Here’s a question - not just for beginning songwriters but for established pros: Hmm - What to write a song about? Or maybe it's not so much what to write - but what direction to actually focus on when you’re in your session.
I mean - there’s a plethora, just an endless supply of melodies, lyrics, concepts etc. So where do you begin? How do you know the seed of an idea you’ve chosen is even a great one?
Or maybe you’re just looking at your blank page in your moleskin or have a new Google Docs open with the cursor just blinking at you - blink --- blink, blink, begging and winking at you to try your luck on the blank canvas. And quick note - make sure you read all the way to the end, where I’ll give you 10 Ideas for top songwriting prompts!
For myself, and a lot of the songwriters I work with, I always encourage the idea of song prompts. Often this can be your own personal repository of song ideas, concepts, song titles, snippets, or ideas just captured in the moment over the last years of your songwriting.
For instance, even though I haven’t been that active in writing these days, I still have an online Google document called Song Titles / Concepts that I continually add ideas. And no doubt this can also be an online folder or notebook of melody ideas, great chord progressions, etc that you may want to come back to review later.
Especially when it comes to lyrics for instance, I might be in the shower and a song title or a concept pops into my head.
Or I might be just talking to someone and they might say something out of the blue that is just - such an honest truth, or a unique combination or a twist of a phrase - I’ll write that down too.
And - I know of at least one iconic songwriter who (pre internet) would go to the library, ask for 10 issues of Billboard, with a magazine from each year, say from 1967 - 1977, and then look at the song titles on the Hot 100.
Little hint here - you can’t copyright a song title - so this writer would look at anything that sounded appealing or felt like a “weighty” title or concept, and then collect and document this song title in his “song prompt” collection…and save it for later.
To give you an example, The Bee Gees have an iconic modern copyright, “How Deep Is Your Love.” Calvin Harris also has had a massive hit with the same title! The simple fact here is you can’t copyright a song title.
The same thing goes for say movie titles or tv shows, book titles.
Back when there was such a movie church called “Blockbuster,” I used to just go to the DVD rental store, peruse movie titles with my notebook open - and capture ideas and concepts. Not that I would write a song called “The Terminator.” Hmm - but wait - actually that’s a pretty brilliant idea! What if we could flip that into a song idea about a girl who ends the crappy relationship she’s in … “I’m The Terminator.” Hmm. Maybe.
Think of it this way - as a creator, you’re like an “idea traveler” and explorer. Through your life, experiences, conversations and relationships, you’re going to be exposed to so many different situations. It’s your job to write them down, document and collect - and when the time is right - translate those into a piece of poetry and art.
So, yah! Collect all that great stuff and keep it in one place. This will be invaluable for when you sit down at your computer or in your writing space. So now, when it comes to the concept of “how to start a song,” you’ve already had years of potential inspiration collected and ready to go. Boom!
Even more than that - your brain is literally a super computer.
Something I learned from Tony Robbins is the following - Ask your brain the right questions - and it will go to work for you to find the right answers. That’s right - don’t ask yourself - “Why don’t I have a hit on the charts right now?” Because your brain will search and give you lots of lame reasons - many of which aren’t even true! Instead, how about asking your brain “How can I get a hit on the charts and provide myself with the right inspiration, relationships and creativity for that to happen in the next 9 months?!” Now that’s a powerful question (especially if you ask yourself every day).
In other words, it’s that idea that came out of nowhere while brushing your teeth - or that solution to that pre chorus you’ve been working on forever and it just “comes out of the blue” while you’re waiting at the checkout line? Or that key relationship that just happens to fall in your lap? You should likely credit your supercomputer brain, as it’s been diligently working on this solution for you for the last days, weeks or months.
And by the way, keep reading and make sure to make it to the end of this post, where I’m going to give you 10 ideas on how to start a song. There’s also way more at my “Insider Secrets to Songwriting” online teachable course which you can check out here. It’s literally an accumulation of my last 25 years as a music publisher, including my own personal “secrets” on what makes hit songs tick.
