Ever find yourself with a killer idea for a song but not knowing the best way to turn it into a hit? Find yourself getting writer’s block?
This collection of tips from hit songwriters from around the world will show you how to build on your idea simply, methodically and effectively every time you write.
I love starting a song with a strong concept, usually a title or killer line that immediately conjures up in my mind what the song is about. From that moment on I know what THE POINT of the song is; why it exists, and I can start to develop from a strong foundation.
I virtually never sit down and wait for lyrical inspiration, hoping for an idea to fall in my lap, it feels too random to me.
Once I have an exciting title/line my method is to spend a goodly amount of time brainstorming/chatting with my co-writers (or myself) about the song plot, and writing down pretty much everything that’s said. You never know where or when something that has been said might fit in a song so be careful not to bypass any valuable lines (I also tend to record the conversation as part of the session recording).
One of my favourite tricks is also to go to Google images, type in “quotes about…(song subject)” and see what other people have said about what I’m writing about. I don’t condone using direct quotes but tit’s a great way to look at things from an angle I may not have considered and sometimes the concept of a quote can lead you to a whole lyric!
Once I have several pages of lyrical ‘ammunition – a mixture of quotes, phrases, thoughts, single words etc., I’ll try and get an idea of what needs to be said where i.e. how I’ll start the song, how my pre chorus will set up the chorus, and where the main point will be (usually the chorus). Then I’ll work out how the storyline will develop in verse 2 and whether or not I might need to go off on a tangent in the middle eight (if I have one at all).
There is often a massive urge to pick up an instrument during this planning process but I fight it because often the musical ideas I have morph into other ideas/tempos/time signatures etc., as the plot develops. By the time I’m ready to start making the music I’ll know exactly how the song should sound because the story has set the mood for me already!
Most importantly the process should always be fluid for me, and I’m always ready/happy to change a line, a rhyme, an idea or even the main hook if it improves the song. I try not to let any elements I’ve been working on paint me into a corner I can’t get out of.
I’m happy to say that when writers have been walked through this process step by step in our songwriting bootcamp, I’ve seen a vast improvement in lyrical content, really strong ideas, concepts and no more writer’s block!!
Two things I find helpful:
A good approach is to observe people on buses and cafes and imagine their stories. There are great titles of old movies. If you have a good title, you have a good story.
I developed my dark flowers album Radioland from Sam Shepard’s book of short prose ‘motel chronicles’
I sent lyricists (inc. Simple Minds Jim Kerr) short vignettes which they developed into whole stories. I suggest finding contemporary writers of short prose/stanzas and see how they develop over the half page vignettes.
I’ve critiqued a lot of student’s songs as part of my occasional job lecturing about songwriting and I am constantly amazed and pleased at how accomplished a lot of these songs are. When I was in my teens my songs were appalling in comparison.
I do notice something lacking sometimes though and that is a sense of truth and honesty. I think we all like to hide behind simile and metaphors and not many of us enjoy cutting ourselves open and sharing the contents of our hearts and minds with an audience. But if we’re not doing that then what are we doing it for? Even if we’re not spelling out exactly how we’re feeling I think an audience can gauge whether there is truth in what we are saying.
If a singer is brokenhearted we want to know how it feels for them personally and not just a generalised view of how it must feel. I think that part of the problem when I’ve talked to students about lyrical honesty is they think that nobody would be interested in their lives. How far from the truth this is! We are all inquisitive; we all like overhearing conversations and gleaning information about how someone else sees the world. It’s fascinating.
There was one student last year who was trying to write a song about how she drunkenly ended up with the wrong person at the end of the night. She was struggling with the lyric so I simply asked her ‘what happened’ and told her to write it down just like she told it to me. The details in the story like the name of the bar, what they were drinking, the specifics of the words they said were true and the song had so much more weight because of it. It wasn’t a contrived set of rhymes and obscure metaphors.
