How To

Topline Writers: Definition And How To Start Toplining

Photograph of the blog post author, Maximilian Frattura

Maximilian Frattura

18.2.2020

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You may have heard this word floating around in the music industry: Topline. But what is a topline, how can you start toplining and become a topline writer? We answer all that and more in this article, so keep reading!

When we listen to a song we often get a mixed range of feelings; we get deeply lost and immerse ourselves in this beautiful world. We often forget that behind that world there is a wide range of elements that can often be forgotten. 

A song today is made up of all of these elements that co-work together: 

  • Melody
  • Lyrics
  • Beat and/or harmonic structure
  • Production and Engineering
  • Mastering 
  • Marketing 

Gone are the old days when a songwriter could knock at a publisher’s office and play their rudimental song, before it was recorded in a top-end studio

This old format of delivering songs has changed with new music equipment that focuses on production and beat making. Nowadays there are professionals that dedicate each and every second of their time to a specific part of a song. 

The professionals who dominate the industry are mainly topline melody writers. Their main focus is to craft a unique Topline Melody. 

Sheet music with a topline

What Is A Topline? 

A topline in music by definition is the melody of a song, sung by the vocalist in a song; sometimes it can be played by instruments which might repeat a part thus becoming a “hook”. 

In a more simple and practical way, the topline melody is what you sing at the top of your lungs while driving in your car. It’s what gives meaning to a song when paired with catchy, and memorable lyrics

Topline melodies are important because they allow the listener to connect with the song and especially with the singer. The topline melody is what catches your listeners ear and needs to shine within your song.

Difference Between Songwriter and Topline Writer 

Topline writer playing guitar outside in the sun

The difference between a songwriter and a topline writer comes down to the fact that a songwriter will have written most of the melody, lyrics, structure and chord progression. They usually only need a band or producer to finalise their work. 

In today’s music business, a topline melody writer is hired to write melody and lyrics over a beat created by a producer or musician. Therefore he/she doesn’t have the full creative control over the song structure or chord progression. 

The process of writing a topline is called… guess? Toplining! And it’s most prominent in pop, hip-hop and R&B where usually a song starts off from a produced beat or sample. 

How do you become a Topline Writer? 

writer writing in a notebook

There are different ways of becoming a topline melody writer; the first important thing is to have a portfolio of your work. This can take a bit of time to work on, but is very beneficial. It really depends on what point you are in your career, and how many people you are currently working with; I will outline a few ways depending on your current level. 

If you are a songwriter with at least 100 or more finished songs under your belt then you will need to arrange an impeccable catalogue of your songs. This will be your business card for producers that are hiring topline writers

Your songwriter catalogue is fundamental and by far the most ever-changing piece of work you will have in your songwriting career. A catalogue of songs showcases what your strengths are as a topline writer and how your melodies stand out within a specific genre. 

A portfolio which is weak and still needs tweaking will not land you many gigs. Therefore, focus on your 5 best songs from your catalogue and double-check what style you will be toplining for. 

Making A Good Impression

Men shaking hands to make a good impression

Focus on a genre that you feel confident in. You’ll often be competing with more than a dozen topline writers so focus on your strengths. Also very important is that your songs or demos are at least produced to a certain standard. They don’t have to be fully arranged, produced and mastered but try to avoid recording with poor quality equipment, singing out of tune or being out of time… It will make a really bad impression to the producer who might want to hire you. 

Even if you are not hired at the first shot, making a first good impression will make it ten times more likely that you get called in the future for other material! 

However, if you are just starting out with toplining then I would start by writing out and finding simple chord progressions on the piano/guitar. Then you can write different toplines for the same progression. This will allow you to take bits and pieces of your topline melodies and select the ones that are strongest. 

Collaborating

Man and woman, topline writers singing outside with a guitar

If you are not an instrumentalist and cannot find a musician or a producer who will provide you with a beat, I’d recommend using Music Gateway as they offer a space for you to find and collaborate with other creatives.

The world is full of fish and if you find the right person, you might be able to start an online collaboration together.

This happens quite often where producers send their beats to 10-15 different topline writers and then decide which one suits best their needs. The way in which the royalties are divided will depend on many factors but we will look at that later on in the article. 

Another place where you can hire a musician or a producer is Fiverr and you could ask them for a verse or chorus for a small fee. This can be very useful since you will avoid copyright infringement and you will be owning the song in its entirety. 

Being a topline writer can be extremely difficult if you are not connected with the music community; you’re always in need of a co-songwriter, a musician or a lyricist that can help you out when can’t move forward. Hang out in places where musicians meet: bars, music schools, venues, art theatres and seek networking events in your city.