And that brings me to one of my favorite people, and my first signings - a superb, global hit making animal, Savan Kotecha. If you’re a fan of Ariana Grande, Britney, The Weeknd, Jessie J, etc - it’s likely that Savan wrote the melody and lyrics you’re singing along to in your car on the way to work. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Savan_Kotecha
Here’s the thing about being a professional songwriter.
If you really want to do it - you need to (in my opinion) embrace the “professional” in “professional songwriting.” This includes if you're an artist as well. This means - doing the things that most people don’t think to do - and doing the extra mile.
Savan and I just had a chat about some of this on his writing group within the Chalk app. Not only does Savan keep a list of song titles, concepts and ideas...but you know what Savan did back in the days (and for all I know he’s still doing this, as my feeling is he’s the perpetual student).
Savan at the time might have been 24 or 25. So, how does a 25-year-old guy know what a 16 year old girl is thinking? Hmm. You know what Savan did? He started reading Cosmopolitan, Mademoiselle, Teen Beat magazine to really connect and also capture great ideas for songs.
I mean think of it. These magazines spend fortunes on article writers and copywriters to come up with snappy click bait titles that are guaranteed to grab people’s attention. Why not borrow some of these ideas to help write a song?!
I just did a quick Google search for those magazine covers. Here are a couple big headlines and front page article concepts that might be hit concept ideas! Check these out!
Not bad, right? I could go on, but I hope that you’re starting to get some epiphanies and ideas for songs. Often they just don’t “fall out of the sky” - most of the times you create your own songwriting ideas diary - and these are just a few of the methods that the pros commonly use.
So, where else can you find things to write songs about?
Well, this part of the post is going to explore what I’d call “song prompts.” It’s almost like a self triggered conversation. It’s like a catalyst. A “song prompt” comes up and pings your creativity! Your creativity responds with hopefully - a great idea.
On that note, as promised, here is a Top 10 list of my favorite ways to generate music and lyric ideas and concepts.
I alluded to this previously, but it’s 1000% worth making a separate entry here on this post.
Most amazing writers and artists have this type of document or a diary somewhere that contains all their song titles, concepts and ideas. And actually - this is how a lot of collaboration sessions will start - the writers will open their documents, diaries, note keepers and search for the best concept to present. And voila - inspiration is launched!
In fact, here’s a key rule … make sure your future inspiration is PLANNED!
Yes, that’s right! If you’ve already done the work in the past - your future self can be inspired and rewarded by the right idea in the right circumstance instantly.
With song titles and concepts – I think they provide an incredible springboard of inspiration and a starting point to write a song. For instance, if you had a song title I previously mentioned, like “The Terminator,” well, how does that “sing?”
Is it something that would kick off a chorus or end a chorus, or is it better suited as the refrain within an A-A-B-A type of song structure?
From there, you can get a sense also of tempo – ask yourself: what type of genre and production does this song “The Terminator” fit best with? Maybe in this case, it’s an industrial pop song with a metallic sounding snare. My guess, the song would probably be uptempo right? Also, how does the cadence of the title fit and sing. Ahh, maybe “The Terminator” is a spoken refrain to your chorus and the rest of the chorus will be song and be very melodic?
All of these are great starting points, where you can easily get a “spark” via a great song title – and then work backwards and forwards from that!
This is similar to point 1 above. Instead of an online lyric repository of ideas and concepts - the same can and should be done for your musical ideas. This includes chorus starts, melody ideas, chord progressions, beats, 4 measure loops, etc. Basically, anything and everything worthy of being used for later - you should be collecting and documenting for your future inspiration.
I think it’s great to do this, and then come back in a few weeks or a month, and listen to your ideas from a fresh perspective. This way, it’s easier to be totally objective and much easier to be your own “A&R person” and be able to say “Whoa - this is brilliant” or “Umm - I have to make sure that no one ever ever hears this LOL.”
Again, it’s a conscious practice here to do the practical work - so you can “gift” your future self some great ideas and topics to write a song about.
