When Burton Cummings told me he got his inspiration for his hit song “Break it to them gently” from a Kojak episode, I’ve never watched TV or a Movie the same way again. This is an article on this topic by Kathy Unruh that you might be interested in. She has granted permission to re-publish this.
Songwriting is one part inspiration and one part perspiration. It doesn’t matter whether you have a lot of ideas and catchy phrases floating around in your head. Unless you get them down on paper, they won’t do you any good at all. I suggest you buy yourself a small pocket notebook and keep it with you at all times. That way you can easily jot down any creative thoughts you have during the day. This should provide you with plenty of material when trying to write a new song.
As you have probably noticed, people love to tell stories and talk about themselves. As a songwriter, you can use these tendencies to your advantage. Try putting yourself in someone else’s shoes when they’re talking to you. Listen for any repetitive statements they make. Take mental notes. What stands out? What do you remember most about the person? What impression are you left with? Write it down. Fictionalize, exaggerate or minimize the information to suit your lyric.
Real life stories offer great material too. Consider Bob Dylan’s song “Hurricane” for instance. It’s woven around the true life story of a black prize fighter by the name of Hurricane Carter. Carter was falsely accused and then sentenced to life imprisonment for a murder he did not commit. This event sparked a protest movement involving some celebrities who made several unsuccessful attempts to secure his release. Years later, when a major motion picture staring Denzel Washington was created about the story, Bob Dylan’s song “Hurricane” became a natural choice for the background theme.
Words tend to create their own rhythmical pattern according to how they are placed within a sentence or phrase. So, after you’ve collected some good ideas in your songwriting notebook, try to use the material to create a “hook” for your song. Be willing to experiment with different ways of saying something. Listen to the melodic structure as you speak. Take note of where your voice rises and falls. Try singing what you hear. Sing the lyric high, low, fast, and slow. Try it with a country twang, or a bluesy feel. All these things can help spark the intuitive side of your brain.
Even after you’ve tried all these methods however, many songwriters will tell you their best songs come when they aren’t even trying! Now why do you suppose that is? I believe it has something to do with being relaxed and open enough to receive what your subconscious mind has to offer. All your past feelings and experiences are stored in there somewhere. But these resources are often blocked from your conscious mind as a result of tension and stress. And it is commonly understood that when a person’s songwriting efforts become strictly mechanical, the results will be generally poor.To prevent this from happening to you, go for a walk, listen to music, or do something else you enjoy for a while. Taking a break can work wonders to refresh your creative spirit!
Becoming a good songwriter will require time, dedication and effort on your part. Learning to listen to others, follow your intuition, and being open to trial and error are some of the things you can do to cultivate your skills. But many gifted songwriters give up as soon as they encounter difficulties. They become discouraged when they hit a mental road block and feel their creative juices have stopped flowing. While other, less talented individuals, go on to have successful songwritng careers simply because they learn to persevere. Do you see problems as stumbling blocks or stepping stones? How you respond to obstacles will make all the difference in becoming the songwriter you dream to be.
Kathy Unruh is a singer/songwriter and webmaster of ABC Learn Guitar. She has been writing songs and providing guitar lessons to students of all ages for over 20 years. For free guitar lessons, plus tips and resources on songwriting, recording and creating a music career, please visit: http://www.abclearnguitar.com