How Important Is “Externally-Sourced” Inspiration to You As a Songwriter?

We tend to think of songwriting and inspiration as going hand-in-hand. Talk to anyone about how they write songs, and “inspiration” is probably going to come up pretty early on in the conversation.

Here’s the question: Do you need a good dose of inspiration before songwriting works for you? In other words, are you able to simply pick up a pencil and your guitar, and start churning out musical ideas without being inspired?

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle” comes with an excellent Study Guide that’s meant to get your songwriting moving in the right direction. Also comes with a FREE eBook, “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process.”

What I call “externally-sourced” inspiration refers to things that you see around you, or events that you experience, that excite your creative mind and get you writing. It’s hard to put it into words, but we all know what inspiration is when we experience it.

waterfallIn common usage, externally-sourced inspiration is what we usually mean when we talk about things that excite us to write. Beautiful things in nature, happy events like births, weddings, friendship and love can provide this kind of inspiration, as can sad events such as the loss of a loved one.

But there’s another kind of inspiration that’s important to songwriters, and I personally think it’s more important than those common sources, and it’s the kind of inspiration that comes from within — what could be called “internally-sourced inspiration.”

How do we access that kind, and why is it better?

Every time we write music, we feel a kind of creative excitement that builds each time we put newly imagined ideas together. Every time something works, we feel it. That creative excitement is simply inspiration that’s created within our own minds.

It’s better than externally-sourced inspiration because as long as we’re writing, we’re generating this internally-sourced form of inspiration. Externally-sourced inspiration has a way of diminishing over time (and usually a short time), and then we’re left with trying to find new sources of inspiration.

Songwriter's checklistThink of it this way: every time you wait until you feel inspired to write, you’re wasting time. Instead of waiting to be inspired, try this: get your pencil and your guitar or keyboard out, and start trying to spontaneously generate musical ideas. You may be surprised to know that it actually works!

And even if that first idea seems small and insignificant — a line of lyric, a couple of chords, or maybe a snippet of melody — it usually leads to the creation of another good idea, and then you get that shot of excitement.

So if today you’re finding it hard to get excited about writing, try it anyway. You have nothing to lose, and you’ll likely find that as you write, inspiration — the kind that comes from within — establishes itself and grows.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter. Hooks & Riffs“Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” shows you how a good hook can make the difference between songwriting success and failure. With great examples from pop music history.Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

Writing a Song From a Chord ProgressionTo discover the most important secrets of the chords-first songwriting process, read “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression.” It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle.”

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singer - songwriter

In Songwriting, What’s Worse Than Predictability?

If there’s one thing songwriters usually strive for, it’s uniqueness. No one wants to simply write songs that sound like everything else that’s going on out there. That would make it hard to build a fan base of your own.

Except… there is something worse than being overly predictable in your writing style (and predictability is not necessarily a bad thing, but I’ll get to that in a moment), and it’s this: writing songs that don’t make an emotional connection to the listener.

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Without an emotional connection, your audience won’t care. When a song fails to reach out and generate emotions of any sort, there’s little if anything that will cause listeners to want to come back to listen to it again. People crave being manipulated in that way. Whether it’s love, happiness, sadness, melancholy, or any other emotion, people want to feel something while they’re listening to music.

Predictability is not always a bad thing, and in fact, most songs are comprised of musical elements that everyone’s heard before. Having said that, every song needs a certain dose of originality, and the most common parts of a song that will show this originality will be the lyric and the melody.

But even there, there’s usually something predictable about melodies and lyrics in the sense that they use common words that are combined in, albeit, a somewhat unique way, and they use melodies not written quite that way before.

It’s hard to put real numbers on this, but it’s fair to say that most good songs are about 90% predictable, with only a small 10% of something that’s innovative, unique or surprising. That predictability is why you can listen to a song and tell within seconds what genre it is: country music, for example, doesn’t just have a sound — it has a way that the melodies tend to move, it has lyrics that are common in that genre, and a singing style that’s also common.

So for whatever amount of energy you put into trying to make your songs a unique musical experience, you need to put at least that much energy into finding ways to make sure your song is generating an emotional response in whoever takes the time to listen to it.

Without that kind of listener connection, it won’t matter how unique or clever your song is — no one will want to listen.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle includes“Writing a Song From a Chord Progression.” Discover the secrets of making the chords-first songwriting process work for you.

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Writing great song lyrics

Songwriting Happens in Two Stages: First Idea, and Process

If you ask any songwriter which process they use, they’ll probably tell you that it differs from song to song. For most, it really depends on which musical fragment makes its first appearance in their musical mind. If it’s a bit of lyric, they’ll most likely to start by filling out that fragment with more lyric, just to see what happens.

That leads to an interesting but important point: when we talk about process, we’re talking (in large part, anyway) about how we choose to start the act of songwriting. For example, you might favour a melody-first process most of the time, but all that means is that you like working out a few fragments of melody as a preliminary step; it doesn’t say anything about what you follow that up with. Chords? Lyrics? Or in what order you work out the rest of the song.

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Up-and-coming songwriters like to ask more seasoned pros which process they favour because it’s part of learning the secrets of those more experienced. But the truthful answer is that no one process will necessarily lead to a better song simply because you happened to use this or that process. It really doesn’t matter which process you favour. What does matter is what you do with that initial musical fragment that your creative mind comes up with.

So even though you might use, let’s say, a lyrics-first process, you need to see the work you’re undertaking described by that term as being in two parts:

  1. Lyrics-First: you happened to imagine a catchy bit of lyric that you believe might lead to an interesting song.
  2. Process: you need to work out how you’re going to proceed from that initial idea.

And that second part, the process part, is where the real work happens. No matter how good or clever your initial ideas are, they come to nothing if you haven’t worked out how to get all those eventual ideas you’ll come up with communicating successfully with each other. The process part of songwriting is always the most important part, far more important than whatever the first ideas are.

But it does bear mentioning that how you start a song (i.e., what that initial idea is) usually does define the final product. Different ways you might start a song usually leads to a different kind of song. A lyrics-first songwriting process (where the first ideas you get are fragments of lyrics) does usually lead to a song where the lyrics take centre stage.

I think it’s time well-spent to ask good songwriters how they write songs. Everyone is different, so everyone will give you a different answer. But no matter what answer they give you, the full answer, even if they don’t articulate it this way, is that a songwriting process is far more than simply how you start a song. How you proceed after the initial idea is the most important part of the process.

And how you know you’ve written a good song comes down to this: does each component of that song support the musical intent of the other components? If you’ve done that, it doesn’t matter which process you used. One process is not necessarily better than another.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting ProcessIf you’re trying to make your lyrics a much more important part of your songs, you need to read “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process.” It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle”, and right now, it’s FREE.


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Guitar - altered chords

Tips for Adding Chords to Melodies

If you like any of the melody-first songwriting processes, you know that eventually you need to add chords to that melody. If chord progressions are the part of writing that’s a little out of your comfort zone, here are some tips and ideas that can help :

  1. Get a sense of the strong beat-weak beat pattern of your song. In music theory terms this means identifying the time signature. But all you really need to do is to simply tap your foot to the music to get the beat. Once you’ve done that, try to identify the beats that feel stronger. Usually it will be every second beat. (If you sing the chorus melody of “Just Give Me a Reason” (Pink/Nathan Ruess), tapping your foot is easy. The strong beats occur on the words “Just“, “rea-(son), “lit-(tle)”, etc.
  2. Most of the time, chords will change on strong beats. It can change on every strong beat, or, as in “Just Give Me a Reason”, it’s mainly every other strong beat (i.e., the beginning of every bar).
  3. Use the notes of the melody to help guide your choice of chords. In “Just Give Me a Reason”, the chorus melody actually outlines the chords that make the most musical sense. The notes of the chorus start: B-B-G-G-D-D-B-B (outlining a G chord) moving to A-A-F#-F#-C (D7).
  4. Think outside the box when it comes to chord choices. The B-B-G-G-D melody clearly outlines a G chord, but an Em7 also uses those notes. In McCartney’s “Golden Slumbers”, if you sing the melody on its own, you clearly hear a C chord being implied (“Once there was a way/To get back homeward..“). But McCartney chooses Am7, which works beautifully and gives the music a very nostalgic mood.
  5. Think about harmonic rhythm. That term refers to the regularity of chord changes. Most songs will establish a certain pattern. (Changing chords every two beats or every four beats is the most common). But it’s also good to change things up once in a while. James Taylor’s “Your Smiling Face” changes chords every beat for the first two bars, then switches to every two beats after that.
  6. Be courageous to be creative. Throwing in an unexpected chord once in a while broadens the sound palette of your song, and can add a layer of sophistication. Once you’ve thrown in something a little odd, try to get back on track to target the tonic chord, especially if you’re writing a pop song. In the instrumental bridge to Van Halen’s “Jump”, you hear the tonality of the song going on a little journey away from the tonic. But soon enough, you hear the music pull back to the original key which happens right at the end of the bridge.

On that last point, if you like listening to classical music, you’ll notice that this is something even J.S. Bach did in his own compositions. He loved throwing in an unexpected chord now and then. But once he tossed in that musical surprise, he almost always would follow it up with a chord that was far more predictable and expected for his chosen key. So his approach was something like:

Predictable… predictable… predictable… SURPRISE!… predictable… predictable…

Believe it or not, that 300-year old approach works just fine for today’s pop music. Being creative with chord progressions is like adding a herb or spice to the sauce you’re cooking. A little can go a long way!

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

How to Harmonize a Melody“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle” includes several eBooks that are meant to make your chord progressions better, including “How to Harmonize a Melody.” It shows you, step-by-step, how to add chords to that melody you’ve created.

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Stevie Wonder

Creating Hooks in Pop Song Formats

For most songwriters, talking about “the hook” means talking about the chorus, at least the main part of the chorus melody that’s catchy and immediately identifiable. If someone asked you to sing the most identifiable part of Derek & the Dominos’ “Layla”, you’d start with the opening of the chorus (“Layla/ Got me on my knees…“). That’s the chorus hook, and it’s a good one.

What we often don’t consider is that most songs have several hooks, all layered together. They are not all equal in importance, but they all do pretty much the same job: they are something repetitious and catchy that serve to propel the song forward, inject musical energy, and make audiences want to keep coming back to the song.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook BundleIf you’re ready to take your songwriting to its highest level possible, you need “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle.” Get the manuals that thousands of songwriters are using.

In Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition”, that opening melodic cell (“Very superstitious/Writings on the wall…”) is a great hook. We hear that melodic idea over and over, and it locks in powerfully with the instrumental accompaniment.

But before we ever hear that hook, we hear that instrumental/intro hook that the clavinet, drums and bass provide. That is also repetitious and attractive.

We also get the horn riffs a little later on that repeat several times. Are those riffs hooks? In a way they are because they’re structured the same way — using repetition as a powerful organizing feature — and they’re very singable and memorable.

All the hooks we encounter in “Superstition” are not equal in power. Just as in most songs, the chorus melody draws more attention to itself than a verse melody, one hook typically waves the flag as being the most noticeable and memorable.

Some songs don’t have noticeable hooks, and yet they work just fine — they still pull in an audience and make them want to keep listening. Lennon & McCartney’s “Fool On the Hill” has repeating elements, but none of those melodic bits seem to rise to the level of calling them hooks.

But in those kinds of songs where a powerful hook doesn’t seem to be present, you’ll find that there’s something else that pulls people in. In “Fool On the Hill”, it’s that gradually rising melody that starts it all off, moving ever higher and making us wonder where it’s headed.

In Van Halen’s “Jump”, it’s the strong rhythmic synthesizer chord progression. In most songs, even if there isn’t something you identify as a “hook”, there’s always something that is catchy and repetitious.

If you find your own new song sounds a bit boring or lacking direction or anything that really pulls an audience in and makes them (or you!) want to keep listening, you need to listen closely to the finished product, and then make a list of the elements within your song that work to entice listeners.

What bits of your song are pleasantly repetitive and make people want to keep listening? If you can’t identify them, it is possible to add instrumental elements (like the clavinet intro of “Superstition”) that can fill the void.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting ProcessIf you’re trying to make your lyrics a much more important part of your songs, you need to read “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process.” It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle”, and right now, it’s FREE.

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5 Characteristics of Great Song Lyrics

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Why Hooks are So Important to Pop Songs

Gary Ewer

I’m Gary Ewer. For years I’ve been helping songwriters understand the basic fundamentals of good songwriting. I do that mainly through the free articles on this blog, and also through my 10-eBook bundle. If you lack consistency in your songwriting, and you want to take your abilities to the next level, everything you need to know is in that bundle package, so please take a look at those ebooks. And if you want to browse through the more than 2300 posts in the blog archive, scroll to the bottom of this page.

Please feel free to leave a comment at the end of any article. I love reading what others are thinking about music.

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