Starting with a Title

The title of a song is often the keystone around which everything else is orientated. It therefore makes sense that many songwriters choose to start with an interesting title.

“I write titles and work backwards from there” - Sting

Ira Gershwin and Jonny Mercer, two of the top writers from the golden age talked about spending days finding an interesting title and then the rest of the song pouring out quickly from there. Today if you go to Nashville you still hear people talking about “writing to a title”. It not the only process, but it is certainly one we should practice!

Also, as a matter of practicality, when we want to choose a movie to watch we can look at trailers, but how do we choose a song to listen to? I know for me at least I often have a list of songs and am drawn to press the one with the most interesting title. Another reason that getting it right is so important.

“The public buys songs, not because it knows the song, but because it knows and likes the title idea.” - Irving Berlin

So what makes a good title? This is a topic that could be explored further in this thread, but the simplest titles are often names or places:

  • Martha (Tom Waits)
  • Vienna (Billy Joel)
  • Queenstown (Passenger)
  • Roxanne (Sting)
  • Jubilee Road (Tom Odell)

These are just the first five that came to mind, I am sure you can think of dozens. From there we could move onto slightly more abstract nouns, or objects which are intriguing.

  • Monsters (James Blunt)
  • Visiting Hours (Ed Sheeran)
  • Potholes (Randy Newman)
  • Fool’s Gold (Passenger)

These are all really strong titles that make us curious as to how they could be fitted into a song. If you look at them they are often very satisfying in the way they pay off. For example ‘Monsters’ is a song where James Blunt is saying goodbye to his dad, wondering “who will scare the monsters away”. ‘Potholes’ is a song where Randy Newman celebrates “the potholes of memory lane”. They are a strong use of really engaging language.

Another area to look out for are common everyday sayings. Sometimes they make fantastic hooks and titles.

  • Wasn’t Expecting That (Jamie Lawson)
  • A Little Bit of Everything (Dawes)
  • Talked Too Much and Stayed Too Long (Tim Minchin)
  • Blink of an Eye (Passenger)
  • A Little Soon to Say (Jackson Browne)

To come up with these sorts of things you need to keep your ears peeled as you go about daily interactions and conversation. They all seem so obvious once you spot them, and roll nicely off the tongue.


I will try to form some exercises in order to put these ideas into practice: