Inspiration for a new song idea can come from just about anywhere. Musicians take the raw materials of life and turn them into something other people can relate to. It takes more than lyrics to do that. Good songs need a melody and chord progressions to tell their story. In this article, I'll share a collection of songwriting techniques you can use to get the creative juices flowing.
Music is a labor of love that brings people into our world, exposing our feelings in a way that few art forms can. Creativity begins with accepting our emotions as they are, be it positive or negative, and being willing to expose them through our music. Even if you're having a bad day, you can write a great song that people will relate to when they hear it.
Each technique in this article offers a different angle on the songwriting process. If you spend even ten minutes per day with one of them, I'm confident that fresh ideas will begin to flow through you within the first week of practice.
Table of Contents
Daily routines and songwriting rituals
Before we jump into songwriting prompts, it's important to start with the basics. Creativity is an inherently mysterious force that comes from deep within us. Many of the great thinkers and artists have talked about the importance of establishing daily routines to make room for their creative process.
Author Stephen King famously said "Don't wait for the muse", explaining that writers need to have a disciplined approach to creativity, rather than sitting around and waiting for inspiration to strike. In fact, the word music comes from the Greek word muse, referring to a collection of goddesses who were the source of all knowledge and inspiration. They had to be summoned.
Ancient cultures shared a common belief that creative forces are attracted through rituals. The artist invites the muses into their space and becomes one with them. In return, they help to drive the creative process.
This is a metaphor, of course. You don't actually need to believe in gods or goddesses to tap into your creative drives. Ordinary daily routines work just as well, as long as they are performed mindfully. Ultimately, you should be clearing away the stress of daily life to create space for your imagination to express itself.
So technique #1 is to carve out at least 10 minutes per day to sit down and work on song writing. Focus on small things at first and see what comes out. If you're stuck or frustrated by the end of that period, feel free to walk away. Next time you can try a different idea. But when great ideas come to you, stay with them as long as you can, until you run out of steam or run out of time.
Mood board: Creating your inspiration playlist
The next songwriting technique we'll explore here actually comes from the world of graphic design. When contracted artists work on a new client project, they often use mood boards to define and agree on a visual style. These boards basically amount to a collection of images, ala Pinterest, that can help to establish a clear direction and visual pallet before they start the actual design work.
The musical version of a mood board would be a playlist or a selection of audio samples for digital audio production. Collecting songs for each mood can help you get in the zone prior to starting the songwriting session. It will take a little bit of time to organize your favorite pieces by genre, but you'll thank yourself later on.
If you don't feeling like creating your own playlists, you can always type a mood into Spotify and filter by playlists to find compilations that other people have created. You might end up hearing some new band that gets you pumped up. But then again, one person's idea of a musical mood could be totally different from yours, which kind of defeats the purpose of this exercise. So do yourself a favor and make your own playlists!
Another great resource for quick inspiration is the Mood filter from the music licensing company Marmoset. Visit that link and select the mood tab. Then click on the boxes after "My Project is..." to choose up to three descriptive words. Their entire catalogue is tagged according to these moods, which can help you come up with very specific feelings to inspire your own songwriting session.
The Treasure Hunt: Mining ideas from hit songs
You may have heard the famous saying that "Good artists borrow and great artists steal". This doesn't mean that you should rip off other artists. It's more of an invitation to take direct inspiration from others. In case you have reservations about doing this, just know that professional songwriters borrow song ideas from other musicians all the time.
I call this technique the Treasure Hunt because it's an active search for song ideas rather than a passive attitude of waiting for that spark of inspiration.
Start with a song from your inspiration playlist and pull out a single musical moment that you like. Studying other people's music is a good exercise. It takes you out of your existing songwriting habits and can make you aware of new musical patterns, which in turn fosters new ideas.
5 places to go hunting for musical treasure
1. Check out Hooktheory for a database of over 30,000 hit songs. You'll find the chords and melodies clearly outlined, so you can better understand the musical elements that made them catchy. If you have a paid account, you can download the MIDI file directly to your computer and make changes in your DAW.
2. Listen for a hook in the chorus and try playing it on a musical instrument. If you are struggling to capture the notes, try using a mobile app like Moises.ai to separate the different instruments from a track or Samplab 2 to convert the audio to MIDI, this way you can study it in your piano roll.
3. Focus on the bass and drums. Songwriters are often caught up in trying to learn the chords and melody of a song. They forget about the rest of the arrangement. Listen to the syncopation of the rhythm section for ideas on how to fill out your existing song ideas.
4. Write down your favorite lyrics from a song. Try isolating just one or two lines and sing the lyrics with different melodies. Then you can change the lyrics later once you've discovered a melody that you like.
5. Revisit the OST of a movie or videogame that you love. Find your favorite theme music and see if you can pick out the leitmotif. Learn how to play it on an instrument and then change it around to make it your own.
Moving around: Finding song ideas in the world
Get out of your head and into the world! Walking through your neighborhood or going on an adventure into some new location can be a great way to come up with song ideas.
This comes back to the importance of having a good time. When we become to fixated on trying to make music, it starts to feel like a problem that needs to be solved. Inspiration is more likely to emerge when we cleanse our mental pallet and have a clear headspace.
The world is full of song ideas if we're willing to open our eyes and see them. In my experience, it can help to use adventure walking apps that generate a random GPS coordinate to travel to in your local area. Randonautica has a spooky reputation but it's my favorite one.
You might think that you already know your town, but there are all sorts of tiny details that we overlook when we're in familiar places. I'm a big fan of walking to a random spot and setting the intention to find something inspiring. If you don't want to use an app, pull out a map and drop your finger randomly on it to decide where to go.
Once you arrive, linger for a minute. The first minute or so, you might not see anything of interest. Let your eye move over every visual detail in the environment. Open yourself to the smells and sounds in the environment. Exploring with friends can make this process more fun, as you hunt for something together. Just be sure to follow common sense and be respectful of privacy. Don't trespass!
If you see anything unusual in the area, jot down some notes and bring them back to your songwriting session later. They could inspire lyrics or a song title. I've discovered new artists and even met new musical collaborators doing this.
Salvador Dali: The Dream Spoon method
One of the great visual artists of the 20th century, Salvador Dali, had a strange method for conjuring images. He believed that his best ideas came as he was right on the verge of falling asleep. