A song title is a bite-sized sample of your lyric writing skills.
If your titles are intriguing, as a listener I’m much more likely to stick around and check out your music. I’ll even consider buying your latest album, signing up for your email list, or snagging a ticket to your next concert.
This is important because album art and song titles are often all the information that we have to guide us in an MP3 store. They’re also part of our first impression when a friend recommends that we check out a particular artist or album.
Each song title offers an opportunity to intrigue potential listeners. Why not seize that opportunity?
Ear Training for Lyricists
Just as musicians train themselves to recognize chords, scales, and musical notes by ear, lyricists can train themselves to recognize intriguing phrases, lines, and titles.
“Inspiration” is just the excitement of recognizing a promising idea. You overhear a line of conversation, or you read a line in a book, or some surprising combination of words turns up in your own head.
Eureka! You’re thrilled. Why? Because there’s a tingle of possibility woven into this idea.
Having recognized it, your job is to develop that promising tidbit until your listener feels that same tingle. Give her a twinge of excitement. Pique her curiosity. Make her feel something. That may seem difficult to accomplish within a few short words, but—as you’re about to see—it’s definitely possible.
In a previous post, 7 Ways to Be a Fascinating Songwriter, I outlined Sally Hogshead’s 7 Triggers of Fascination. Any book, movie, or song that captures and holds our attention does so via one or more of these psychological triggers, as described in Sally’s book Fascinate:
PASSION creates craving for sensory pleasure.
MYSTIQUE lures with unanswered questions.
ALARM threatens with negative consequences.
PRESTIGE earns respect through symbols of achievement.
POWER commands and controls.
REBELLION tempts us with ‘forbidden fruit,’ causing us to rebel against norms.
TRUST comforts us with certainty and reliability.
Pack at least one of these triggers into a song title, and ears will prickle.
Want to train your ear to recognize irresistible titles? Start by leafing through your music collection and studying titles you love. What gives each title its bite? Which Fascination Triggers are hidden inside that sweet, sweet filling?
Let’s slice six titles in half and find out.
“Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes”
Paul Simon nails an image of luxury with this classic title from his album Graceland.
Speak it aloud and you’ll notice the syllables really flow off the tongue. “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.” The syllables alternate nicely between strong and weak beats:
DIAmonds on the SOLES of her SHOES
Easy to say, easy to sing, easy to remember.
What about the imagery?
From the first word, diamonds catch our attention, since diamonds are glittery and desirable (Passion trigger) and symbolic of wealth (Prestige trigger).
But wait—why’s this unnamed woman wearing the diamonds on the soles of her shoes? That’s an unusual thing to do (Rebellion trigger). This eccentric touch piques our curiosity about the unnamed woman and raises a question: why does she wear diamonds where nobody can see them (Mystique trigger)?
PASSION + PRESTIGE + REBELLION + MYSTIQUE—that’s a lot of fascination for a seven-word title.
“Slow Like Honey”
The image of honey pouring is intensely visual: it evokes color, texture, and motion all at once. Fiona’s mention of honey stimulates our senses of taste and smell too—making this an uncommonly vivid example of the Passion trigger.
“Slow Like Honey” is also a simile. Some person or experience is slow like honey—but who, or what? The title teases but gives no answers. We’ll have to listen to the song to learn more—that’s the Mystique trigger drawing us closer.
PASSION + MYSTIQUE—we could even argue that this one teases us with a double or triple dose of Passion.
“Slow Like Honey” proves that you can be vivid and specific and still create a sense of mystery. And this title’s only three words long! Amazing.
“Break on Through (to the Other Side)”
This one falls under the category of titles that speak directly to the listener. It’s not “She Broke on Through”. It’s not “I’ll Break on Through”—instead, Jim Morrison is talking directly to you. “Break on Through.” Do it.
Who doesn’t crave some kind of breakthrough? This title makes us feel strong by firing us up with the Power trigger. There are no specifics whatsoever in the title, which makes it universally inspiring—and giving it just a touch of Mystique.
POWER + MYSTIQUE—this title’s simple, direct, commanding.
“Earth Died Screaming”
“Earth Died Screaming” is apocalyptic Alarm, with personification of Earth creating just a hint of the Passion trigger—enough to make the image vivid.
The title also raises immediate questions: “What the hell happened?!” That’s yet another example of Mystique.
As a language geek I’ve got to point out that the rhythm of the stressed and unstressed syllables in this title is very harsh and strong. In English it’s unusual to find three stressed syllables in a row:
EARTH DIED SCREAMing
“Earth Died Screaming” stirs primal fears of pain, death, and extinction with just three words. Even the syllables themselves are loud—like gunshots.
ALARM + MYSTIQUE + PASSION
“The Sweetest Taboo”
Sade lures us with forbidden fruit (Rebellion trigger) by describing a taboo as sweet (Passion trigger). She gives no hints about what this taboo actually is (Mystique trigger), leaving us to project our own ideas and desires onto it.
Makes you feel like listening to this song might be illegal in Mississippi, doesn’t it?
REBELLION + PASSION + MYSTIQUE—We’re not sure exactly what Sade’s talking about, but we get the idea that it’s delicious and juicy and likely to get us exiled from Eden.
“Lean on Me”
This final title’s pure Trust. “Lean on Me” is just packed with warm fuzzies—no lust, no particularly vivid visuals, and no trace of an ulterior motive… just rock-solid friendship and human understanding. If you need help, lean on me. I’ll need to lean on you soon enough.
TRUST—soulful and straight up.
For more on the 7 Triggers of Fascination, be sure to check out Sally Hogshead’s Fascinate: Your 7 Triggers to Persuasion and Captivation.
Pick a particularly juicy song title not covered here and post it in the comments! We can break down which of the Fascination triggers are packaged into each.