Written for The Essential Secrets of Songwriting Blog by Robin Frederick
You’re Inspired! You woke up in the middle of the night with a killer first verse running through your head. You actually sat up in bed and said: “Man, that’s killer!” You managed to write it down before you forgot it. Maybe you even got up and plunked a few chords on the piano. Suddenly you felt like Sting writing “Every Breath You Take.” You even recorded your inspiration onto the Voice Memo on your Smartphone before going back to sleep.
Now, in the cold light of morning, you listen back to it. Amazingly, it still sounds good!
So now, you need a chorus. Nothing pops into your head right away, so you go to the notebook where you keep lyric ideas. (Good for you for keeping a notebook!) There’s a line you’ve wanted to use for months and this looks like a good opportunity. Bingo! You’ve got the first line of your chorus. You can’t really think of a second line, so you just repeat the first one a few times.
But wait a minute. Repeating a lyric phrase, even if you change the chords and melody underneath, can feel static. There’s not enough development to keep the song moving forward and listeners involved. And you can’t think of anything at all to say in your second verse. These are signs that there’s trouble ahead.
As you continue to work on your song…
- Nothing seems to fit with your first verse.
- Everything you write sounds forced and unnatural.
- You can’t get back to the inspired feeling you had.
- Your lyric “voice” has changed. It sounds like someone else is writing the song.
After struggling with a chorus and second verse, writing and rewriting hour after hour, you begin to get tired of this song. You don’t like it anymore. You put it away and it becomes one of the Unfinished Ones. But it was off to such a great start. What happened?
Writing From Inspiration
Inspiration is a wonderful thing and it always has a big role to play in the writing process. It gives us those gems that add color and life to a lyric, special insights that create depth, unique melody twists that surprise us at just the right time. Inspiration is playful, exciting, and refreshing.
The problem with inspiration is that it is neither linear nor selective. It gives you everything all at once! It might even be giving you ideas for a different song. Inspiration is either ON or OFF. And once it’s ON, like dreams, it will work on anything that’s happening in your subconscious.
Maybe It Will Fix Itself
Often we hope a song will reveal itself as we write. And sometimes it does. When that happens, say “thank you” to your inspiration and go record it. But far more often, there are lyric or melody lines that are confusing, blur the focus, or create a sense of aimless wandering. Listeners don’t like any of that.
Most of the time it will be up to you to fix things. Your conscious mind needs to select and put in order the pile of stuff your inspiration dumps on you. The trick is to enhance your inspired ideas, not destroy them. Keep the leash loose enough to allow your inspiration to explore while you take the goodies and turn them into something you can build on and listeners can relate to.
Here are a few tips on how to do this. Use these techniques to find out what your inspired verse or line is about so you can develop the other sections of your song from it. And, when inspiration drops something new into your lap, you can decide if it belongs in this song or somewhere else.
Find Out What You’re Really Writing About
INTERVIEW YOURSELF – Write down the answers to these questions in short phrases (five to ten words). Include any images, words, or ideas that come to mind.
- What do you want to say?
- How do you feel about it?
- When you strip away specific events or details, what is left?
- What is the most important thing you want listeners to understand?
Now, in short sentences, express the emotional message at the heart of your song. Write a few lines then take a break. Come back and read over your answers a couple of times. Add a few more short lines.
WRITE FROM A TITLE OR FIRST LINE – Choose the most important line in your chorus OR the first line of your inspired verse (not both). Write the line at the top of a page. Make a list of questions that you and your listeners might have about that line and write out the answers in short phrases.
Answer questions like:
- What does that mean?
- Why are you saying that?
- What happened that made you feel that way?
- What does that feel like?
Now, look at the inspired lyric you’ve written so far. Is it answering some of the questions on your list? Do the answers work together or are they in conflict? If the answers are in conflict or unconnected, you may be writing two songs. Decide which song you want to write first. Put the other lines aside and use them to start a new song.
USE LEADING PHRASES – At the end of your inspired verse or chorus, write the phrase “This is what I really need to say…” then finish the sentence. If you can think of several ways to finish the sentence, see if they all work together to express what you want to say. If so, then you can use them all in your lyric. If they’re saying unrelated things, start other songs with some of them.
More leading phrases:
- What I mean is…
- How I really feel is…
- If I could say one thing it would be…
- I want…
- I don’t want…
Second Verse Syndrome
Sometimes you can get through both a whole first verse and chorus without having a clear idea what your song is about. When that happens, you might find you get stuck on the second verse and bridge. After all, what more is there to say if you don’t know what you’re saying in the first place?
So, the second verse and bridge may be become static, simply repeating the same ideas in similar ways. Or there may be a change in the emotional message or overall theme. Both are a problem for listeners.
If you’re having trouble developing your second verse or bridge, try these ideas.
INTERVIEW YOURSELF AGAIN – But ask different questions this time. Now you want to know…
- What do you think, hope, or fear might happen next? Or…
- What caused this to happen? Or…
- What images or examples or physical sensations describe what you feel?
RESEARCH CREATIVE SOLUTIONS – If you’re really stuck, take a break from your song. Read other song lyrics that you admire and notice how those writers solved the problem. What did they write about in the second verse or bridge? What questions did they answer? How did these sections relate to the first verse and chorus? You don’t want to copy their ideas. Just look for techniques and solutions then adapt them to your own song.
RELAX THE RHYME SCHEME – For some reason, it seems like inspiration loves to rhyme. I don’t know why but those big inspired ideas tend to have tight rhyme schemes, ones that are very hard to replicate in other song sections without sounding forced and unnatural. But you know what? No listener ever said “I’ve just gotta hear that song again… I LOVED that rhyme scheme!”
If your inspired first verse has an insanely tight rhyme scheme, you can let it slide a little in your second verse. Use “near rhymes” instead of perfect rhymes. Near rhymes offer a far greater range of rhyming words than perfect rhymes because they only rhyme the vowel sound. Give yourself a break.
As a last resort, if you need to, you can relax the first verse rhyme scheme a little. You don’t have to rhyme absolutely every line. If it won’t hurt the lyric, change a word or phrase so it doesn’t rhyme. With rhymes, more is not always better.
Inspiration Can Sometimes be Generic and Familiar
Sometimes “inspiration” is really just the first thing that popped into your head. It could be the result of habit and familiarity. Inspired melodies, especially, tend to be derivative of others you’ve heard. If you think you’ve heard something similar in another song, try making a few changes just to be safe. Raise or lower the pitches in a melody line or change the rhythm of the notes. Replace a tired lyric cliché with a fresh image or idea.
Do It Now
Look through your back catalog and lyric notebooks for unfinished songs, inspired verses, or songs that could just use some added focus. Use some of the suggestions in this Songwriting Tip to develop a second verse and bridge, add focus to a chorus, or clarify your theme so that listeners can understand your song and feel what you felt when you wrote it.
Enjoy, explore, and make friends with your inspiration!
Robin Frederick has written and produced more than 500 songs for television, records, theater, and audio products. She is a former Director of A&R for Rhino Records, Executive Producer of over 60 albums, and the author of several books on songwriting, including Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV and Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting. Her books are used to teach all levels of songwriting throughout the U.S., including Musicians Institute (Hollywood) and Belmont University (Nashville), among others. Robin is a former Vice President of the Los Angeles Chapter of the Recording Academy and past President of Los Angeles Women in Music. For more song tips and inspiration, visit RobinFrederick.com.