At a recent workshop, I guided the attendees through a creative exercise that began with a prompt–a suggestion intended to stimulate lyric ideas that would hopefully lead to a song. Rather than providing them with a specific title or idea to write about, I asked them to look around the room and note what they were seeing.
Many of the writers shared that this was a new way of writing for most of them, and it pushed them out of their comfort zones. They wrote songs because they were inspired when an idea, a title, or a melody popped into their head. They didn’t seek them out. But they had signed up to be challenged and they plunged ahead with the exercise.
The titles the attendees came up with were triggered by a wide variety of things in the room. These included: the girl on the second row; the man on the stage; teacher; the hardwood floor; a broken chair; lessons learned; a room full of dreams; torn blue jeans; a barefoot man; a chill in the air; and more. I was amazed and impressed at the quality of the song titles that were generated in only a few minutes.
But then came the hard part–finishing the song. There is no right, wrong, or “best” way to approach writing a song. Some students reported that their title inspired a melody or a musical feel. These writers worked on their melodies and/or tracks first. Others chose to complete their lyric before thinking about the melody that might eventually accompany it.
For the purposes of this exercise, when it was time to write their lyrics that would lead to their titles, I suggested the writers jot down what their song would be about. There are countless scenarios that might lead to a given title. For example, “The Girl on the Second Row” might refer to a girl who sat in front of him in high school chemistry class. Now, looking back, he never could have imagined he’d be married to “The Girl on the Second Row.” Another option would be to write it from a woman’s point of view, remembering a young man she had a crush on. Every Sunday, when she saw him in church, she hoped he would ask her on a date. But to him, she was just “The Girl on the Second Row.”
After the writers decided on their scenario, the next step was to craft a first verse that told their story while using fresh, original lines. I encouraged them to dig deep to mine emotions that felt real to them and to avoid anything predictable or cliché. I asked them to work each line like a jigsaw puzzle, trying various ways to express themselves until they landed on the perfect fit.
Before writing their second verse, I suggested the attendees think about what happened next, or what else happened, so they would be advancing their story, instead of rehashing information already presented in the first verse. In other words, I asked them to outline the plot before writing lines. This would also help them be sure they were effectively leading the listener back to the title.
Then the process of digging for fresh images and new approaches when writing the actual lines of lyric was repeated for the second verse. Chorus lyrics were written to be a summation of the idea and to hammer home the title.
The students left the workshop with a first draft of a lyric they would never have written without the prompt. I suggested they revisit it with fresh eyes after a day or two and tweak any lines that could possibly be stronger. Of course, melody would be critical, but that would be a subsequent workshop.
If your muse could use a little nudge, try writing a song based on one of these suggestions:
a title that includes a color, such as “Blue” (written by Bill Mack, recorded by Leann Rimes); “Purple Lamborghini” (written by Shamann Cooke, William Roberts and Sonny Moore, recorded by Skrillex and Rick Ross); and “Jet Blue Jet” (written by Craig Parks, Thomas Pentz, Matthew Van Toth and Julio Mejia, and recorded by Major Lazer ft. Leftside, GTA, Razzy and Biggy).
a title that includes a day of the week, such as: “Another Saturday Night” (written and recorded by Sam Cooke, also recorded by artists including Cat Stevens, Jimmy Buffett and Sam & Dave); “Last Friday Night” recorded by Katy Perry); and “Sunday Morning Coming Down” (written and recorded by Kris Kristofferson; also recorded by artists including Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Ray Price and Lynn Anderson).
You might also try writing a song by starting with a title about: money, a season, a time, a flower, a beach, or a city.
Even the most bountiful wellsprings occasionally run dry and writing to a prompt can be a great way to exercise our songwriting muscles and get our creative juices flowing.
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Jason Blume is the author of 6 Steps to Songwriting Success, This Business of Songwriting, and Inside Songwriting (Billboard Books). His songs are on Grammy-nominated albums and have sold more than 50,000,000 copies. He has been a guest lecturer at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (co-founded by Sir Paul McCartney) and at the Berklee School of Music. For information about his workshops, webinars, instructional audio lectures, additional articles, and more, visit www.jasonblume.com