Being in touch with different people will allow you to reach producers who are in need of a topline writer. Behind every great song there is always a great producer (or 3 – 4 according to today’s popular music).

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Tips and Tricks for Topline Melodies 

voice recorder outside as a tip how to start toplining

Rest assured that writing a topline melody requires a lot of patience and a lot of redrafting and adapting to fit the right mood/style. I guarantee you that keeping a portable recorder handy (your smartphone is perfect) will be extremely helpful when you’re feeling stuck and suddenly out of the blue, usually when you’re about to go to sleep, you get a great idea. 

Always hold onto your ideas but allow yourself to work on these since most of the time they will need revision. Therefore, having a backlog of all of your ideas for the same song is always great. 

Don’t expect that your first melodies will be comparable to the top of the industry right now, class A songwriters such as Max Martin or Ryan Tedder work in a team and spend up to 3 weeks or more just on having the right melody. A golden melody can last a lifetime therefore they don’t come as easy, and a lot of the times you will need to be patient and keep on writing, writing and writing… 

Here’s a list of tips on writing a topline as well as organising your work strategically 

A woman singing on stage, how to start toplining

Firstly, listen to the track

Listen to it carefully and listen a lot. Try to understand what is happening instrumentally, structurally and dynamically. Most of the time you will have a verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus. But there are so many variables today so make sure you know how many parts you have in your song. Once you have the general gist going on, start by arming your mic and trying out a few melodies to get a feel for the song. 

Create an image in your head

Always ask yourself… what feelings are you getting from this song? Immense joy? Sadness? anger? bliss? Zest? The more you can feel these, the better you will churn out a well-crafted melody. 

Start to sketch out a few lyrics that will help you to work with a set of words. It doesn’t matter if these will not be your final lyrics but at least you will have something to work on. This is your dummy lyric and it’s really important, so don’t skip this part! 

Use a Digital Audio Workstation

Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) for toplining

A digital audio workstation, or DAW for short (Logic Pro X, ProTools, Ableton, Reaper, etc.) for your work. This will help you immensely when you want to move around a vocal line and create a syncopated rhythm or push your melody over the next bar. Often when we sing melodies we tend to fall on the strong beats of the track and we don’t use the off-beats in-between quarter notes, which is where strong melodic movement happens. Also you can chop up your vocal line and fit it together in ways that you would not be able to if you’d just recorded directly onto the track. 

You don’t have to create a full-blown home recording studio, but just get yourself a small setup so you can get your ideas down.

Save all of your work by keys

Such as major, minor (or modal) and also what specific key it’s in (C Major or D Minor etc.). This will help you out when you are sent a track in a specific key and you already have ideas. Also, it’s great to know what key your work is in because you can always transpose your topline to a different key which suits a different song. 

Co-write with other songwriters and top liners

Especially ones that have different skillsets from yours: guitar, piano, lyric writing. This is one of the most important since it will allow you to go out of your comfort zone and create different things, as well as learning from other people. 

Earnings and Royalties 

Topline writer checking their royalties

The collection of royalties for a topline writer are quite similar to those of a non-performing songwriter who collects publishing royalties from the song. 

However, the music business is full of exceptions and there really is no one way of discussing what the earning and royalty rates are. This varies from whom you work with, if they have a publishing company, if they are their own publisher, if they will sell the song to another artist… 

Let’s put it more simply; when you are writing the topline, you have songwriting credit but don’t “technically” own full copyright of the song. You only own copyright for the melody. Therefore for example purposes, if we divide the song in produced beat/track, topline melody and lyrics, we could say that the topline melody is 1/3 of the whole song. 

So now we can come down to two options: 

Topline writer on a piano
  • Option 1: Working for Hire. This where you ask for a fee up-front. However, be aware that unless you are an incredible professional and can deliver a great topline, you will not be earning a lot. The fee can vary, but technically I would work with an hourly fee. This can range between $30 to $100 per hour depending on the producer and/or project. Also remember that if you use this option you will lose the copyright of your track. So, if the song becomes a hit, you will not earn any potential future royalties. 
  • Option 2: Splitting royalties, here you will divide any future royalties with the producer, lyricist or whoever is working with you. You will be given a ⅓ of the revenues which is the part you wrote. This is more common in the industry, but be aware of the fact that there are a lot of publishing contracts which define who gets what. 

The most important thing is to discuss upfront is how you will get paid and what you will own of the track you have written. Do not talk about this later… Always do this before getting into an agreement, especially if you plan on working long-term. 

So, Is Toplining For You?

Now you know how to start toplining, it’s up to you whether you want to move into becoming a topline writer.

If you want to find people to collaborate with or get opportunities for your music, Music Gateway is here to help! Try the platform out for free, all you have to do is sign up.



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