (Christina Aguilera) are examples of songs where the protagonist has struggled and remained triumphant.

 

Bruce Springsteen, literary champion of the downtrodden, expresses the drama of the lovable loser very clearly in many of his songs, specifically on the albums Darkness at The Edge of Town, Nebraska, and The River. You’re sure to inspire your audience with songs of struggle, be they personal or told as a story.

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Social commentary and rebellion in lyrics

Music is an extremely powerful tool for social commentary. Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez, Bob Marley, and Public Enemy have spoken up for the marginalized and held a mirror to injustice. Bob Dylan has many shining examples of protest songs: “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Blowin’ in The Wind,” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” to name but a few. Are you angry about things going on the world? Write a song about it.

Mental health and self-discovery

Ray Davies, main songwriter for The Kinks, has often described songwriting as therapy. Indeed, many others have taken pen to paper to work on the inner knots of their tortured psyches. John Lennon, Fiona Apple, Ozzy Osbourne, Daniel Johnston, and many others have used music as a vehicle to process their deep hurts and constant lifelong mental health challenges. There is no substitute for medical/psychotherapeutic intervention if you are having serious mental health issues, but songwriting can be an invaluable tool to process the things you’re feeling, and your song lyrics can be profound.

The art of storytelling through ordinary experiences

Stories in songs explore different kinds of themes, but when looking at themes for songs, “story song” can be seen as its own category. Story songs are often written in first person and in the voice of a character. The universality of the themes behind the story makes them relatable. For example, Suzanne Vega’s “Luka” explores abuse through the narrative of a neighbor child and Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” uses the story of a couple trying to make it on their own to explore themes of desperation, loss, and redemption.

Trying to sit down and write a story song can be more challenging than just writing plain-spoken feelings, but some people actually find it easier to communicate more deeply through story. Don’t worry about interpreting the theme behind your story as you write it; write what needs to be written and the themes for songs will take care of themselves.

Nature and the world around us

90-Day Album Release PlannerWriters of all stripes have taken inspiration from the natural world. Whether they are from the Rocky Mountains like John Denver, the plains of Saskatchewan like Joni Mitchell, or New York City like the songwriters of the Brill Building, nature and all its peripherals are deeply rooted in popular song. Sun, moon, stars, trees, wind, ocean — you have heard these in song a million times. Even metal bands get into the mix, with songs like Disturbed’s “Another Way to Die” about climate change.

So, if you are truly stuck, take a walk or go up on the roof like Gerry Goffin (be careful). Heed the words of German poet Rainer Maria Rilke: “If you will stay close to nature, to its simplicity, to the small things hardly noticeable, those things can unexpectedly become great and immeasurable.”

Revisiting history through music

Robbie Robertson’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” tells the story of the Civil War through the eyes of a working class non-slaveholding Southerner. Indeed, historical events can provide inspiration and themes for songs. Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald,” Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer,” and the perennial “American Pie” by Don McLean are all based on actual events. So read some history and ask yourself what part of this story hasn’t been told?

The use of fantasy in songwriting

Stepping away from reality, the imaginary worlds — such as those dreamed up by fantasy authors — can provide great fodder for songs. Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath drew inspiration from J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels, and more recently, the many subgenres of metal have dived even deeper into the fantasy realms.

But you don’t have to be prog or metal to write like this; country songwriter Townes Van Zandt has a Lord of the Rings-adjacent ballad called “Silver Ships of Andilar.” You can also invent a unique fantasy world like Rush on 2112 or Yes on Close to The Edge. Indulging your inner knight or dragon and concocting a fantastical story to amuse your listeners is one way to find different themes for songs.

Escapism and dreamscapes in lyrics

Also within the unreal realms lie the abstract surrealists. While much of the surrealism in popular music comes from experimentation with drugs, writers like Robyn Hitchcock, Kevin Shields (My Bloody Valentine), and Beth Gibbons (Portishead) don’t rely on chemicals for their primary inspiration. Bands like the Cocteau Twins and R.E.M. wrote abstract lyrics meant to be a sound equal to the other instrumentation and not separated and dissected.

The exercise of free writing — writing whatever comes to mind spontaneously without editing — can produce interesting results if you are ready to venture into abstract territory. Or you can use William Burroughs’ cut-up technique like David Bowie did, cutting up phrases and rearranging them to make something more interesting. Both techniques can yield surprising results.

Turning your themed songs into a cohesive album

If you are looking to create a whole album with a theme, then you are in luck: the concept album is a tried and true notion that gives listeners cohesion. The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon are all based around a theme and the various songs connect by simple association or direct relations to it.

The theme can be loose; Ziggy Stardust doesn’t have a plot, but every song has some connection to space, celebrity, free love, and community. The theme can also be more concrete, like Lou Reed’s New York, which contains songs all about the New York of the late 1980s. So, whether you are crafting a rock opera or just looking for a unifying concept, develop consistent themes in your songs to see where such threads might exist.

How Disc Makers supports your creative journey

Once your themes and songs are written and recorded, Disc Makers provides CD and vinyl manufacturing for all your physical product needs. We also have design and mastering services to enhance and accentuate your creative vision!

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Chris Huff

About Chris Huff

Chris Huff has been a professional singer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and producer for over 25 years. He has worked as a sideman with Peter Yarrow (Peter, Paul, and Mary), Echo and the Bunnymen, Chuck Hammer (David Bowie, Lou Reed), and Tom Kitt (Broadway composer of Next To Normal). Chris also wrote liner notes for David Bowie’s Live And Well CD, and his full-length album, 'bout Time is available on iTunes.

1 thoughts on “Popular Themes for Songs to Guide Your Songwriting

  1. Hi tony great insight my first album was in the lyric concept where the relationship to each song fell into each other on the human exspierence

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