Challenges 2 | The Songwriting Academy

Songwriting Challenges Year 2


List Challenge

Lists in songs are awesome. End of story.

Just pick up a to-do list or a shopping list, and see how hard it is to not read all the way through it. What a list does is create a curiosity in the reader that makes them want to know what comes next.

Apply this to a song and you have a very powerful device that keeps the listeners engaged by drawing them through the lyric. This is a two part challenge to keep you on your toes.

Challenge Part One

Find three songs from history that use lists.

Study how and where the list is used, for how long and how they are used to set up the all-important POINT of the song, which is usually the chorus. You will find some lists are in the chorus itself.

Examples we found were:

Elton John: Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word (list of questions)

Christina Perry: Human

The Cure: Friday I’m In Love (list in chorus)

Paul Simon: 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover

Challenge Part Two

Write a song about any subject using a list

Your list can be anywhere you like in the song but we would suggest verse or chorus, rather than middle eight or outro/ad libs.

TSA Tips

  • Try not to use the word ‘list’ in your song as this might sound contrived
  • Think carefully about what you want to list e.g.
    • Your feelings
    • Questions
    • Days or years
    • Numbers
    • Names

Have fun!


Octave Jump Challenge

Some songs disguise their relentless use of repetition by clever use of octave jumps from section to section.

Remember Iris By the Goo Goo Dolls? Have another listen. The mood is set up brilliantly by the first two low verses then lifts into a dramatic chorus which is identical to the verse, just an octave higher. This is followed by a short instrumental then drops back down the octave for the next verse before once again jumping back up the octave for the second chorus. The entire middle eight is instrumental with tons of drama, topped by a lead guitar solo. Passion reigns throughout and is finally topped by a double chorus in the high octave. Classic song.

Think about it though, a massive global hit with only one melody! How smart is that for songwriting?


Write a song using the same melody in both verse and chorus but with an octave jump. You may also use a third section if you wish as a middle eight but to maximise the impact of the jump, avoid using a pre chorus. Think passion and energy.

Have fun!


Two Chord Challenge

Many songwriters feel restricted by their ability at playing an instrument but what they don’t realise is that thousands of hit songs have been written using only a handful of chords. Examples include Paparazzi by Lady Gaga (four chords) Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For by U2 (three chords) and Moves Like Jagger with only two chords. And how many people realise that Get This Party Started by Pink only uses ONE chord!

This challenge is designed to get you working hard on creating powerful and interesting melodies, with great definition between the parts of your song because you will be restricted to using only two chords. With such harmonic simplicity, you’ll have to step up with your melody and lyric to make the song stand out.


Write a song using only two chords.

  • Keep your song above 100bpm
  • Use positive lyrical subject matter and be as unusual as possible
  • Use all three melodic forms in your song
    • Static: Focussed around one note with very little movement either side
    • Conjunct: Climbing and/or descending the scale by consecutive notes
    • Disjunct: Large intervals between notes creating a ‘spike’ in the melody

TSA Tips

Be aware of the melodic contour of your song. Imagine this as the shape of the melody if you mapped out the pitch of the notes like a contour on a map.

A handy way to think of this is that the verse is at sea level, the pre chorus is climbing up a hill and the chorus is right on top of the mountain. This is one sure fire way to make sure your choruses jump out of the speakers and command attention.

Have fun!


Colour Chart Challenge

When you send your songs out to record labels and music publishers it’s always a bonus if you can draw their interest in before they’ve even heard the song. The simplest way to do that is use an interesting title which doesn’t give away the plot of the song. Colours are great for doing just that e.g.

Blue – Joni Mitchell

Yellow – Coldplay

Black & Gold – Sam Sparro

Red – Daniel Merriweather

Ebony & Ivory – Paul McCartney & Stevie Wonder


Write a song using the name of a colour as a title and no other words, just the colour. Try and be as creative as you can with the lyric and avoid the obvious.

Have fun!


Free Writing Challenge

Free Writing is an exercise where you write for a specified amount of time without really thinking about what you are writing…sounds weird eh?

This is actually a great technique for developing stream of conscious flow and getting to understand exactly what you think about life, the universe and everything.


Write your heading at the top of a page e.g.

  • What matters to me…
  • What love means to me…
  • The world would be better if…
  • What life means to me…
  • I feel happy when…
  • I want to dance when…
  • I feel strongest when…

Now spend three minutes writing whatever comes into your mind. Make sure you keep your pen on the paper during the whole exercise, don’t talk to anybody or be distracted by music/TV etc.

When you’re done, leave it a day or so then read it back. Circle the parts that mean something special to you and any words, phrases or lines that you think might sound good in a song. Write these down in your “Great Song Ideas” book or list.

Try and do this as often as possible. It’s only by getting to know how to access your own emotions that you will start to be able to access other people’s emotions. And that’s where the best songs come from!

TSA Tips

This is free writing so don’t just use our heading ideas, write down a list of your own so you can do this exercise any time you have 5 minutes to yourself

Have fun!


