Collaborating is a great way to write new songs. While co-writing is fantastic, toplining is becoming one of the most popular ways of writing songs together. Writing songs with a producer is definitely different than writing with another writer; often, a producer might have some emotional ideas that lead to their track, but you as the songwriter is in charge of the actual melody and lyrics.
If you’re a traditional songwriter, you will probably have more traditional habits of writing. You might start with a melody and build your song around that. You might write all the lyrics first and change things around when you write the music. Either way, toplining can seem like an entirely new world that is intimidating, especially if you are writing in a new genre.
But toplining is a great form of songwriting that stretches songwriting muscles in an interesting way. It is also nice to not have to focus on every aspect of the song and the choices you need to make (if you write melody/lyrics/harmony all together, like many songwriters do). Here are some great steps to help you topline for the first time, as well as things to keep in mind.
Step One: Communicate, communicate, communicate
Perhaps this is surprising, but even if your producer says, “Here’s the track—do whatever you want with it!”, they probably still have ideas. Before you start, make sure you ask if they had any emotional ideas while writing the song and if they’re keen on a song topic or title. Be clear on whether there is flexibility on changing the key of the song, or cutting out/adding in sections.
And besides the song itself, be clear on deadlines. Always give yourself some wiggle room and make sure you’re clear on whether something is a draft or the final product (I recommend having a couple of drafts for sure).
Step Two: Listen
Don’t rush into writing. Listen to the song, making note of the timestamps and the song section changes you are hearing. Ask yourself: what does the song remind you of? Does it call for a specific emotion or story? How can you describe that feeling lyrically?
Step Three: Research
Another step that you might need, if you’re writing in a new genre: listen to a playlist of reference tracks that sound like the one you’ll be working on. Note the particularities of the genre and see if you can include them in your song.
Step Four: Centre In
Start centering in on the main idea of the song. This can be done by first, of course, by brainstorming different ideas you might have. Think of song titles that fit your ideas, imagery that embodies the topic—really, what you want your song to say.
Step Five: Map out your song
Here’s where you can start outlining your song, or at least matching your storyline to timestamps. Decide if you want a Pre-Chorus or Post-Chorus (and if there is room for one on the track). Decide if you want to ask your producer to start the track with the Chorus, if that makes sense in the song.
Step Six: Writing
Here’s when you get to the heart of the writing, getting the lines and melodies in and making sure everything flows together. Try starting with the Chorus, because it can make it easier to get the main idea right away and write your song around that. You will also have a good idea of what you are building up to in the Verses, melodically and lyrically.
Step Seven: Watch your melody
This is always the tricky part when writing to a track versus writing on an instrument. Making sure things flow means you need to watch where your melody begins and ends.
For example, if your melody begins before the beat in your Verse, it will transition easily into a Pre-Chorus that has its melody starting after the first beat.
In another example, things will smash together if your Verse melody starts after the beat and the Pre-Chorus melody starts before the beat.
Step Eight: Watch for transitions
Be sure to watch for transitions while writing; as traditional songwriters, we naturally take pauses to break up sections, but we may need to ask the producer to add in a bar here or there so things sound more natural.
Step Nine: Finish early to edit
I’ve definitely left things to the last minute and regretted it. Not only did I not have enough time to record it properly (even if it was just rough vocals for a first draft), I couldn’t edit it. Try to give yourself enough time that you have a day or two in between for a break, then going back and listening with fresh ears. We nearly always notice things we can tweak here and there to make things better.
Hopefully after reading this, you feel equipped to try out toplining! Head over to social media and find some producers with your amount of experience. Make sure you listen to their work and really connect with it before contacting them. Many producers are open to working with singer/songwriters, and who knows—maybe you’ll have found a whole new way of writing that you love.