Songwriting Ideas for Beginners to Get You Going

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We all like to think that clever, witty and cool ideas just pop into the heads of our favorite songwriters. 

However, the truth is that finding an idea for a new song isn’t always easy.

I’ve spent hours staring at a blank page without being able to find a good song idea.

But there is hope!

There are actually plenty of awesome songwriting ideas out there.

In this post will explore songwriting ideas for beginners. You’ll discover ways to find great song ideas.

Here’s a quick summary of what I’m going to cover:

Look For Song Ideas In Your Own Life Experiences

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Your own life experiences are one of the best sources for song ideas.

Whenever I sit down to write a song, I ask myself “what am I feeling right now?” 

“Is there any situation in my life, positive or negative, that I could write a song about?”

Dolly Parton was once asked what inspired her to write “Jolene”.  

Parton recounted:

“My husband’s really good looking, and he’s one of those people who gets sweet crushes.  

He had his girl at the bank that he liked.

It’s perfectly fine with me. 

This girl was a redhead.  

Her name wasn’t Jolene, but I’d always know when he’d go to the bank, and I’d always kid him.  ‘Now I know we ain’t got that damn much money. 
What are you doing hanging out at the bank?” 

He’d say, ‘Oh, I’m just going to see my girl.”

So I just took that idea as far as the love interest.

When Parton was asked how she came up with the name of the song, she explained:

As for the name itself, there was a little girl that had come to a show that I did with Porter Wagoner. We used to sit on stage afterwards and sing autographs.

And there was this one beautiful, little redhead girl.  

She must’ve been eight or nine years old.  

She was wanting an autograph, and I said, ‘You are the prettiest thing I’ve ever looked at.  

What is your name?’  

And she said, ‘Jolene.’ 

I said, ‘That’s a beautiful name, and I’m going to remember and write a song about that someday.  

So if you ever hear a song on the radio called ‘Jolene’ that I’m singing, then you’ll know it was about you.’ 
— 
Bill DeMain, In Their Own Words: Songwriters Talk About the Creative Process

When you are writing from your own personal experience, there’s a chance that there will be someone out there that’ll listen to your song and identify with what you’ve written:

Expressing your authentic feelings in a song can be therapeutic to you as a person; those feelings can also be the clay from which a lasting song can be sculpted.  

If your audience can see a little bit of themselves within your song, if they can identify directly with what you are saying, your song just may stay in their hearts and minds long after it has dropped off the Billboard charts.” 
— Dave Austin, Jim Peters & Cathy Lynn Austin,
 Songwriting for Dummies)

The People Around You Can Give You Great Song Ideas

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You don’t necessarily have to write songs from your own personal experience. 

You can use other people’s experiences and generate great ideas for songs:  

John Braheny, author of The Craft & Business of Songwriting, writes:

Some writers only write from personal experience.

Don’t forget that, like a novelist, you’re a creator; and if you hear someone else’s story and it moves you, chances are it’ll move others, too.”

Casey Kelly and David Hodge, authors of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Art of Songwriting, advise:

Study people you’ve never noticed before or those you’ve taken for granted.  

Once you’ve begun to look closely at the people around you, make it a daily habit.”

The trick is to allow your imagination complete freedom.

You’re a hundred different people inside.

Think of yourself as an actor, prepared at any moment to assume roles much different than your daily personality.

The basic emotions exist in everyone, no matter how different they appear.”

Songwriters that develop the awareness of the people around them in order to create interesting characters can come up with amazing songs.

When Bruce Springsteen wrote “Nebraska”, he created a character that was inspired by the murderer, Charles Starkweather, who murdered eleven people during 1958.

When Bob Dylan wrote “Hurricane”, he narrated the story of the boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter who was unjustly imprisoned in the 1960s. Dylan brings up the topic of racism within the justice system.

People’s Conversations are a Great Source of Songwriting Ideas

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Listening to the conversations of those around us can be a great source of song ideas.  

People’s conversations will give you a peek into a real life outside of your own life.  

They will give you new points of view and interesting song ideas.

Songwriter, Stephen Stills, was inspired to write the song “Love the One You’re With” after hearing the musician Billy Preston remark: 

If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.’

With an eye to the importance of listening to other’s conversation, Danny Cope, author of Righting Wrongs in Writing Songs writes:

Public transport is a plentiful resource for fascinating conversations, as are radio talk shows.  

It’s amazing what some people think.  

We should really engage in conversation with people who interest us. 

We shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions or to change our mind.”

Authors of Songwriting for Dummies write:

There is nothing more real to write about than actual situations. The dynamics of people’s lives can provide thousands of stories.  

Obviously it’s okay to enhance or modify a real-life story (after all we’re usually writing fiction here), but many writers at least base their song on the interactions of real people.”