Feel The Fear Challenge

We believe authenticity is an important part of great songwriting and that means tapping in to your emotions. Writing about something you feel strongly about can also be beneficial for your emotional wellbeing too, but if you feel uncomfortable with this challenge we suggest you choose a different challenge, or a different subject to write about.

This challenge will focus on one emotion: FEAR

Please note: If you are uncomfortable with this challenge please move on to another challenge


Write a song based on something you fear. If you want to say out loud what the fear is that’s great but you don’t have to; instead you can describe how that fear makes you feel and ideally the way you overcome it, or how it leaves you unable to function properly.

You can even write a song about the concept of fear itself if you prefer. Whatever you choose, the goal is to create a song which has a powerful foundation.

We don’t necessarily think this song should be too ‘down’ so consider these points:

    • Keep the tempo of the song above 100bpm
    • Write in a major key (this might also help you create a positive aspect to the lyric of your song e.g. I’m scared but I’m strong enough to beat the fear)

TSA Tips

We suggest spending plenty of time free writing your thoughts and feelings, not lyrics, before you start writing the song so you can really get into the depths of the feeling. Use the TSA song planner to help you discover and develop your lyrical theme.

Good Luck!


Headlines And Horses Challenge

This challenge will help you develop your radar for unique and unusual song titles or lines. Become the writer who finds that killer lyrical idea before anyone else.

You’ll need to buy a copy of a tabloid newspaper which features things like sensationalist news items, gossip, astrology, celebrity news etc. In the UK we recommend papers like The Sun and The Star.

Read through the paper from front to back and look closely at the headlines of all the news articles. Notice the way the headlines often use well known phrases but twist them to mean something else by changing one of the words slightly. This type of word-play is equally powerful and memorable in lyric writing.


Try and find TEN new song ideas for your “Great Song Ideas” book or list. Repeat this every week and by the end of the year you’ll have 500 new ideas.

TSA Tips

Check out horse names in the racing section. You may be surprised how many great song titles are running on the race tracks!

Have fun!


Dance Track Top-Line Challenge  

More and more dance producers/DJ’s are dominating the charts around the world with records that use featured vocalists, and many of these producers don’t actually create the top-line melodies or write lyrics. 

So where do they get the top-lines? Lots of pro songwriters who previously not only wrote songs but created finished demo recordings are now also writing super hooky songs at suitable tempos for dance tracks but just sending out demos with only vocals and simple piano or guitar. This leaves room for the producer/DJ to work his or her magic.


Write a top line track for a producer/DJ to create a dance record to

  • 128bpm
  • Keep the overall song structure simple
  • Keep the harmonic structure simple
  • Write using a kick drum or metronome running so you can feel the vibe, but remove the kick drum and any rhythm tracks when you bounce your mix
  • Make sure you have repetitive hooks in your song
  • If you are not a singer don’t sing on your demo. Find a great singer to perform it for you
  • You may use vocal harmonies and backing vocals
  • Ensure the timing of your instrument and vocals is perfect or DJ’s will not want to use it
  • Try working in an anthemic chant
  • Be lyrically positive, uplifting and unusual. Use powerful lyrical ideas but keep the delivery simple

TSA Tips

Do your homework. Listen to plenty of tracks from current dance producers, and use your critical listening checklist to analyse how songs and tracks in this genre are put together.

Work hard to create memorable, repetitive hooks as these are the cornerstone of chart dance hits.

Have fun!


Final Words Challenge

We believe the job of the songwriter is to evoke a strong emotion in the listener. When you think it through, in order to do that we have to feel a strong emotion ourselves when we’re creating songs, whether it’s happy, sad, excited, romantic or otherwise. If we don’t feel anything, our listeners won’t feel anything.

OK, it’s understood that we don’t necessarily wake up every day feeling something incredibly powerful. Sometimes we just meander through the day feeling pretty neutral, after all we are human. But, when we sit down to write songs it’s important to be able to access the powerful feelings we store inside our hearts and minds, and that means tapping into either:

  • Current feelings
  • Memories
  • Imagination


Use your imagination and think about a conversation you may have in the future.

We’d like you to ask yourself this question:

“If I were approaching the end of my life and the person I loved the most were with me…what would be that last thing I would want to say to them?”

TSA Tips

Don’t immediately think this will be a sad song. It could just as easily be an uptempo positive song celebrating life, an uplifting song passing on advice to someone younger, or just a simple “thank you” song. It all depends on how you look at it.

We suggest you think about all this carefully before picking up a guitar and launching into your song. Grab a pen first and brainstorm all the possibilities, the memories and the feelings and try to crystallise what would be the one final thought you would like to leave someone with. 

Try to make it an important thought, honest, and although it’s about a personal situation, remember the listeners who you hope to touch with your song. That means keeping the lyric universal, so people can relate to them and feel that you’ve written the song they wish they could have written themselves.

Good Luck!


Household Object Challenge

Believe it or not there are song ideas all over your house just waiting to be written, it just depends how you see things.

Some while ago I wrote a song called The Table. Sounds really boring doesn’t it?  

