Song Lyrics: From Category to Topic to Specifics

Ideas for a lyric can happen easily and quickly if you start by generating a page-full of words and then narrowing it all down.


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Creating Word Lists for SongwritersOnce in a while you’ll find that a specific song topic will come to you in a flurry of inspiration. But don’t be surprised if that’s a bit rare. Most of the time, lyrical ideas for songs will come to you in bits and pieces. Sometimes you’ll find that a song topic changes as you work on it, so that what you thought you’d be writing about gets abandoned in favour of something else.

It’s a bit frustrating, though, since for many songwriters knowing what you’re going to write about is an important first step. Is there a way to speed up that process — a way to generate an idea for a song lyric more quickly and efficiently?

If you can get as far as developing a general category for a song (love song, social justice song… that sort of thing), you might have all you need to quickly drill down and find an enticing topic, and then a specific angle for your lyric.

Here’s a set of steps to try, either using blank paper, or your digital device:

  1. Write a general category across the top of your page.
  2. Begin writing words, phrases and sentences that pertain to that topic. If you’ve written “Love Song,” you’ll probably write words and phrases like: “heart“, “warm“, “touch“, “I love you“, “my beating heart“, etc. Don’t worry that the words seem to have little if anything to do with a story yet. The more you write, the better, so 50 or more is a good target. You may find that some phrases seem to come from a potential story, but you don’t know how it might fit in, like “She told me you’d feel this way…” Don’t worry; write it down anyway.
  3. On a separate page, write words and phrases that express a contrary emotion. For love songs, you’ll likely write words like “leave me alone“, “go away“, “I don’t feel that way“, but a negative emotion might be something that expresses a wish that your relationship was better: “where is she gone?“, “why“, “don’t leave“, etc.
  4. Leave your lists for a short while, like an hour or so, and then return to them. This time, try to add phrases that use imagery, metaphors, and other poetic devices and turns of phrase. So you might find yourself writing something like, “soaring like an eagle“, “my wind-swept mind“, “our love is a diamond in the rough“, and so on. You may come up with words and sentences that don’t seem to pertain directly to your topic, but that’s OK. It’s better to write too much than not enough.

You’ve now got a page or two of words and phrases, you’re ready to start digging down and finding a song topic. Look through your words, and then circle the ones that seem to point to a specific theme. This is where it’s beneficial to have written words that seem to come from a story that you can’t yet identify.

After you’ve circled several words, you will start to see the makings of an angle — maybe not necessarily a story, but something that can serve as a topic that will lead to specific lines of lyric. For example, you might see that you’ve circled words like “I don’t need anyone“, “love always leaves me“, and “inner strength“… that sort of thing. You start to see the makings of a topic: you’ve been burned, and now you want to try life on your own. Keep working through your lists, finding more lines that seem to come from that sentiment.

Now take a new piece of paper, and write a specific topic at the top, something that could serve as a working title: “I’m On My Own”, for example. From there, there are many ways to proceed, but in practically any case you’ll want to create new word lists that speak to that specific title, and see if you can now get something more specific.

It all starts by having a couple of pages of words and you can draw from. You have a creative mind, and so seeing dozens and dozens of words that address the same general topic should be enough to get your creative juices flowing.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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  1. Pingback: Interesting Links For Musicians and Songwritiers – November 12, 2014 | Creative Music | Inspiring Musical Creativity

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