This is a concept I learned from esteemed Berklee College of Music Professor and amazing author and the “guru” and/or “Yoda” of lyric writing, Pat Pattison. Seriously. Pat was my professor at Berklee, and I’ve just learned so much from Pat.
One thing Pat really instills in his students is a daily practice called the “free write.”
Essentially, you start the day as a diary type entry. You open up a page or start a fresh document - hit the stopwatch for 10 minutes … and for 10 minutes just write. Yes, just write! Whatever comes to mind. Just keep going and going and going - get it all out. It’s almost like a vomit of thoughts! Keep going. And then. Beep Beep Beep. You’re done. Put down your pen and / or typing fingers. You’re done with the free write.
Now, this is great for creative flow, but also if you do this for 365 days of the year - think of the content you’re creating, think of the topics to write songs about … so much raw material! You’ll just need to go back and refine it and pull out the goodies.
Here’s another tip!
If you want some actual “song prompts” - look no further than this cool little website that Pat Pattison turned me onto called Objective Writing: https://objectwriting.com/ It’s exactly what we’ve been talking about, except you actually have a random idea or cue provided to you before you start writing.
This “free write” practice is even more valuable when it comes to actually writing that song you need to work on now.
Let’s say we want to work on that “The Terminator” idea we talked about earlier. OK. Stopwatch time again. You got 10 minutes - Go!
Write everything that comes down about the story, what this person is feeling, concepts, dialogue, twists, situations, point of view, what The Terminator wears, figurative weapons, etc … and then voila - you’ll have so much raw material and maybe even some lyric ideas that just allow you to (hopefully) effortlessly write melodies around those lyric ideas.
Review your “free write” and circle or highlight the best phrases and ideas. It’s likely you might have the framework, or at least a solid start for your lyrics!
This is another of my favorites. It might be better to dive into this when you’re working on an existing song - or maybe even if you’re yes, stuck.
Oblique Strategies was created by the infamous writer/producer, Brian Eno and multimedia artist, Peter Schmidt https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oblique_Strategies .
A practice in “lateral thinking,” Oblique Strategies is a black and white deck of cards - each card has a mysterious “oblique” message written on it. There are hundreds of cards.
For instance one might say "Only One Element of Each Kind" or "Consider Different Fading Systems" or "Made A Sudden, Destructive Unpredictable Action." There’s actually a rad online fan version of Oblique Strategies which you can find right here: http://stoney.sb.org/eno/oblique.html
Here’s how Oblique Strategies works. Let’s say you’re in a writing session - either with yourself or someone else. Next, randomly pull one of these cards and read it aloud. Let’s try it. Oh … "Faced With A Choice - Choose Both." Interesting. And thus, you have a songwriting prompt and a direction that you may have entirely never even thought of. Think of “Oblique Strategies” as your silent collaboration partner : )
As you can see, this deck of cards can be amazing to help inspire the right chord progressions, song structure, production textures, lyrics - or even better, take you on a journey or a direction you never even considered!
Hey, it worked for David Bowie! In fact, Brian Eno infamously used Oblique Strategies in many of the amazing Bowie albums like Low, and Lodger.
I highly recommend picking up one of these card sets! Pricewise, there are original sets out that now sell for thousands of dollars. But lucky you - there are recreations that you pick up here inexpensively https://amzn.to/34oGFzB
This is actually a previous article I’ve written which you can check out here: https://www.benjamingroff.com/blog/the-20000-screaming-fans-hit-song-test
Essentially, the idea here is two-fold.
Does your song “hold up” to 20,000 fans waiting for their favorite artist to hit the stage in a blistering live performance? Does your song equate with that level of energy?
Another way of looking at this is the following. The following moment is via compliments of legendary metal band, Scorpions and their “Countdown” track from their amazing live album, “World Live Live.” Play the below YouTube embed. Now, when it ends - imagine what song would have to follow to equal that level of energy from the audience! Can you see and hear it in your mind’s eye?! Let the song play - yes, just play - not from your fingers and your own voice - but let the song play in your brain - and then CAPTURE IT!