Well, I started by describing the table; How it was worn out and how the polish was cracked and faded from years of just being there. Then as the song moves on the listener discovers that the table is more than just a piece of furniture, it’s where people come together, and when they have a problem they “put it on the table”.

It’s where family disputes are talked through, voices are raised and tears are shed until the problem is solved. The table then becomes less of an inanimate object and actually one of the most important things keeping people together. It’s strong, dependable, always there and has emotional value. 

I’ve also written a song about a door! Here, the significance was that a door is what people walk through when they leave…or when they come back, both of which are potentially powerful moments.

Giving an unexpected significance to an otherwise meaningless object is a powerful way of creating emotion in a song, both happy and sad.

Do note that this is a different technique to using something inanimate as a metaphor or simile for something or someone. This is more about illuminating in the song how relevant that object is in real life to something more personal.

Here are a few more examples of everyday items given importance:

Object: Coffee Cup
Emotion: Passion/Excitement or even Guilt
Story: Still has the lipstick on it from the night before…
Point: Excited about a new relationship…or…We shouldn’t have done that!

Object: Wooden spoon
Emotion: Nostalgia/Family/Love 
Story: What Mum used when we were kids to make cakes on a Summer afternoon
Point: I miss you…or…I miss the innocence of being a carefree child

Object: Trash Bin
Emotion: Empowerment 
Story: Where I threw my wedding ring
Point: Get out of my life, I’m starting again!

Practising thinking laterally like this is a great way to develop the your originality as a songwriter.


Write a song about a household object, in any style. Don’t worry about production, just focus on a fabulous lyric, melody and harmony.

TSA Tips

Try and get the story clear before you start writing, make sure you know what the point of the song is and bear in mind that it’s sometimes better not to give the meaning away too soon, much like the punchline of a joke.

Have fun!


Sam Cooke Challenge 

This challenge is all about going back to basics and not being afraid to write a simple song with a great tune! Sam Cooke was a master at this and whether you like his style of music or not, there is plenty to be learnt by listening to his songs.


Write a song in the stye of Sam Cooke

  • Keep it between 2:00m – 2:30m long
  • Use one of the classic four chord tricks e.g. I VI IV V
  • Keep it positive and fun
  • Keep it simple with only three working parts
  • Resist the urge to write a ballad!

TSA Tips

Do plenty of critical listening to Sam Cooke’s songs, how they are constructed, what he sings about and the melodies he chose. Work hard creating fabulous melodies and try to embrace the carefree style of his material. 

Have fun!


Positive Song Challenge

Yes, we all love hearing a ballad and boy do we love writing about how miserable life is since we broke up with our exes etc. etc. How many times have you heard someone saying “Sad songs are so much easier to write than happy ones!”. That may be true but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be more “up”.

If you want to be a successful songwriter in today’s market let’s start by looking at the Math.

Let’s say the average album has twelve songs on it. How many of those would you say are slow ballads…one, two maybe? If there are two slow songs on an album of twelve, that means you are statistically five times more likely to get an mid to upbeat song placed on that album. 

Any gambler would look at those odds and know exactly where to put the money.

Now let’s look at the Psychology. You’re an A&R executive looking for songs for one of the huge artists on your major record label. Songwriters from all over the world are sending you their mp3s. Hundreds of them. Do you…

a. Want to spend the day listening to negative, slow songs, of which you only need two?

b.Want to spend your day listening to uplifting, positive tunes, of which you need ten?

See what we’re driving at here? So if you only write sad, slow ballads, we strongly suggest you get over it!


Set yourself a target of writing the most uplifting song you have ever written in your life. Feel free to co-write with others as that may help you get in the right frame of mind.

TSA Tips

  • Writing a really positive song is not just about having a positive lyric (super important), but also about staying clear of minor keys, discordant clashes, and it’s about keeping production ideas uplifting. That means steering clear of darker, heavier or ominous sounds. Distorted guitars might feel great but they can sound threatening too so tread carefully!
  • Keep that melody happy! Watch out for the melodies that make you tear up. Emotional they may be but stay focussed on keeping your song cheery. Try and make sure your chorus hits a high point melodically and has a euphoric feel.
  • OK, we know songwriters like to wallow in self pity and bare their soul, but surely something happy has happened to you at some point in your life? You’ve had maybe at least one amazing day? Draw on that experience, remember how you felt at the time and inject that strength of emotion into the song.
  • Keep the lyric simple as people are rarely poetic when they’re euphoric and keep it real. Don’t fake emotion.

Most of all, imagine how incredible you want the listener to feel when the song plays for the first time. Write something that will knock people off their chairs and get them dancing round the room involuntarily with pure glee.

Now thats a positive song.

Have fun!

  • Try to complete at least one of these challenges each month. Having goals is a great way to stay motivated and every time you finish a song it will show you how much progress you’re making.
  • Record everything you do when you’re writing. You may think you’ll remember those amazing ideas but they will drift away like autumn leaves if you’re not careful.
  • Do your very best to co-write with others. Its more fun, more productive and the quality will improve.
  • For feedback on your song, post a link in our community and see what other writers think. You can access the community here



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