How Songwriters Write Toplines for Songs
Melody and vocal parts make up what is arguably the most important and memorable parts of a track. But how are these created and who does it?
A topline is a vocal part that overlays existing beats or a musical bed – the key component of a track. Songwriters write toplines for songs using a number of industry techniques and tools, and some methods that may be unique to the writer.
This is a particularly popular way to compose in certain musical genres – and if you’re songwriting working in mainstream music, toplines will make up almost all of your work. Read on to find out more about what’s involved, and exactly how they do it.
How songwriters write toplines for songs
Have you ever wanted to write your own songs, but can’t get beyond the melody? Well, that’s all good because there’s a specific type of songwriting that’s perfect for you. And it may just help your career as a writer – or recording artist – take off. Years ago, the melody was everything.
Now, with sophisticated recording, mixing and production equipment, we have the ability to create more interesting beats and backing than ever before. If the backing is boring, listeners will have turned the track off before they even get to the vocals. And in a digital age with instant steaming, media outlets have to catch people’s attention immediately. This is why the beats often come first these days, with the verse and chorus being an add-on as the icing on the cake.
Songwriting is a fantastic skill to have in your arsenal as a musician. It means you can create original tracks, making you more likely to catch the attention of industry professional and A&R.
But you don’t have to come up with every element of a song yourself. With collaborations between musicians very popular and successful, toplining is a great route to a unique sound. In some genres, it’s an essential part of music-making and a career in itself.
What is a topline melody?
A topline melody is a vocal part that’s added onto pre-existing beats. So instead of the writer starting from scratch, they work from a basic template. The template can vary enormously, so the writer might just work to a beat, or it may be a more constructed track with a beginning and end.
Topline writing most commonly arises in pop, R&B, EDM (Electronic Dance Music), grime, rap and hip-hop. While tech can manufacture musical sounds, it can’t yet fully replicate that of a voice. Decades ago toplining didn’t exist. Ester Dean, a topliner who has written vocal parts for pop giants like Rihanna and Nicki Minaj says:
“Long-term success in this business comes from being able to change with the times….songwriters need to understand that music is always changing.”
What’s the difference between a topline writer and a songwriter?
A writer will often do both roles, although some may specialise in toplining and others may only ever write the full musical parts. It also depends on which genre the writer works for. A songwriter might pen a melody, but also the other musical parts and perhaps the lyrics. Or they may write a melody to fit pre-written lyrics.
A topliner adds the vocal part onto the beats. Every topliner can refer to themselves as a songwriter, as this is a more generic all-encompassing term. Whereas someone who writes full tracks won’t just call themselves a topliner. On big-budget and higher profile tracks, the topliner will work alongside the producer, engineer and musicians in a more collaborative approach.
Many topliners are also singers (some fully professional ones, others are writers who can sing well enough to turn out a demo). Artists who want to write original tracks can collaborate or buy beats to add in their vocals. Some may choose to write by experimenting with different vocals and improvising over the beat until finding something that works. Or by writing the melody out and composing using set methods.
As such, these artists get to call themselves topliners too. And as well as making their own tracks, write toplines for other artists too, adding to their income streams. Even if the topliner isn’t the voice on the final cut, it is usually they who will sing the topline on the demo, to sell to others.
How to write toplines for songs as a songwriter
A topline must be catchy. So writers usually look to incorporate lots of hooks and the core simple melody. How complex the chorus and verses become is down to you. Although you’re not writing the beats and backing music, you can add in a range of backing vocals and incorporate more instruments into the melody. Topliners can and often will also write the lyrics for the sections they write.
How do you write a topline?
Songwriting is an art form and the melody is the most essential part. Stick to short phrases of between two and seven notes, as these are easier to remember for listeners. Create two or three simple phrases, then repeat these. You can transpose and juxtapose them to add variety and layers to the song.
Sia (who says that her talent lies in picking the best beats to work with) talked to Rolling Stone about her process:
“I probably get 20 or 30 tracks a week from my producer friends who are hoping that I’ll write lyrics and melody on top of them. I write over them in my house, and I record demos of them, in my house, I have an engineer come over. If I know Rihanna is looking for a single, I’ll actually choose tracks that sound like a Rihanna-like jam, and then I’ll start the writing process over it. That will come first with melody, and then I’ll choose lyrical content from a list of concepts I have in my phone, and whenever I think of one, I write it down.”
Many of the tools and techniques used for songwriting can be applied to writing a topline too. Here is some useful advice on creating your own tunes.
How to become a topline writer
So how do you break into music as a topliner? Well, like any other performer, musician and writer, you’ll need to be committed, work hard and build a name for yourself. Most topline writers begin as performing songwriters, staff writers, session vocalists, or even recording artists. There’s often an ebb and flow between the more traditional style of songwriting and toplining, so don’t expect to fully specialise in one or the other.
Build connections with potential employers. Record vocal demos for other artists, work as a session and backup singer and take part in group writing sessions or jams. This will help you meet people like managers, record producers, recording artists and music publishers. As with any area of the business, networking often provides a step up the ladder.
If you eventually become renowned for creating great toplines, you’ll discover the potential for a steady stream of work, contributing to significant well-known hits. Writing for others can also be a route into making it as a successful recording artist yourself, as it may you access to good producers, labels and higher profile collabs.
Often budding remixers and producers will seek out relatively cheap labour via online collabs. This can be a great way to build your portfolio of work, but you must practice and have honed your craft before you start selling your wares.
Topliners either work in the studio gigs, directly collaborating with producers on several tracks for a few days or remotely. If the latter – which is more common – the topliner receives a track by email. They’ll then work on their topline (usually in a home-built studio or local studio) and make their own vocal recording, which they’ll then send back. Remote gigs can be a race against time – producers often send the same track out to many topliners who compete for the songwriting credit.
With recording costs high, the sooner a track is ready to go the better. Which means the first topliner to send in a viable demo is likely to win the gig. And don’t assume you’ll be part of the track just because you’ve sent in a demo. 100 other topliners may have done the same and your work will be for nothing. While it can be lucrative and kickstart your career, toplining is also competitive and challenging.
How to practice toplining
So we’ve established you won’t have loads of time to come up with the goods. This means you must be a fast worker and able to turn around a demo recording quickly. And practice is the only way to build speed. Use free online backing tracks to practice toplining and make up your own demo reel.
And try using a single track to create many different top lines. That’ll help you become flexible, encouraging you to think out of the box and find more than one option per track. You must also have access to a recording setup – ideally at home – ready to go at short notice.
Topline vs songwriter credits
A key difference between songwriting and toplining comes in when we start talking about money. You won’t receive the same credits for writing just the top line, as you would for writing the full track. Rather you’ll get around 50% of the writing credits (and maybe a session fee if you are the singer).
While you may feel it’s unfair, as the melody is arguably the most important part of a song, it is the standard and you can’t be picky if you need the work and profile. If the producers and mixers have included elements of more than one of the demos they’re received, there might be other topliners credited too (meaning you’ll get less than 50% of a cut). But you should get some credit. It’s not ok for someone else to take the glory and money for your work.
Bear in mind that all writing and recording is affected by financial splits – and who gets what is down to who holds ownership of the song. This will often be the label or producer or may be split between writers, musicians and artists. But is something to consider before selling, or uploading your tracks. Sorting it out by way of a contract ahead of time, helps avoid arguments and disputes later down the line.
Topliner vs songwriter
But this way of writing can have its issues. Controversies have played out in the media as famous artists argue over plagiarism and ownership of songs. Avici and Leona Lewis settled out fo court following the claim that Lewis’ single Collide was copied from Avici’s Fade into Darkness.
This arises when a number of writers are asked to submit melodies for pre-existing tracks, with the artist picking their favourite. If a topliner submits to a number of artists at once this can cause confusion. For this reason, it can be risky taking this route – although the responsibility will ultimately lie with the artist and their label.
Now you know all about toplining, it’s time to try it out for yourself. Use the simple melody framework we’ve talked about, work with a backing track and see where your imagination will take you. It might just unlock the songwriter in you – and who knows where that might lead. And if you can create amazing beats too, you’re on to a winner.
- How do you write a vocal melody?
There are a number of ways you can do this. If you have an idea of a tune in your head, you can write that first, then add in musical accompaniment and lyrics to fit afterwards. You can also write a melody to fit existing lyrics written by you or someone else, or write a topline to fit a track.
- How do you make an original melody?
Originality must come from your own imagination. Spend some time improvising (playing an instrument or singing). A melody might start to emerge, or you may find melodies pop into your head at other times. Meditation can be a useful way to clear your mind and get creative.
- How many bars should a melody be?
It can be any length you like, but to create something memorable and catchy, keep it short and punchy – particularly if you’re writing pop or the kind of thing you’d like played on the radio. Aim for around eight bars.
Are you a songwriter who writes toplines for songs? Do you have any tips? Share links to your work in the comments below.