You’re sitting in your room with a blank piece of paper and a guitar. How do you get the songwriting process started? Where do your ideas come from? And how do you maintain a fresh supply of ideas so that songwriting can be a daily activity?
I think if you’re using the same process every day, you’re going to run up against a creative brick wall pretty quickly. So the best way to brainstorm new ideas for your songs is to change those starting moments each time.
Leonard Bernstein: “Inspiration is wonderful when it happens, but the writer must develop an approach for the rest of the time.” Get “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle for the rest of the time.
Here’s a short list of ways you can brainstorm ideas to get your songwriting process going:
- Quickly sketch some random song titles. Don’t worry that you don’t have a backstory for these titles yet; that can come later. Sometimes just having a title with some vivid imagery is all it takes to get your imagination flowing: “A Penny For Your Thoughts”, “Looks Like I Missed the Boat”, “Playing Overtime”, etc.
- Keep a daily journal of ideas. It’s relatively easy now to keep a collection of random song ideas because it can be easily done by speaking or singing your ideas into a smartphone app. Anytime during the day that a neat snippet of lyric, or a melodic idea, or some other bit of creative genius strikes you, write it or sing it to yourself so that you can examine the idea more closely later.
- Manipulate chord progressions. Try this: create a simple 2-, 3- or 4-chord progression, something like I IV ii I (C F Dm C). Now find a spot within that progression where you can throw in a random chord. If you don’t like it, toss it and throw something else in to see if it works. So you might take C F Dm C, throw in a Bb after the F, which gives you C F Bb Dm C. Or maybe try an A chord in the same location: C F A Dm C. This process makes creating new progressions a bit easier because it takes something that you know works, and then you’re just improvising a new chord in one spot. You can always return to that short working progression and try a new chord.
- Random lyrics and rhyming. One problem that’s common among songwriters is that you’ve got your favourite go-to phrases and expressions, and they can make your lyrics sound unimaginative. So try this: Create a random line of lyric, or take one from your journal that you thought of the other day. Then come up with several following lines that rhyme, and then several preceding lines. So if the line of lyric you’re working with is something like: “I hoped I’d make my life with you”, you might follow it with “And that’s just what I’m going to do…”, or “And every day feel something new…”, “It’s something that I need to do”… etc. Don’t worry about the lines that sound lame, just keep writing. Eventually you’ll find that your mind will create lines that you don’t normally use, and that’s when the potential for a great lyric starts to emerge.
A year ago I wrote in this blog about McCartney’s comments on the writing of “I Saw Her Standing There”, in which he said that he and John Lennon had to brainstorm lyrics to come up with a good answering line to “She was just seventeen.” They eventually came up with the line, “You know what I mean.” It’s a great line, and prevented them using the phrase that seemed at first to be the natural follower: “beauty queen.”
But more than that, it shows that a good answering line is exactly that: a line. Sometimes we’re so fixated on getting a word to rhyme that we forget that we actually need an entire line that sounds great, makes sense, and moves the song in a good direction.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.
Trying to figure out what can take you from being a songwriting amateur to a polished professional? Read “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro.” Buy it separately, or get it as part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle.