6 Ways to Maintain a Steady Stream of New Song Ideas

3430060992_8a26aefb50_z tanaka juuyohA few days after deciding that I’d write 14 songs in February, I started noticing song premises every day.

I hadn’t consciously changed my routine. I hadn’t even begun to put in significant time at the piano. But knowing I’d have to write at least one song every two days, my mind was poised to spring like a steel trap on song titles, interesting phrases, and threads of melody that crossed my path.

This deadline harnessed everything I’ve learned about songwriting in the past ten years. It set all the prepared gears in motion.

Over time, having survived writer’s block dozens of times, having also enjoyed feverishly productive periods, I’ve come to rely on six small self-reminders to keep ideas coming. When I feel blocked, it’s because I’ve allowed one of these to lapse.

6 Ways to Maintain a Steady Stream of New Songs

1. Learn your craft—the more you know about how songs are constructed, the sharper you’ll get at seeing the potential in a single lyric or melodic phrase. Craft also helps you quickly identify gaps and fill them in so that you can finish drafts, stash them, and move on to the next song idea. Study songwriting books, analyze your favorite songs. Experiment with new rhyme schemes and song forms. Also read books on poetry, fiction, copywriting, music theory, and beyond.

2. Read—reading poetry, magazine articles, and fiction can all lead to serendipitous discovery. It’s also an enjoyable way to hone your instincts for description, dialogue, and the rhythms of language.

3. Listen—and I mean really listen. Sit down with earphones and a piece of music—and nothing else. Close your eyes, clear your mind, and listen. This is surprisingly difficult to do at first, but stay with it. Listen to at least one song every day, a whole album if you can.

4. Write every day—on days when you feel dry or blocked, have practice tasks to fall back on. Take out a guitar manual and learn some new chords. Do an exercise from William Russo’s Composing Music. Free write for 10 minutes. Revise one of your earlier songs. Start a songwriting prompt from this site. No need to wait for a thunderbolt—you can make songs happen whenever you want.

5. Set a clear goal and deadline—Deadlines force us to quit procrastinating and produce. Thanks to Album Writing Month, I’m constantly thinking about whether or not I’m on track to complete all 14 of my FAWM songs by February 29th. This exerts constant pressure to keep moving. Why not join the other 6,000+ songwriters and I? It’s not too late.

6. Seek peer pressure—another element that makes FAWM so motivating is the company of fellow songwriters. A group environment provides support and keeps you accountable for putting in your time and doing your work. Since I’m a loner by instinct. I stay motivated by reading books like Do the Work and watching documentaries about military training regimens. The military knows discipline.

Repeat the above steps in a continuous cycle. Build them into your daily life.

To recap:

  1. Study your craft
  2. Read
  3. Listen
  4. Write every day
  5. Set a clear goal and deadline
  6. Seek peer pressure

How do you keep ideas coming?

I’d like to hear about what keeps you sharp and motivated. Noticed any patterns? Leave a comment and let us know.

canal photo by Tanaka Juuyoh

Posted on February 9, 2012

10 Responses to 6 Ways to Maintain a Steady Stream of New Song Ideas

  1. John Mumm February 9, 2012 at 19:01 #

    Hi Nicholas, I recently started reading your blog. You’ve got some interesting ideas in here. You were the one to tip me off to FAWM, and I’m already five songs in. Great fun.

    This year I started a new routine of waking up a half hour earlier than normal and just writing songs in a free form kind of way first thing in the morning (dictaphone at my side). I’m finding it’s a great way to generate ideas to revisit later. I also took up writing my own blog on songwriting. The focus is on practical exercises, and it basically started as an excuse to get myself trying new methods. I guess you already know how motivating it can be!

    • Nicholas Tozier February 10, 2012 at 12:08 #

      Hi John.

      Nice-looking website you’ve got there. Classy presentation.

      Do you also free write, or do you do all of your stream-of-consciousness work aloud?

