Have you ever had a great idea – one that was going to be the best song you’d ever written – but it came to you at a time or place where you couldn’t work on it right then? And when you get to a place you can work on it, the idea is gone. I used to do that all the time, and for a while I wrote all those ideas off as ‘not good enough’. After all, if it wasn’t memorable, then it couldn’t have been very good. Turns out, I was wrong.
Even when I am home, I don’t usually write a song from beginning to end in one sitting. Most of the time I have an idea while practicing, driving, or whatever. I don’t want to forget those ideas, so I created an ‘idea box’ where I put all of my undeveloped ideas. ‘Idea Box’ is a little misleading – in reality I record ideas in a music notebook, on a voice recorder (my phone), in with text editor. I use whichever one is available and most convenient when I have a new idea. But I copy everything onto my computer so I have a permanent record of everything all in one place.
My process is very fluid. I might start a new song by improvising on my piano or guitar, by singing, with a lyrical idea (like Whiskey Road), or just beating out a rhythm on the table. I really don’t favor one over the others, so I’d say I use each about equally. I generate a lot of ideas, but I don’t have time to develop them all, which is where my idea box comes in.
To demonstrate what sorts of things are in my idea box, here are a few random selections.
Words, Words and more Words
I keep a lot of little ideas for lyrics. Some are pretty complete, others are just a line or two. Let’s peek inside the box!
I was away from home when this idea came to me, so I dictated the words into my cell phone and wrote them down when I got home.
Did you come to say you’re sorry,
Or just to say goodby
Are you here to tell the truth
Or just another of your lies
I sang the next one into the voice recorder on my phone while sitting at a stop light. I will see if I can find the original recording and post it too. It is really embarrasing.
She’s got the devil’s heart and an angel’s face
If you make her mad she’ll put you in your place
Daddy couldn’t tame her; would’ve been a waste
She has the devil’s heart and an angel’s face
She don’t want to live in a state of grace
The preacher told her
She’s got an angel’s face but the devil’s heart
She’ll lead you on then tear you apart
And finally, I liked the sound of the phrase ‘Hot winter’s night’, so I wrote it down:
You and me by the fire light
It’s going to be a hot, hot winter’s night
Gimme a Beat!
This is an example where I just turned on the drum machine and started improvising (I added the bass later). I kind of go off the rails at about the 1:00 mark, but that is what happens. You can’t judge yourself when you are in the brainstorming stage, you just have to let things happen, good or bad. This one is a mix of both 🙂
I wanted to write a nice melody with pretty chord changes. I will do a separate blog on writing melodies soon. I recorded this after 5 or 6 improvisation sessions where it kept coming back to me, so this idea is a little more developed, but it is a long way from finished.
Finally, BabyDontYouWorryScan is the lead sheet for another ‘pretty’ song, but one where I started with a chord progression and melody together. You can even see the eraser marks where I edited the melody. This represent how much detail I put in when first writing a melody and chord changes. It’s pretty simple.
These are just a few examples of ideas that are sitting in my idea box waiting for me to develop them. I recommend every aspiring songwriter get a notebook and a recording device, and any time you have an idea, write it down (or record it). Don’t try to be perfect, just get your ideas down. You will find this helps your creativity as well as giving you a well of ideas to go back to when you find yourself looking for inspiration.