For Young Songwriters: Specific or Universal Songs?

Young songwriter working out her lyricsOne thing I love about writing and performing songs for kids is when the lightbulb goes on over a young one’s head and he or she thinks, “Hey, I can write a song too!” So if you’re thinking about writing your own songs, I’d like to share this tip to get your creative ideas flowing.

Is your song specific or universal? A specific song might tell a story that only makes sense for one exact subject, like bowling or the Moon. Most of the songs on my “Everyone’s Invited” album are specific. There’s one idea that can’t be swapped out for another idea without totally rewriting the song. Specific songs are great for teaching lessons or telling a very particular story. I also find it easier to make a specific song funny because I find humor in the details, as with “The People Exhibit at the Zoo.”

Now, for a universal song, think of those great big anthems, like Katy Perry’s “Firework.” It’s a song to get people to believe in themselves whatever they do in life. It works in all the different movie soundtracks it’s in; it works as mood music, party music, at public events, etc. Being able to write a good universal song is about coming up with a message that lots of people can relate to. Songs about feelings are pretty universal.

Some songs are both, and one in particular was a huge smash hit last winter: “Let it Go” from the Disney Pixar musical Frozen (written by Robert and Kristen Lopez; the movie version sung by Idina Menzel and the radio version by Demi Lovato) is both specific and universal. The verse at the beginning of the song tells the story of Elsa’s having run away to a deserted mountain top, setting a very specific scene. The pre-chorus begins a change from setting the scene to talking about feelings we might all have, until — BAM! — Here comes that great big, soaring, universal chorus “Let it Go! Let it Go!” Who isn’t holding onto feelings they don’t want to just unleash? It’s so universal.

I think a good album or live concert can have a balance of songs that are specific, universal and both.

What feelings or common experiences might you write a universal song about? How can you take something everyone can relate to and make it big and exciting? What topics might you choose for your specific song? What’s the purpose of your specific song? To educate? To explain? To tell a story? Discuss in the comments below.

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