song ideas

How to Get Song Ideas

Sometimes songwriting is like watching Netflix with a terrible internet connection. It’s pixel-y. The sound is jarbly. You’re trying to see the show but it’s just not working and you’re getting frustrated.

Songwriting can be frustrating, too. You try and try but you just can’t seem to see the song. You feel like you’re out of ideas. Or you have writer’s block. You’re just not feeling any creative juju. That’s what I hope this post can help you with: generating song ideas and finding the song.

In our exploration of how to get song ideas, we’re going to cover advice on how to:

  1. Listen More
  2. Feel Your Feelings
  3. Write A Song About a Specific Emotion
  4. Try Stream-of-consciousness Writing
  5. Rewrite Someone Else’s Song
  6. Pick Random Words from the Dictionary
  7. Write Real
  8. Use a Rhyming Dictionary

How Some of the Great Songwriters Write Songs

In the book Songwriters on Songwriting, Paul Simon talks about “discovering” a song rather than “inventing” a song. He said he likes to learn what the song is about along with the audience.

Jon Foreman talks about songwriting like digging for buried treasure.

“Every day, you dig,” Foreman says. “And sometimes you come across a lost city. And it feels like something that is a little bit more timeless than something that’s got my fingerprints on it.”

I love this idea. It’s like discovering dinosaur bones. It relieves some of the pressure to invent a song and it frees you up to just go find what you find.

So I’m going to list a bunch of ideas that can help spark your songwriting sessions, but these are by no means rules. These are tools to help you dig and discover — tools to help you uncover your lost city.
Now let’s dive into practical things you can do right now to help you generate more song ideas.

Stream-of-consciousness writing is just what you think it is. Grab a pen and paper or a laptop (which is my preference) and just start writing. Don’t filter yourself. Don’t edit. Don’t let your fingers stop typing or your hand stop writing. Just write, no matter what pops into your head (no one else will see what you write). Even though most of what you write may be gibberish, that’s okay. Within the nonsense words may be a song title or a theme or a lyric.

Listen More

In Songwriters on Songwriting, Bob Dylan said, “Poets do a lot of listening.”

That’s so true. Listening is a big part of being a Songwriter — hearing the same thing that everyone else hears but seeing the deeper meaning within it.

So try this: go to a coffee shop or cafe with either your laptop or a pen and paper. Find a seat and start listening to the conversations around you. Then jot down as many words and phrases as you can pick up.

Yeah, at first you might think it seems creepy, but you’re not really eavesdropping. You’re just hearing random parts of different conversations and you’re not even associating what you hear with any one person.

Doing this will surely give you some solid lyric ideas.

Feel Your Feelings

The Philosopher Alan Watts once wrote about how we should feel our feelings. We should just let ourselves experience them.

“…We do not discover the wisdom of our feelings because we do not let them complete their work,” he wrote in his book Become What You Are. “We try to suppress them or discharge them in premature action, not realizing that they are a process of creation which, like birth, begins as a pain and turns into a child.”

In other words, feeling your feelings can be painful, but it can lead to a lot of good.

Think about how much more meaningful, emotional, and impactful our songs could be if we discovered the insight our emotions gave us.

If you feel happy, feel that happiness. It could lead to a truly happy song that electrifies people. If you’re feeling sad, feel that sadness. It could inspire a powerful blues song or ballad. If you’re confused, experience that confusion. It could end up being a kick-butt rock song.

Other people have felt what you felt, so the more honest you can be when writing about them, the more impactful your song may be.

Write a Song About a Specific Emotion

Speaking of emotions, try picking one emotion and writing a song about it. It could be the one you’re feeling right now or one you’ve felt before.

Love. Tension. Pride. Loss. Homesickness. Nostalgia.

These are all very common emotions all of us feel, which is why there are so many songs about them. So pick one and start writing — keep the song just about that emotion.

Try Stream-of-consciousness Writing

Stream-of-consciousness writing is just what you think it is.

Grab a pen and paper or a laptop (which is my preference) and just start writing. Don’t filter yourself. Don’t edit. Don’t let your fingers stop typing or your hand stop writing.

Just write, no matter what pops into your head (no one else will see what you write). Even though most of what you write may be gibberish, that’s okay. Within the nonsense words may be a song title or a theme or a lyric.

Even if nothing comes of it, it can still work as a good warm-up exercise before your songwriting session. But, in my experience, something always comes of it.

Rewrite Someone Else’s Song

If you’re feeling stuck, rewriting someone else’s song is a great way to spark your creativity.

Let me preface it with this: I’m not encouraging plagiarism. I’m simply suggesting this method as a way to 1) educate yourself on how your favorite Songwriters do it, and 2) to help you generate your own idea for a song.

So get the lyrics of a song from your favorite Songwriter and rewrite them in your own words. Play the chord progression backwards and come up with your own melody. Change the time signature. Do something to the song.

Use the song as a starting point, a foundation for your own tune.

What’s writing real? That’s when you write 1-2 sentences — in plain, clear English — what you’re trying to say. It helps if you imagine saying these sentences to the person the song is about. What would you say to their face if you could? Once you’ve done that, rewrite the confusing lyrics to be a little more focused. I’m not saying you shouldn’t use poetic language, but writing real can help you know what you’re actually trying to say.

Pick Random Words from the Dictionary

Another way to come up with a song idea is to open a dictionary (yes, a physical dictionary), close your eyes, and put your finger down on the page somewhere. Whatever word is closest to your finger will be the starting point for your next song.

That word could be the title, it could be the inspiration for the first verse, or just a general sentiment.

You could even do this multiple times to make a 3-5 word phrase from random words. It might end up sounding weird or incoherent, but it could lead you to a separate, related idea.

Write Real

Writing real is a great way to add focus to your song. This is for when your lyrics get muddled in vague language and attempted poetry.

If you think that’s happening with your song (or someone is completely confused by your lyrics), try writing real.

What’s writing real?

That’s when you write 1-2 sentences — in plain, clear English — what you’re trying to say. It helps if you imagine saying these sentences to the person the song is about. What would you say to their face if you could?

Once you’ve done that, rewrite the confusing lyrics to be a little more focused. I’m not saying you shouldn’t use poetic language, but writing real can help you know what you’re actually trying to say.

Use a Rhyming Dictionary

Let me say this: you don’t always need to rhyme your lyrics. That’s definitely a powerful songwriting tool, but it’s not a necessary tool. If you force yourself to rhyme in a song, it can actually sound inauthentic.

However, it can be a very effective way to add impact to your song — a way to make things more poetic and memorable.

So if you want to rhyme and you keep getting stuck, try using a rhyming dictionary.

Two really good places to start are the Doppelreim app and RhymeZone. Doppelreim not only gives you words that rhyme, but also other words that sort of rhyme or words that might inspire something else. RhymeZone will give you entire phrases that rhyme with your chosen word as well as phrases that sound similar.

Start Digging

Remember: these are not rules and they’re not quick fixes that will work for everyone. They’re tools that you can use (or not use) to help you generate song ideas.

They’re shovels and pickaxes and brushes to help you uncover dinosaur bones from the dirt. So go ahead and start digging.

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