After that Initial Great Idea… Then What?

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Frustrated guitarist/songwriterIt can be interesting to debate the role of inspiration in good songwriting. I’ve written quite a few blog postings about that topic over the past few years. And to sum up my position: inspiration doesn’t really impress me all that much. For sure, good musicians will develop an initial musical idea – a “shot of inspiration” – that can lead to something great. But once that idea happens, there’s nothing like the frustration that sets in when you just can’t think of what to do next. Once you’ve had the moment of inspiration… then what?

The original musical idea may have come through an inspirational moment, but whatever you develop it into usually comes from hard work.

The frustration I mentioned comes from the fact that the inspirational moment probably felt as easy as breathing, while the “hard work” is, well, hard work. Many songwriters are left wondering why inspiration has left them high and dry.

Take heart, it’s normal. It’s what songwriting is all about: how to take an initial idea and develop it into a working, successful song.

But it still begs the question: what do you do to develop that initial great songwriting idea into something bigger? Here are some tips to consider:

  1. Try to determine where in the song your idea belongs. Most of the time, song fragments that come to us as moments of inspiration are bits of chorus. There are many reasons for this, but the main one is that inspirational ideas are usually repetitive, and accompanied by strong progressions, both of which work well in choruses. You can then use the musical components of that fragment to begin working out the rest of your song.
  2. Examine the melodic component of your inspirational fragment. Consider the possibility that some songs use verses that are very similar to choruses, so you may want to test out your idea to see if it can serve as both a verse and a chorus. Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” is a good example. If you think your song’s verse needs to be different (as with most songs), see if there’s a way to re-order the notes of the inspirational idea to create a new melody, or perhaps identify little melodic cells within the idea that can be used to form a verse.
  3. Examine the harmonic component. If it’s destined to be part of your chorus, you’ll likely find that the progression is strong, predictable, and limited to a few chords. To develop a verse that complements it, it helps to remember that verse progressions use the tonic chord less often than chorus progressions. So it may be possible to use a similar progression in your verse, but change the tonic chord to something else. Thus a chorus progression like this: C F Dm G C, might partner well with a verse progression like this: Am F Dm G Am… (the C chord was changed to Am in each case.)
  4. Examine the lyric. If, in your inspirational moment, you dreamed up lyrics to go with your musical idea, it’s likely to be good for a chorus if they express an emotion. If that’s the case, develop a verse lyric that prepares that emotional expression. What sort of story or situation would lead someone to sing that fragment of lyric?

It’s very uncommon to have inspiration lead to the creation of an entire song. But so many songwriters get stumped by what to do next. Worse, they feel that since the inspirational moment produced only a fragment, it’s probably a dud.

It’s not a dud! It’s just the start! Now you need to get down to the real task for songwriters: Start working it into a viable song.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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