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What is topline songwriting? Here’s all you need to know to get started

The traditional job of a songwriter is to develop the chord structure, musical arrangement and lyric/melody of a song. However, in today’s world of collaborative songwriting and music production, a new role has emerged for melodic and lyric specialists. It’s called Toplining, and in this month’s Session Notes Blog, songwriter and Project7 Songwriting Retreats Creative Director Lisa Fitz lifts the lid on the integral role of the Topliner in today’s writing rooms.

I started my toplining career about 15 years ago when I was approached by a dance label to pitch toplines for some of their producers. I have had a home studio set up for quite some time, using it to demo my own compositions, but this felt like an exciting new challenge. I could work remotely from the comfort of my home, and I could work with programmers and musicians from as far as Europe and Australasia. I learnt a lot about structure, melody and recording during these years, which helps me today, especially when collaborating with several writers on the same project. Here are some top tips to help you to be a pro topliner.

What Is Toplining?

Toplining involves writing vocal melodies and lyrics over pre-existing instrumental tracks. Unlike traditional songwriting, which encompasses creating the entire song from scratch, the job of a topliner is exactly that! Creating the top line of a song.

Toplining vs. Songwriting

While songwriters craft complete songs, including lyrics, melodies, and structure, topliners specialise in adding melodies and lyrics to existing music. This means they don’t have control over the chord progression or overall song structure.

Should You Become a Topline Writer?

If you enjoy crafting melodies and lyrics and have a knack for singing, toplining could be a rewarding career for you. It’s especially prevalent in genres like pop, hip-hop, and EDM. Successful topliners can make a comfortable living, though it requires building a solid portfolio and finding the right collaborators.

What to do – how to start your Topliner journey:

  1. Practice: Start by practicing writing toplines with instrumental tracks, either from friends or found online. Develop a portfolio by writing multiple melodies and lyrics for the same track to showcase your versatility.
  2. Avoid Overloading Tracks: Keep it simple and avoid cramming too many melodic ideas into one piece. Ensure your lyrics and hooks are clear and memorable.
  3. Time Management: Meet deadlines and manage your time effectively. Quick turnaround times are essential in this line of work, so give yourself realistic deadlines and try to stick with them. Move onto new material if you feel like you are stuck in a topline rut.
  4. Look for upskilling opportunities - commit to a residential songwriting retreat: Our Project7 residential songwriting retreats, at the world famous Rockfield Studios, are a safe and supportive environment for artists to develop their Toplining skills. Our daily writing teams are selected with a mix of instrumentalists, artists and topliners to make the most of the writing session. Lead by internationally respected producers, each team writes and records a song from scratch each day. It’s a wonderful opportunity to learn on the job whilst giving artists an opportunity to build professional relationships. You leave the camp with 3 songs that can be further developed and released. It’s a valuable investment in your future career as a topliner.

What not to do - common Topliner Mistakes:

  1. Overcomplication: Too many motifs can confuse. Focus on a single, strong hook. Make sure you have your own recording device so you can catch idea’s as they come and only pitch the strongest ideas to the team.
  1. Lack of Variation: Ensure there are dynamic changes between verses, choruses, pre-choruses and middle 8’s to maintain listener interest.
  2. Weak Lyrical Imagery: Use vivid imagery in your lyrics to create a strong message and story for the artist to tell, and the audience to follow.

How do Topliners get paid?

  1. Royalty Split/No Upfront Pay: This is where the topliner gets the same percentage of royalties as the other writers on the track. At Pro7ect Residential Songwriting Retreats our writers splits agreement gives everyone in the room equal ownership of the song. If you choose this option, you will get no initial payment but a larger share of royalties of the song in the long run.
  2. Session fee: This is a fixed upfront fee for writing and recording the topline with no copyright ownership or future royalties.
  3. The Hybrid- a bit of both: A combination of a lower upfront payment with some royalty share is the ideal scenario, as it will ensure that you will get some payment for the time spent writing the topline, as well as future royalty ownership and payments.

Crediting and Copyright

Make sure you discuss copyright and crediting with your writing team before the session.
For more information on how to do this read my blog:
What’s the Deal: https://www.pro7ect.com/session-notes-blog/whats-the-deal

Some Top Tips for Toplining Success

  1. Listen to the Instrumentals: Understand the structure, arrangement and dynamics before starting the topline. I like to listen to the tracks whilst I’m running or driving to get a sense of the direction of the music.
  1. Capture the Emotion: Often my first idea is the strongest, so I make sure I have a basic recording device with me when I am fishing for topline idea’s. Identify the mood of the track and let it guide your lyrics and melody.
  2. Use a DAW: A Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) is essential for recording and experimenting with your toplines. If you are working remotely and want to be taken seriously you need a modicum of production knowledge so you can send vocal stems to the producers. This knowledge is a valuable investment in your toplining career.
  3. Stay Organised: Categorise your work by genre, mood, key, or BPM to quickly provide relevant samples to potential clients and collaborators.
  4. Network: Connect with producers and musicians locally and online to find those topline opportunities. Go on songwriting camps to meet other artists looking for collaborators. Of course, I would prescribe joining us at Rockfield for the Pro7ect songwriting retreats for this very reason. As the UK’s premier songwriting retreat, we prioritise production in the writing room, giving artists a supported, real-life experience of the world of pro collaboration.

Toplining is a valuable asset to your career portfolio and can be a fulfilling path for those who excel in melody and lyric creation. Topline writing complements traditional songwriting skills, whilst leveraging current technological trends, enabling topliners to craft memorable, industry-transcending songs. Good luck on your journey.

Join Us at Pro7ect

If you're a songwriter looking to experience the magic of collaboration, consider joining us at our next Pro7ect retreat. It's an opportunity to find your crew, create amazing music, and grow both personally and professionally.

About Pro7ect:

Pro7ect is the UK’s premier residential songwriting retreat, based at Rockfield Studios in Wales. Pro7ect offers artists, musicians, songwriters, and producers the unique opportunity to work with internationally respected music producers at our events.

Apply today for our next Residential Songwriting Retreats: (limited places available) at: www.pro7ect.com.

Our next events:

Residential: 16th – 20th July 2024 - £1695

Fee includes four nights’ accommodation (twin share), three writing days and all meals, studios, and equipment.

Masterclass: 20th July 2023: 10am - 5pm - £225.

The price includes studio, equipment, producer fees and lunch.
Applicants do not need to have any previous songwriting experience to attend the Masterclasses.

To find out more visit www.pro7ect.com @pro7ectmusic