Song ideas are all around you. You can train yourself to notice these gems, capture them into a notebook, and kindle the promising ones into new songs.
If you ever find yourself strapped for ideas, don’t despair. There’s always one more song idea out there for you somewhere. Try a few of these suggestions and see where they take you.
1. Listen to music. When’s the last time you sat and simply listened to a piece of music? Set your phone to “Do Not Disturb”, put your headphones on, choose an album that you love – or one you’re intrigued by – and try to just listen until it’s done. If you don’t have time for an album, everybody has time to listen to one song.
2. Free write. Free write for ten minutes, then set it aside for a few hours or a day. Later, you can look over the raw material for compelling phrases, rhyme pairs, and intriguing premises. Whether or not you write any lines you want to keep, you’ll at least spend some time getting words on paper. Even when it feels like you’re forcing yourself to do it, there can be some benefit from just making a habit of filling pages.
3. Spin the Wiki wheel. Read a random Wikipedia article.You might get the biography of a groundbreaking female astronomer, the name of a long-dead Romanian cleric, or a complete list of towns in Oklahoma. Go ahead, read a random article. What’d you get? Browse the article and challenge yourself to find some way to craft a song out of it. It’s a great exercise for learning how to wring the magic out of anything.
4. Start with a writing prompt. You can find some songwriting prompts right here on The Lyric Writer’s Workroom. If you’re still hungry for more, check out the book Songwriting Without Boundaries by Pat Pattison.
5. Take the long way home. Anything that takes you outside of your daily routine can awaken your senses and provoke your imagination. You can always find song ideas in an unfamiliar place — whether that means catching a plane to Paris next month or just taking a different street home tomorrow. Your “new place” doesn’t need to be far away; it just needs to be unfamiliar.
6. Sketch like a visual artist. Buy a sketchbook and use it to write sketches of things, people, and situations that you observe. Write from your senses and practice describing things using all of your senses: smells, sights, sounds, tastes, and touch sensations. It’s good practice, and you may write some “keeper” lines.
7. Get rhythm. Pick up your instrument, warm up your voice, and play a rhythm track to improvise over. This can be as simple as hitting play on a drum machine (aka “canned drums”) or you could jam with friends. For best results, pick something groovy and syncopated, like a blues shuffle, and try a tempo that you don’t usually play in.
8. Imagine the life story of a stranger. Get in the habit of asking yourself questions about people you meet (and about photos of strangers). Pick one person and ask yourself questions about the stranger’s job, family life, friends, hobbies, darkest secrets, deepest dreams, general health, and nagging fears. Invent a whole fictional life for this person on paper, or in your head – it’s good exercise for your imagination.
9. Search for interesting titles and phrases. Good sources for song titles include newspaper headlines, blog posts, movies, books, magazines, and famous speeches. Always keep your eyes and ears open for phrases that have a bit of music in their syllables, and ask yourself how you might alter these phrases to make them even more musical. Reading classic literature, especially reading poetry, is a great way to learn from the masters and find inspiration.
10. Explore a new scale or mode. Take a musical scale you’re unfamiliar with and explore its possibilities, its unique flavor. Play it forward and backward. Mix up the notes. Set a rhythm track in the background and improvise while recording. See what kinds of feelings and mental images the scale draws out of you.
11. Collaborate. There’s a whole world beyond just Nashville-style co-writing, so explore new relationships and new creative roles. What happens when you choose to let someone else handle the vocals? What happens when you set somebody else’s lyric to music?
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a Lyric Writer’s Workroom classic post, first published in August 2011 as “Find the Kink in Your Song Hose, Part 1”. Photo by Markus Grossalber.