Scorpions - Countdown
I get chills every time I hear this Scorpions track (and the full album!). There’s more on “writing in your mind's eye” or what I call “turning on the hit radio of your mind,” and actually a new program that I’m developing. In the meantime, you can check that post out here! https://www.benjamingroff.com/blog/turning-on-the-hit-radio-of-your-mind-and-then...turn-it-up
And remember, there are also plenty of more songwriting secrets I have at my Teachable online course, “Insider Secrets to Hit Songwriting” here: https://benjamingroff.teachable.com/p/insider-secrets-to-hit-songwriting
Yes, that’s right, if you keep a daily diary of some sort - one that captures your emotions, your life, your relationships, what’s going on in your world, with other people, current life conditions etc … you’re going to have years and maybe even decades of material to pull from. Remember - that life is happening “for” us - not “to” us. For instance, that crappy breakup and broken heart you might have experienced could be the path and providing the content for writing your 1st #1 hit.
Capture all your emotions as they come up and you’ll be rewarded with your own personal insights. Then, insert these into a song structure that will speak not just to yourself but ideally to millions of others.
When it comes to writing inspiration, one often overlooked idea is to simply ask your music publisher (or manager) assuming you have one. Especially, if you’re a professional songwriter and writing for other artists, you can get inspired to write a song by having a “target” artist you’re writing for.
Or maybe if you’re an artist, you can ask some music supervisors - what type of songs are you looking for right now for your synch placements or TV show. Or if you’re an artist - maybe even ask your fans!
Those answers may lead you in a direction or provide a framework for creativity to flourish. And remember - having some “confinements” or “parameters” in “being creative” is not a bad thing! In fact, it’s a great thing! Because when you can write just “anything” - no doubt that can be overwhelming. But maybe you want to write an uptempo, summery, happy song in the style of a Motown Hit - well, now you have a direction. You’ve instantly refined your parameters and zoned in. You’re on a road and a path - vs just letting the river or stream “take you wherever.”
On that note - here’s another way to start a song writing idea.
Previously, I mentioned Motown - but this could be anything. Maybe you want to make something ala Nine Inch Nails? Or you’re really inspired by the latest Beyonce song? Whatever it is - an idea is to make a study of that song, or of that style - learn it inside and out, make it your own - and then write and record your song within the parameters of that style.
Or maybe you want to sit down and pretend that you’re Don Henley for the day? What would Don write, what “moves” would he use, what type of lyric would he craft? (Besides taking a year to finish a song).
I actually wrote a whole blog post on this topic - and actually, it’s how the really great songwriters become the best and how legends are made. I highly encourage you to check this out! It’s something I came up with called the “Songwriting Vocabulary Expander.” You can also get a free PDF download of the exercise, right here at this post: https://www.benjamingroff.com/blog/songwriting-vocabulary-expander-how-to-become-one-of-the-best
I’ve saved the best for last.
When it comes to ideas, you may already have that amazing song - all ready to write. In fact, I bet it’s been percolating in your noggin for some time now. Am I right?
Yes, it’s that song that you’re too hesitant to write and have given yourself numerous (and false) excuses for not writing. Let me see if these sound familiar to you: “That’s too crazy of an idea,” “Mixing Trap and Polka Genres - that’s just too ridiculous.” “That lyric is just too honest and personal to me - who’s going to relate to that?” “I might get in trouble for making this lyric!”
The list goes on. Well, what if I told you that these “excuses” were just your brain’s resistance speaking up from doing your most dangerous and most important work?!
It’s time for you to finally write and record that song! Now, the good news is, your brain’s probably already been working on it for you for months - or even years! Lucky for you, you have a head start. Get to it!
So there you go! There’s now no reason to be scratching your head on what to write a song about.
As mentioned before, whether inspiration comes via song prompts, free writes, or ideas you’ve collected over the years - a big part of having inspiration in the first place (in my opinion) is doing all the practical work first. Yes, this is all the “behind the scenes” prep work! In short, when it comes time to be creative - you’ve already laid the groundwork and the foundation for your creativity to flourish!