Then, they suggest:

The next time you’re at a restaurant, tune in to the conversation at the table next to you. 
(Usually, the diners are talking so loudly you won’t have to strain.) 

You may catch a glimpse of a conversation that could spark a song.”

Casey Kelly and David Hodge, authors of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Art of Songwriting believe that songwriters should be attentive and study their surroundings: 

Good songwriters are observant.  

Be a student of all you see around you.  

All too often, we retreat into our private worlds, rarely gazing outward at the parade of events moving around us. 

Developing an intense fascination for this parade will guarantee the arrival of platinum ideas.”

Generating Song Ideas by Deliberately Mishearing Lyrics 

man listening to paper cup phone
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Musical Creativity Squared is an interesting method that I found in the book Compose Yourself, by David Alzofon.  

According to Alzofon, most methods for stimulating ideas are like work.  

However, he believes that we should play at creativity, not work at it.

He invented Musical Creativity Squared as a way to increase musical creativity with no effort.

The method relies on our ability to get things wrong, specifically, mishearing lyrics of songs in order to generate new musical ideas.

Believe it or not, mishearing the words of a song is a source of ideas for many songwriters. 

Jason Blume, author of Six Steps to Songwriting Success recounts:

“Many writers report having heard a great line in a song, only to realize that the line they “heard” wasn’t actually what had been sung.  

In many instances, the line that they misheard sparked a new idea.”

If you want to generate song ideas, using David Alzofon’s Musical Creativity Squared method, this is what you have to do:  

1. Turn on some music, preferably unfamiliar music.

2. Go in the bathroom, close the door, and take a hot shower.

3. The shower will relax and distract you.  

The water splashing in your ears will muddle the sound of the music coming through the door. Now it’s time to mishear a few melodic words.

4. Your ears will fill in the missing notes effortlessly and automatically. 

That’s where you’ll find endless new ideas.

— David Alzofon, Compose Yourself 

Now:

There are a few things you should notice when you generate song ideas using the Musically Creativity Squared process:

1. Naturally, you should be on guard against plagiarism, but don’t rush to conclusions; your idea might be more original than you think.

2. When you try to write a song, it can be difficult to find an authentic style and an original groove, but that is not often a problem with this method. 

Your innate talent for pattern completion summons up all of your experience with the language of music, which is probably considerably greater than your book learning, and stylistic ingredients automatically mix and mingle at a subconscious level.

Your Imagination is a Unique Source of Song Ideas

imaginitive art
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Here is an interesting tool that I picked up from Casey Kelly and David Hodge, authors of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Art of Songwriting.

This method involves a repetitive affirmation which you will say to yourself over and over again before coming up with song ideas:

1. Close your eyes.

2. Say to yourself, “I have dozens of great ideas” or something along this line.

3. Repeat this over and over again, especially before going to sleep.

4. If you want a greater effect, record these words, put on earphones and listen to your voice repeating this thought.

Casey Kelly and David Hodge claim that within a few days, your mind will be bursting with fresh ideas to write songs about.

Once you come up with these great ideas for songs, you have to trust them and start writing.

Start Traveling and Come Up with Great Song Topics

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When you travel, you are usually outside of your comfort zone. You visit new places. You meet new friends. 
You gain new experiences.

By traveling you become more open-minded as you come across new experiences and this may help in generating fresh creative ideas for songs.

Paul Simon wrote “Graceland” during a road trip to Graceland, after his marriage failed.

James Taylor wrote “Carolina in My Mind” while travelling and missing his home in North Carolina.

Roger Miller was inspired to write “King of the Road” when he was driving.  

Miller saw a sign of a barn that read “Trailers for sale or rent” which turned into the opening line of the song.

Take a Walk and Find Ideas for Songs

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Many creative people have claimed that they do their best thinking while taking a walk. Indeed, studies have shown that creative thinking improves while a person is walking.

So, go out for a walk. 
Maybe you’ll come back with a couple of new song concepts.

Jason Blume, author of, Six Steps to Songwriting Success reflects:

“I walk outside almost every morning. 

I tend to come up with a lot of my ideas while walking. 

I’m not sure what it is, but the combination of walking, and knowing that I have a co-writing session coming up in an hour and that the pressure is on, that’s very often when I come up with my ideas.” 

Get Your Song Ideas From Television

woman watching television
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Television can be a great source of ideas. 

While researching material for this post, I was surprised to discover many songs that were inspired by television shows.

Here are some examples:

After watching the film Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, Johnny Cash wrote “Folsom Prison Blues.”

Matisyahu was inspired by the TV show “The Flintstones” when he wrote  “Broken Car”.

