The beginnings of songs are mysterious and varied; they start in many different ways. This week I’m going to go through some of the ways in which this first impulse happens for me, from ways I think are more common to the more idiosyncratic:
- The Title. A phrase hits me in conversation, reading, listening… or just thinking. It excites me; I think: ‘That could be a song!’ Hopefully – usually – I write it down immediately before I forget it (which for me usually happens within 30 seconds). It’s a great break to start with a title that resonates; it often makes a lot of the other parts of the writing easier because there’s already a strong focal point.
- Many songwriters won’t even start writing a song without a good title (a very subjective judgement, by the way). I often start without a title, but I’ll always be searching for one as I go. Titles are important!
An offshoot of this is when a title hits me and I sit right down and write a good portion of the lyric – or at least the first draft of it. The great thing about this is that the song already has a structure (in the lyric) before the music has even been written (similar to when I write music to someone else’s lyric), making the task of writing the music much more straightforward and often easier.
- Hearing, in my head, a phrase of melody that I like. I always try to write it down or record it immediately (of course), fool around with it, develop it. Getting the key phrase or phrases of melody is just as important as getting the title.
- Hearing someone else’s melody and/or groove that excites me – when I’m in a store or someplace, anyplace It gets me going and as quickly as possible I sit down to develop and mutate it in my own way.
- A good opening line. Sometimes I get a line… it’s not a title but it strongly evokes a situation, personality, setting, etc. It’s attention-getting. Or mysterious. Constructing the whole rest of the song is still ahead, but the opening line is so important in setting the mood and direction.
- Just fooling around on the guitar and hitting on a riff, a sequence of chords, or even just a sound – two or three notes together – that resonates for me. I immediately try to be open to words that might come too. For me, this is a very common way to write. I don’t sit around waiting for lightning to strike!
- Learning and playing someone else’s song that I love. Playing around this way, particularly with someone’s beautiful melody, will often lead me to a ‘revised version’ that’s all my own. I love doing this, probably because I can feel that I’m learning and creating at the same time (this is what’s always happening when writing, but it’s just more obvious in this kind of situation).
- Waking up with it. Sometimes I come to semi-consciousness in the morning with a song, melody, musical riff/phrase, or lyric running through my head. Sometimes it seems like something that was playing on the radio in a dream I was having, sometimes it seems so much like a real song that it feels like it must already exist and be someone else’s. But it’s not; it’s my song from my dream.
I’ve learned that I’ve got to make myself get out of bed (or at least lean over for a notebook) right away and write my idea down or record it. This is not easy but… Ever try to remember a dream? You usually only have seconds to write it down before most or all of it is gone.
Sleep/dream-related ideas are gifts from my subconscious – again, you could say all ideas are, but this makes it so obvious. I ignore them at my peril.
- I feel a mood so strongly that I sit right down and a song (or part of one) comes out, related to that mood. Doesn’t happen every day, but it’s an impulse worth following. Some good stuff has come out this way for me.
- And, every once in a while, a song just drops into my lap. Yes, the song just kind of ‘writes itself’, as they say. Maybe it’s a reward for all the other times of showing up and working at it. It’s kind of like getting a parking space in Manhattan – don’t count on it, but if you drive around long enough, eventually it might happen.
Song ideas do come in many different ways. The question is – am I willing to accept them when they come (because it’s usually not on my schedule)?
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