And yes, I do believe that some of the most “inspired” and “creative” people - are those that also put in the daily “workout” time in developing their craft - so when it comes time to write aka “performance time” - the ideas just effortlessly flow.
And by the way, do I have a separate document of my own just for blog post ideas? You bet! I have about 50 blog post ideas and growing!
When it comes time to write a blog - just like this one, I just tap into my online document - and review: a) which blog post idea is most inspiring and compelling to me and b) which I think is most valuable to people right now.
Thus, the inspiration for this blog was just like one of the song prompts we previously mentioned.
There’s an endless amount of material to write, but by doing the work ahead of time, and also putting these ideas into practice for songwriting ideas - you’re setting yourself up for some of the biggest wins and most creative days in the writing room and studio.
That’s right – let’s do this! But no matter how much preparation and practice and time you put in, nothing can take the place of actually doing it! That’s right – write a song! The biggest leap for a lot of people is just opening the computer or a logic file or a note pad and just starting! It’s almost like going to the gym sometimes. One of the biggest hurdles in “working out” or exercises – is just picking up that weight and/or pressing “start” on the treadmill.
Let’s not worry about perfection here either! At least in the early genesis framework of getting your song worked out in a skeleton or in some type of working form.
To that note, I know one famous songwriter who would end his sessions by saying to his cowriter “OK we have a GFN” song – or this is a “GFN lyric or line.”
And what’s a “GFN?” GFN is simply – it’s “good for now.”
Even when it comes to writing this blog post or my experience writing my first book “How Do I Get a Record Deal? Sign Yourself!” – it was written in a rough format – chapters and chunks even before a first draft was available. The hard part often was – today, I’m going to write one whole chapter on “x.”
For you, the goal of the day (and for most professional sessions) might be – “I want to finish an entire song – at least have the working structures of it finished.” This means chords and melody that are perhaps 80% done and lyrics that are 50% done. Make no doubt, it’s just not you who has hurdles with writing lyrics! Getting that best lyric you can to the finish line – is often a chore – but so worth it.
So, now that you have your 75% finished song, make sure you catalogue, record your song (in whatever format it’s in) and document it. This means getting a rough “work tape” or what we in the biz affectionally call “wips” aka “works in progress.”
I often find it’s great to set that “wip” aside for a few weeks and come back to it with fresh eyes and ears. This often allows for you to distance yourself from your own creative work with an objective opinion. Hopefully, your response is a “Hell Yes! This song is epic! Let’s get it to the finish line.”
Finally, to wrap up this post, let’s talk about how to learn to write a song. I’ve given you some pointers here and some great songwriting prompts. But then what? I mean there aren’t really schools you can just go and sign up for a class, right? Or – wait, are there?! Of course, there are! Even if it’s your local music theory teacher!
There’s also tons of amazing artists and writers and musicians who are self-taught. In fact, a great way to do self teach yourself is summarized in an advanced post called “Songwriting Vocabulary Expander.” In order to be one of the best – it’s crucial to learn from the greats who have come before you!
Beyond teaching yourself or your local music teacher, there’s amazing music colleges out there, with specific courses created just for writing hits like Berklee College of Music or the Clive Davis Institute or the Martin Bandier Program at Syracuse. And don’t forget my own songwriting course, Insider Secrets to Hit Songwriting. You can use BENJAMIN20 as a coupon code to get 20% off right now. It’s also a 100% money back guarantee – so what are you waiting for – there are also some free modules on that link! This post about songwriting prompts is just one of the many unfair advantage and uncommon topics I address in the course.
Either way – my advice to anyone new, intermediate and advanced (and advice I take myself) is to always be learning and to have a curriculum you’ve created for yourself.
So, yes – song prompts, concepts and ideas – let’s prepare our inspiration and let’s raise a toast to our future successes from the work we put in yesterday.
Hope it’s helpful.