David Paich, from the band Toto wrote “Africa” after watching a late night documentary about the terrible death and suffering of the people in Africa.

Danny Cope, author of Righting Wrongs in Writing Songs recounts:

I know of people who are not beyond taking a notebook and pen with them to the cinema so that they can write down key lines that generate a reaction in them.”

Authors of Songwriting for Dummies suggest:

This is a big and vibrant category when it comes to shaking loose some great ideas from that head of yours.  

Just the feeling that a certain movie evokes can be enough to write a song. The message contained in so many series and shows can sometimes be harnessed into a song.

In good drama or comedy, the interactions between people can serve as a template for relationships in your song. Often, there is a particular character that you’re drawn to or can identify with.  

Write about him or her or from his or her perspective. And who can resist the temptation of looking at the latest YouTube offerings – the stuff that shows up there can be an endless supply of ideas.”

Robin Frederik, author of 126 Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting recommends:

Pick a movie or TV show with a dramatic story. 
Make it one you like to watch. 

Look for a scene with emotional content, maybe it’s a scene where one character finds out something about another that changes the way they feel, or realize something for the first time.

Write down this idea in a single sentence. 
Look for a short phrase that expresses this theme. Make it your title.”

Books Have Many Ideas For Great Songs

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Through reading books we can not only gain wisdom but find interesting topics, characters, settings and situations to write songs about.  

Songwriter, Jimmy Webb’s “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress” is a title taken from a fiction novel written by Robert A. Heinlein.

Joni Mitchell, wrote “Both Sides, Now” when she was inspired by reading book Henderson the Rain King by the author Saul Bellow.

Jason Blume, author of Six Steps to Songwriting, says that browsing book titles is often how he looks for song ideas:

Several times, when preparing for an important co-writing session, I’ve been less than enthusiastic about any of the titles I’ve stockpiled and instead have found inspiration at local bookstores.  

Browse the aisles. 
There’s a good chance you’ll find a great song title. 

Book quotations, slang, and even titles of novels can be a great source of song titles.

Danny Cope, author of Righting Wrongs in Writing Songsadvises:

We should read – stories, poems, screenplays, encyclopedias, and anything that someone else has written to communicate what is in his head.”

Susan Tucker, author of The Secrets of Songwriting thinks books are the way for the mind to travel:

“Reading is a great place to get ideas. 
It’s kind of like traveling with the mind. 
You get your mind out of your little room and go traveling. 

You go to the eighteenth century,  and you go to summer, and to somebody’s life and some love affair.” 

Find Ideas For Songs in Newspapers, Magazines & Blogs

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The advantage of picking up a song idea from a newspaper, magazine or blog is that there are literally countless ideas in them.  

Here are some examples of songs that were inspired by newspapers:

A story that appeared on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle inspired singer-songwriter Malvina Reynolds, to write the song “The Little Mouse.”

Jack White read an article in the National Geographic on giant lily pads able to support the weight of a human being, and wrote “Temporary Ground.”

Murder in the Red Barn”, by singer-songwriter Tom Waits, was inspired by an article in The New York Times about an old barn that was used as a rural slave jungle.

Authors of Songwriting for Dummies suggest:

You’ll find an endless supply of song ideas just by reading the daily newspaper and watching CNN.  

Of course it’s important to watch actively – not only taking in and comprehending the events, but also taking the implications of the events to the next stage and searching for the motivation behind them. 

As you’re doing all this, you are considering different situations for the emotional impact they could have in the context of a song and just how deeply the event impacts you.”

[…]

Magazines and blogs can be a great stepping off point for a song. Well-written articles can inspire and idea, and colorful ads can transfer a feeling of what’s considered current in the world of pop consciousness.  

Magazines and blogs are basically just another way for a writer to keep his ‘ear to the street’”.

Dreams Have Things To Write Your Song About

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Paying close attention to dreams is a great way for songwriters to find ideas for songs.  
In fact, there are many writers who have been inspired by their dreams.  

The 19th-century author, Robert Louis Stevenson, wrote The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde after having a bad dream.

Jimi Hendrix got the idea to write “Angel” from a dream he had about his mother.

David Bowie wrote “Five Years” after dreaming about his father telling him that he had only five year left to live.

With an eye to the creative power of dreams songwriter, Chuck Cannon recalls how he was inspired by his dream:

“I woke up one morning and vividly remembered a dream. 

I’d been going through a dry spell in writing and that day, I wrote a song. 

Real fast and a good one, I think it ended up getting cut. 
This went on for about a week. I’d remember my dreams, and I would write. 

Since that time, I’ve noticed that one of my personal indicators is that, if I start remembering my dreams, there’s a high correlation between that time and actual output for me.”
— Susan Tucker, The Secrets of Songwriting

Songwriter Stewart Harris describes how he captured an idea for a song after dreaming:

“I’ve dreamed ideas for songs. 

