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6 Common Toplining Mistakes to Avoid

by Charley Ruddell, iZotope Contributor April 15, 2020
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With the unrestricted use of catchy hooks in hip-hop and pop music today, toplining has become an extremely popular occupation. Expediency, creativity, and technical ability are essential qualities of a great top-liner.

We’ve covered toplining in the context of recording to show you how easily it can be done using Spire Studio, but today we’re focusing on a greater sense of conceptual awareness in your toplining approach. Using some of the most—and least—recognized pop songs as references, we’ve compiled a list of things to avoid when composing and tracking your ideas. 

So before you get started as the world’s latest and greatest top-liner, let’s go over a few common mistakes to avoid when writing your toplines. Let’s begin:

1. Thinking too inside-the-box 

When writing a compelling topline, simplicity is a double-edged sword: you want your hook to be simple enough for mass appeal, but not oversimplified to the point of being uninteresting. In short, beware of thinking too conventionally in your quest for simplicity. 

Look at Lil Nas X’s recent mega-hit, “Old Town Road.” A bit of absurdity goes a long way conceptually, and a hit song about rapping cowboys proves this point.

This concept also applies to instrumental melodies. An unconventional musical approach can create a motif that’s unforgettable—don’t be afraid to throw in something ear-bending to grab the listener’s attention! Take Billie Eilish’s “bad guy” for example: the instrumental hook in the chorus isn’t exactly a “pretty” melodic line, but its use of accidentals creates a spooky melody that’s both striking and unique.

2. Neglecting melodic shape

Melodic shape is crucial to crafting a memorable melody—but what exactly is it? Melodic shape refers to the overall rising and falling motion of a melody that creates a curve when viewed as a whole. A successful melody will jump out to a listener and stick in their brain afterwards, and melodic shape plays an important role in achieving this effect. It’s what causes us to recognize the subtle leaps and dips in melody when we bust out the anthemic chorus of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” at karaoke night (And AYYYEEE-EEE-AYYYEEE will always love YOOO-HOO-HOO-OOOOWAHH!).

Beyoncé is a master of melodic shape, though not all of her melodies withstand the test of time. Let’s look at two popular songs from the pop diva to see how melodic shape comes into play in terms of a memorable vocal.

In 2005, Beyoncé released the single “Check On It,” which at the time found commercial success on the pop charts—it stayed at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 for five consecutive weeks. Melodically, the chorus of the song is extremely repetitive. This melody focuses less on shape, and more on rhythmic cadence. After “Check On It” left the charts, Beyoncé began phasing it out of her live show, and it hasn’t made a live appearance since 2010.

Halo,” on the other hand, is an extremely rich melody that’s full of shape. While “Halo” never made it to the number-one spot on the Billboard Hot 100, it stayed parked on the charts for thirty weeks, and is currently her most-streamed song on Spotify.

The point here is that audiences recognize melodic shape, whether or not they’re consciously aware of it. A lack of shape could lead to a forgettable melody, while dynamic or surprising melodic shape can embed itself in the minds of listeners forever.

3. Using stagnant lyrical imagery

One of the biggest mistakes you could make as a top-liner is assuming that your audience doesn’t have an imagination. Lyrics devoid of any substance will turn people off, no matter how catchy the melody might be. As songwriters and storytellers, top-liners need to plant vivid and personal imagery into their lyrics so they can resonate with their listeners. 

There are some dos and don’ts when it comes to lyrical imagery in toplining: 

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ hit “Thrift Shop” won everyone over when it hit the world in 2012. Now, over a billion YouTube streams later, people everywhere can identify the song’s catchy hook and verses because of their stimulating imagery. The anthemic “I’m gonna pop some tags, only got twenty dollars in my pocket” is as sonically entertaining as it is conceptually relatable.

On the other hand, failing to conjure any sort of vivid imagery that’s unique or special can cause a topline to fall flat. There are plenty of examples of catchy, repetitive choruses that get stuck in your head, but some lyrical originality can set your songs apart from the rest.

4. Practicing poor time management

Being prepared for any gig is paramount as a professional musician, but there is a greater emphasis on time management and session preparedness in the toplining field. A large reason for this is that toplining is a field that operates extremely expeditiously.

Consumer trends of digital content in the new millenium have moved in the direction of constant consumption. This means that if you’re an artist, you’re either creating new music or losing traction. With such a rise in content creation, professions like toplining rely on speed and efficiency to get the material out there. One late assignment as a top-liner could easily cost you the gig.

One way to ensure efficiency is to educate yourself on the essentials of songwriting: music theory, chord structures, melodic shaping, etc. Being grounded in the fundamentals will allow you to compose more interesting music in less time.

Communication is also key. Talk to your client. Find out what they need. Be specific in your questioning. What is the vibe they’re trying to achieve? What kind of emotion are they trying to emphasize in each section? Do they prefer a melody that rises or falls? Is rhythmic cadence or melodic shape more important? Being on the same page with your collaborator will ensure a better working environment, and a better finished product.

Lastly, try not to spend time in your recording space writing parts on the fly. Before you begin recording your parts, you should know exactly what your plan is, from the nuances in your melody to the overdubs. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be open to changing things on the spot, it just means that you’ll want to have a broad understanding of your production plan.  

5. Lacking change between sections

Being a top-liner or songwriter is the same thing as being a storyteller: you’re guiding the listener through a journey. And what’s worse than a story with a bad ending? A story that simply doesn’t go anywhere.

Creating change between the sections of your song is key when producing an engaging topline. There’s a general rule of thumb when it comes to writing verses and choruses: tell your story in the verse with a lower melody, and tell the point of the story in the chorus in a higher register. Keep this in mind when crafting your own toplined melodies. 

To bring back a previous example, an excellently toplined song is “Old Town Road.” The song’s verses use intermittent repetition with a callback refrain before the chorus that alerts listeners of an impending change. The chorus is an octave higher than the verse, which causes our ears to perk up when it comes back around. Overall, the verse-to-chorus shift is pronounced enough to keep us interested in what’s about to happen next. 

6. Using too many motifs 

One of the worst things you can do as a top-liner is to add too many ideas into one song. Having too many motifs will confuse listeners and leave them with nothing to latch onto. The more motifs you use in a single song, the more diluted they all become.

So how many motifs is too many? If your chorus has more than two identifiable hooks, it might be a signal to cap it off there. If your verse has more than three identifiable hooks, stop writing. Keeping melodies succinct and relatively sparse will help your cause in the long run.

As far as lyrics are concerned, try splitting your chorus into phrases line by line. A typical pop song will have between three and eight words per line. Use this as a reference for composing your lyrics in the future.

Listen to the song “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley for perspective. CeeLo Green’s chorus topline is pristine. Each line of the chorus is around four or five words, and the melody alternates between lines in a similar, repetitive melodic motion. It’s a chorus that anyone can howl from memory.

Conclusion

As the music industry speeds up its production, it’s important to start honing your abilities as a top-liner to keep up with the trends, and one place to start is to know what not to do. Remember that thinking too inside-the-box, neglecting lyrical imagery, and cramming too many motifs into a song are definitive ways to lose your audience’s interest, while a lack of dynamic change and poor time management can be your professional downfall—and always beware of shapeless melodies! Happy writing.

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