Your life is interesting. You have loved and lost, had loved ones die, had broken dreams, cried, looked at the stars and wondered big things, laughed until you felt sick, helped someone when they were in trouble and seen and thought about life in a way no one else has. Where’s the need to make things up?
When I develop a lyrical idea from a title I generally test it out to see how many ways I can use the word/s and all of the different angles I see it working. I usually go with the angle I feel strongest about, the one that supports the title the most.
For example I recently co-write a song called “Tangled” on one of the TSA camps in Spain. I’d had that title for a little while and my co-writers Hattie & Dana liked it so we talked about how we could use the word and use it in a relationship that was going through difficulty.
One word titles generally stand out and are easier to remember.
We asked the question “What can get tangled” and “Who is feeling tangled” “Why?” and listed ideas like; seaweed, webs, vines, wire, rope, hair, hearts, thoughts.
We chose vines as we liked the visual a lot and related it to a relationship where 2 lovers grow together and apart just like vines do. I think it’s important to make your listener really feel something, emotional value is important in a song and you only have about 3 or 4 minutes to captivate them.
Writing in first person is much more personal and the listener will hopefully relate it to their own life. We used a mix of feelings and very personal thoughts of a relationship with the imagery of vines climbing a wall. If we had of talked about just vines instead of feelings the story would have felt cold and emotionless.
We tried to pull the listener in right away in the first verse by telling them what the singer was feeling. In the chorus we drew a picture of the vines and hopefully made the listener visualise old twisted vines climbing a wall, growing together and apart in their struggle for life.
I’ve been selfless so long I can’t find myself
Been here but I’m gone cos I’m waiting for something else
I’m here by your side, can’t help but feel alone
You know and I know
I’m wrapped up in chains in my head
Suspended in air by an invisible thread
I’m all out of fight and I’m all of out hope
You know and I know
Randy Goodrum (Chaka Khan/Reba McEntire/Ray Charles/Toto)
1. The premise is essential. A song isn’t worth writing unless it has a unique, moving premise. A central theme for the song to be built upon. It should, ideally be an ordinary, everyday thought that has a unique, path-never-crossed-before angle. Sometimes it’s how you express your take on a premise that makes it unique. For example my song, You Needed Me is basically about, generally, unconditional love, with a more specific focus on the aspect of unconditional love I separated out in my lyric.
Basically focus on that premise like a laser throughout the writing of the song. Try to do it in one day, as much as possible because I’ve found that, in life, no one actually ever feels the same way one way to the next. You think we do but if you ever return to a partially written song you’ll discover that you may feel similar but never exactly the same. Seize the moment. Have you skills and craft honed and ready so you can do the write as much as possible in your first sitting.
2. Carrying on with that thought a bit: If you’re writing a lyric and have a great start on one but don’t have the time to finish it, or if you’re not a ‘words and music” writer and need to wait for the composer to join you then write is by hand on a piece of paper. Since I believe we don’t feel the same from day to day I believe that you can get the sense of your original gut feelings by looking at your own handwriting. It works, believe me.
3. Don’t let the tools get in the way. It’s good to know that rhyme is a strong element of poetry and lyric writing but don’t let it trump the line that doesn’t rhyme very well but feels great and is nailing the premise. I won’t give you an example because that’s one you have to work out for yourself.
4. My last “tip” would be: Try to write the premise (what the song it about) in the first, or first and second line of the song. I say that in a general way because I’ve broken my own “rule” many times, on purpose. It took me 10 years of writing before I wrote a song that anyone wanted to record and self-taught myself a lot of this process. This is one of those things I learned that seemed to work for me. Again, in my song, You Needed Me:
I cried a tear, you wiped it dry…i was confused, you cleared my mind…
(Once upon a time I broke that rule in my song, I’ll Be Over You (Toto). I purposely reversed the process making the premise more clear the closer you got to the end of the chorus. Another example of that reverse process would be Jimmy Webb’s, Wichita Lineman. At first you think it’s a character study of a lonely guy that works for the phone company. Etc, etc. etc.