      • John Mumm February 10, 2012 at 17:31 #

        Thanks, Nicholas. And as far as my recent approach goes, I’ve been coming up with chord progressions on the guitar and singing melodies together. I’ve never really started from written lyrics, though it might be worth trying out.

        • Nicholas Tozier February 11, 2012 at 13:27 #

          Starting from a lyric is interesting, especially if it’s set in stone and you’re setting it to music word for word. If the text is strictly structured (syllable counts in all the verses match), that makes it easy to write in the expected way–with a melody common to all the verses.

          If the syllable counts are irregular, then you get to play with cells, tone rows, variations on a motif, etc. The results might lean more toward art song than popular song… that’s exciting territory.

          • John Mumm February 16, 2012 at 23:11 #

            When you put it that way, it makes it sound like something worth exploring. The one time I did such a thing was when I tried to set a Baudelaire poem to music some years ago. The results were pretty weird, but I liked them. I’ll have to give it another try with my own lyrics.

  2. Karen Loveless February 10, 2012 at 02:33 #

    Great guidelines to follow here Nick! Self discipline is something us songwriters reach for or should reach for every day! When I get writers block I write short stories about something in my life that makes or made me happy, and on a few occasions I write something that mades or made me sad. I stay focused on the subject matter, go down a few windy roads and add a sense of humor to boot! When I’m done I feel free, my mind, thoughts, never get jumbled up with rhymes, syllables, melodies…I just write! Now, if I could just do that with songwriting more often…! 🙂

    • Nicholas Tozier February 10, 2012 at 12:10 #

      I know what you mean, Karen. Fiction is a different experience–much less structured than a lyric.

  3. Max February 15, 2012 at 16:53 #

    One thing that used to hold me back where all the readings I did. I got obsessed, and probably still am with reading and learning anything about songwriting and poetry. By nature, I’m not a very focused, clear, person. I ramble around ideas in conversations to get the land first, then it’s easier to see what I really mean without actually saying it. Being that free writing or destination writing is a major source of my brainstorming, you can imagine a few intangibles slip in there. What I learned is that poetry usually has a theme (an subject/idea/concept + opinions, thoughts, and statements). I can swallow this small amount of focus, and the idea of writing a song around a hook. Say you have an initial subject, like I read somewhere (maybe here) the initial subject is like a diving board and your free writing is a pool. It’s okay to get somewhere far from the initial launch and actually encouraged. Follow the tangent of your thoughts because having choices = developing style and voice. Another thing that goes in hand with that is to not feel the need to explain everything. The idea of songs isn’t to preach morality, its to connect hearts and minds. Creating a world through song or showcasing a thought is enough if done effectively. for example Bob dylan has a song where he mentions lots of social injustices, but the chorus follows the sentiment of “well I don’t know” and it works brilliantly. So to all the people who discuss poetry by harshly disassociating poetry with it give them the finger. The initial idea sparks and brainstorming are practically the same. The difference is in the craft, The communicating of the idea. If you think like a poet you think like a songwriter. So, if you take anything from my wordiness, The confusion comes from the fact that the rules are linear, But the creative process, and the way you think is not at all. focus on the journey not the goal, but yes, build around a hook, or subject at the top of the paper and keep senses in mind, through creation of the world by jumping from the diving board into the pool of free writing, or flying the kite that is your free writing , you will find the story.

  4. Angel B April 26, 2012 at 15:36 #

    Hey Nicholas, great post! Thanks for sharing these wonderful ideas, very helpful. I usually spend a lot of time on how I’m going to open with the first line but once I have it then it just starts flowing. Thanks again for sharing your experience and tips.

    • Nicholas Tozier April 26, 2012 at 16:50 #

      Hey Angel B!

      It’s definitely a good choice to spend time thinking about your first line. You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression… and you never know which of your songs somebody will stumble across first.

      Thanks for dropping by. 😀