No matter what your favourite songwriting process is, all songs start with you getting some sort of musical idea. It might be a fragment of lyric, a catchy chord progression and rhythm, or even just a short bit of melody.
Who knows where these ideas come from… often they seem to pop out of thin air. But it can happen that you’ll have several days when ideas are hard to come by.
Take lyrics for example. There are days when every effort seems to result in lines of lyric that are corny or otherwise meaningless. When this happens day after day, you start to feel the grip of writer’s block.
Here are 3 ideas to try for those days when you need to get something working, but your sense of creativity seems stifled.
From a Book…
Improvise lyrics using a book on your shelf. Grab any book, turn to any page, then:
- Choose any one word from that first sentence.
- Let that word be the first word of a line of lyric.
- Choose another word from that sentence.
- Let that word be the last word of that same line of lyric.
- Create a full line of lyric.
This can be kind of fun. As you do this, don’t worry so much if you can’t figure out what the rest of the lyric might be. It’s possible you’ll do this and then throw out whatever you’ve created as being unusable.
But every once in a while, you’ll come up with something that has possibilities. And that’s all you really need at this point — just something that can create a spark again.
Example: From “Emma” (Jane Austin): “To be constantly living with an ill-tempered person, must be dreadful.”
Word choices: First word in lyric line: “Constantly.” Last word in lyric line: “living”
Possible lines of lyric:
- “Constantly changing, hoping and living;”
- “Constantly hoping to make a good living;”
- “Constantly there, you’re the reason I’m living;”
Backwards From an Existing Lyric…
You can’t just take someone else’s lyric and use it, of course. That’s a violation of their copyright. But you might be surprised how interesting (sometimes humorous) it is to take existing well-known lines of lyric and say them backwards.
In flipping sentences around, it might make sense to change some words from nouns to verbs.
You need to know that most of the time this doesn’t work, but once in a while you’ll find something that clicks, and can jump-start your creative process:
- “You do music for care… really?” Original line: “But you don’t really care for music, do you? (“Hallelujah” – Leonard Cohen)
- “Watch just me. Believe!” (Or “Just watch me — believe!”) Original Line: “Don’t believe me just watch” (“Uptown Funk” – Bruno Mars, written by Jeff Bhasker et al)
- “Grinding ashes in the fall;” Original Line: “Falling like ashes to the ground” (“Believer” – Imagine Dragons, written by Dan Reynolds et al)
Each bizarre line of lyric you create has the potential to help you create more. Certainly you’ll find that these new lines are a good source of imagery, and that alone can help you create something more complete for a lyric.
Using an Existing Line’s Fame
One of my favourite lines of lyric by Peter Gabriel is the last line of “It“, from “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway”: “‘Cause it’s only knock and knowall, but I like it.” Obviously, it’s playing on the popularity of the more famous lyric, “It’s only rock ‘n’ roll but I like it.”
And of course, there’s “Judy in Disguise (With Glasses)” (John Fred Gourrier, Andrew Bernard), a play on “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.”
Weird Al Yankovic has made an entire career out of spoofing existing songs, most of which involve taking famous lines and changing them:
They see me mowin’
My front lawn
I know they’re all thinking I’m so White N’ nerdy
(“White & Nerdy” – “Weird Al” Yankovic, H. Seriki, A. Henderson)
They see me rolling
Patrolling they trying to catch me riding dirty
(“Ridin’” – Hakeem Seriki, Juan Salinas, Oscar Salinas, Anthony Henderson)
Unless you’re going for pure comedic effect, though, there’s a limit to how much of this you can do. Sometimes, just creating one line from a famous borrowed one for no particular reason can “get you in a mood”, so to speak, and start you coming up with something more.
You’ll want to choose songs that are quite well known; it doesn’t work as well if the audience doesn’t know that you’ve co-opted the line.
The ideas here take existing words, phrases and sentences from lyrics, novels and poetry. None of these ideas are meant to create for you an entire lyric. But the main benefit is that they create a single line with a surprising amount of imagery and innovation.
And most songwriters find that if they can simply get that one line, others will follow. The processes above free you up from having to start with a story-based idea. From the created line, a story (or at least a purpose) can emerge, and sometimes that’s all that’s needed.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10- eBook bundle covers every aspect of good songwriting, and is being used by thousands of songwriters to polish their technique.