A couple years ago I had a talk with the great Pelle Nylen and we started playing some tunes for each other. Eventually, I got out my guitar and played Andy McKee’s Drifting for him, which he hadn’t heard before.
What struck me as interesting is what he said right after I had finished: “What’s that tuning? Might write a song with that some day”
It had never occurred to be before that you could start a song based on a guitar tuning. But of course, anything that inspires you works. I think the key here is that:
If you want to write exceptional songs, write exceptionally!
Since then, I have collected other alternatives to starting a song and here, I present you my 9 favorite ones (incl. 2 that are just BIZARRE!).
WATCH OUT: Read this article until the very end, because it does have a message, a larger point I’m trying to make.
Tl;dr? Check the video version of this article here:
1. The Melody
Since this is the part everyone’s gonna be listening to, why not start with the melody? Here’s how I like to do it:
- Go for a walk, preferably nature
- Imagine a drum beat and start moving to it. Get into the groove until it feels natural
- Start singing rhythms on top of this groove
- Add pitch (if you are having problems with this, sing your rhythm in different intervals, then combine what sounded good)
- Add grace notes
2. The Song Title
This can be a great approach if you want to write something that works on several levels. Knowing what your song is about very early on in the writing process can help you make decisions later on.
- Keep a note pad with you at all times and write down any interesting words you hear
- When you start to write, go through your list and pick one that speaks to you on an emotional level
- Think of scenarios where these words could fit. For instance, the title “left behind” could lead to a lyric about someone you knew who left you, someone who died or simply about people with multiple asses.
Having problems coming up with song titles? Use this list with 201 of them. Download it FREE here.
3. Reverse Existing Songs (South Park Style)
This is one of those crazy ones… I got the idea from an interview with South Park creators Matt Stone & Trey Parker. For the episode “The Succubus”, they had to sing a song backwards and in the commentary, Matt notes that “this is probably how Björk writes her songs”.
Of course my first thought was “I wonder if anyone has ever tried this…”
I have since done this many times for inspiration. Reversing existing songs creates something completely different that has a magical quality to it.
- Find a song with an energy you like
- Reverse it
- Make out parts that you like and build a new song around those (make sure you don’t use any of the original song)
This is a fantastic technique if you have to write in an unfamiliar style.
4. The Groove
If making your audience dance, sway or headbang to your songs is your primary goal, why not start with the groove? Even if you’re not a drummer, there are plenty of ways to do this.
- Select a tempo between 75bpm and 130 bpm
- Start with a kick drum on the 1 and a snare on 2 & 4
- Add the HiHat in either 8th or 16th notes
- Add ghost notes on the snare
- Switch the HiHat with the toms, ride or crash and see which one you like best
- Experiment with shakers and other percussion in the background
- P.S. Want to become a master in writing for drums? Check out “Drum-Writing For Non-Drummers“
5. On Paper
For some styles I will start writing on paper, meaning not on the instrument or in my DAW. Jazz and Orchestral music fall into this category. Required is a strong theoretical background and a good ear.
- Figure out your basic chord progression (a kind of Ursatz)
- Add more chords for color (mediant, submediant, etc) or direction (V-I, ii-V-I, IV-V-I, subV-I, etc)
- Identify important notes in your chord changes and build a basic melody
- Connect these important notes through improvisation and adjust to taste until you find a good melody
This path is a little dangerous, but even though it’s not the most modern way of writing a song it can be a very inspiring one.
- Think of two interesting words, such as “glass” and “toothpaste”
- As fast as you can, write down 10 interesting ways in which these two words could be brought together. Situations, stories, impressions, objects, everything is allowed. In our example, I might come up with your significant other painting a heart on your mirror with toothpaste
- Structure your story so you have something new to say in every section. My example could start out with a couple having a fight and her eventually locking herself in the bathroom. In the second verse, she could leave the house without another word, leaving him torn. In the bridge he finds the toothpaste heart in the bathroom and knows she still loves him and just needs a little space
- Find your message. Derive an overarching idea from your story that will make up your chorus. For my lyric, this could be something about the back and forths of couples or how love is complicated
- Write out your lyrics following this structure
- Want to take another route with storytelling that isn’t so old-fashioned? Check out this article.
7. The Emotion / Chords
If you’re in a certain mood, why not put it to good use?
- Figure out what mood you’re in and how you could best describe it
- Express your emotion with a combination of the following terms: Happy, sad, funky, sexy, dreamy (floating), dreamy (beautiful), neutral and assign percent values to each of them
- Go through the process outlined in my previous post “How To Write A Hit Chord Progression Series” or just get a free PDF with 143 Chord Progressions here.
Starting with arrangement is especially useful when you’ve already written a section and you need to figure out how to get there and where to go after it.
- Identify what you have. Is it a chorus, verse, bridge or hook?
- Is your section low, medium or high energy?
- If your section is low energy (often verses), think of ways to build after it
- If your section is medium energy (often pre-choruses, bridges), how could you build towards it and take it to the next higher energy level?
- If you wrote a high energy section, how can you build up to it smoothly and how can you transition to a low energy part after it?
- Answering these questions should give you one building block of verse – pre-chorus – chorus. Copy/paste that, so you have verse-pre-chorus-verse-pre-chorus
- What is the overall feel of your song now? Is it energetic or does it take its time?
- If it’s energetic, go for a low-energy bridge
- If it’s a little more relaxed, try a high-energy bridge
Learn more about professional arrangement in my book The Addiction Formula.
9. Roll The Dice (And How To Become A More Original Songwriter)
Yes, this is the other crazy one I was talking about… but give me a second and I will tell you why I’m listing it here.
I learned this in a songwriting camp many, many years ago and I’ve used it a couple of times since then. The idea is simple: We have 6 chords in our pop universe: I, ii, iii, IV, V and vi. Why not decide which chord goes next by rolling a die?
This makes for a great songwriting challenge, because it will stop you from reusing the same chords over and over again and in the right context, this can lead to some very interesting chord progressions.
And here’s the question that changed my view on inspiration forever:
Why not use this technique to write a song about gambling or luck?
When I realised that this was possible, I started asking myself if there are other ways to write songs than the ones I was using. And more importantly: Are there methods of songwriting that match the song’s theme, making it a real work of art in a way?
Here’s the point of this article:
Next time you’re writing a song, don’t just start. Figure out the best way for the song to start. If you’re writing about people who talk too loudly in public, why not start with that as a technique and build from there? In this example, you could contrast relaxed music with a powerful vocal performance.
See where this is going?
There are no rules when it comes to inspiration. You decide. Exceptional songs require exceptional writing. Get to work!