There was one time that I was in Richmond, Virginia, playing a gig. 

I was asleep one night in my hotel, and I dreamed a song. 

I bolted up. 
I knew I had to write it down, because I knew that it would go away. 

I could not find a pen, so I picked up the phone and called the front desk and said, ‘Don’t ask me any questions, and just write this down.’

So, this girl started writing it down, and she said, ‘Are you all right, Mr. Harris?” I said, ‘I’m a songwriter.”
— 
Susan Tucker, The Secrets of Songwriting

Use Poetic License: Look at Songs and Find a New Twist

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One of the things you could do is to take an existing song theme or title and look at it from a different angle. This is often called “Poetic License.” 

Poetic License is a term that refers to changing and embellishing the facts of a story in order to create a different story. 

The most prevalent examples of the use of poetic license are found in filming. 

The film “The Lord of The Rings”, for example, doesn’t exactly follow what actually occurred in the book. The screenwriters created a new idea and based it on the book.

Jason Blume, author of Six Steps to Songwriting  says looking at a song and finding a new twist may be challenging:

“One of the most important challenges is finding fresh ways to approach the subject.

It’s likely that your idea has been written about thousands of times.  

Finding a new twist or a different angle and expressing it with an intriguing, interesting title is crucial if you hope to set your song apart from the competition.”

Robin Frederik, author of 126 Shortcuts to Hit Songwritingpoints out the importance of looking at song titles as a way to generate fresh song ideas:

“Because a strong title can provide the basis for a cohesive, effective lyric, it’s an excellent place to begin exploring new song ideas.

Rather than turning inside for the inspiration for your title, try looking to the world around you for ideas.”

Get Ideas for Songs by using a “Dummy Song” / “Ghost Song”

Photo by Michel Stockman from Uplash

One of the tools that I like to use when I feel a bit stuck is the “Dummy Song.”

Using a dummy song means taking an existing song as a pattern for writing an original song. 

Robin Frederik, author of 126 Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting explains: 

The best way to pick up the techniques and tools of writing solid, commercial songwriting in any genre – from mainstream Pop to Country to Rock – is to use an existing contemporary hit song as a pattern for writing an original song of your own.  

I call the existing hit a “ghost song” because by the time you’re finished writing, it will be invisible. No one will ever know it existed.”

Singer-Songwriter, Pete Seeger, called this process “Talking Union”:

First of all it’s a process. It’s not any particular song; it’s not any particular singer.

It’s a process by which ordinary people take over old songs and make them their own. 

They don’t just listen to it. They sing it. They sing along with it. And they change it.” –Paul Zollo, Songwriters On Songwriting

Using the poetic license is very similar except that when you are using a ghost song you are taking a much closer look the song.

You should always remember that this is just a way of getting you in the flow of creating a song.  

You should not copy the song.   

The melody and lyrics of the dummy song are protected by copyright.  

So, don’t use any part of a copyrighted song in any work of your own.

If the song that you created sounds too similar to the original, try to change things to make the song sound unique.  If that doesn’t work, then pick a different song.  

Authors of Songwriting for Dummies caution and say:

“The key here is to remember that this is just a method of getting you in the flow of creating a song, and not a means to rip off copyrighted material from the best of the best!  

They then suggest a way of using a dummy song:

“Begin by dissecting, or picking apart, the greats by using the reverse engineering route to isolate the structure, lyrics and melody to see what works in a great song.  

Not only you will learn by doing, but you can focus on just one aspect at a time.  

As a bonus, you will also be practicing your craft without the tendency of repeating old habits or familiar ways of doing things, thereby allowing yourself to learn something new.”

Conclusion

As songwriters, we often feel stuck and that there is nothing to write about.

We often wait for the right moment, feeling or situation to appear in order to write a song.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

As we have seen, song ideas are everywhere. You just have to look for them.

I can’t put it any better than how songwriter, Gretchen Peters, did:

“Everybody feels like all the song ideas are taken. 

Look around you. 

There are a hundred song ideas in this room. 

They’re out there; you just have to find them. 

I think it’s a little easier to think of it that way, because you don’t feel so responsible.”

Now I’d like to hear from you:

Did this post help you? Are you going to try one or more tools?

Do you think I should add anything to this list?

Let me know by leaving a comment below. 

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2 thoughts on “Songwriting Ideas for Beginners to Get You Going”

  1. This is an excllent article and it covers all the aspects of writing a song. This is an amazing creation by the writer of the post. I will suggest you to please visit my website to have touch in with Indian songs as well with English songs to become familiar with the lyrics and words. Great songs

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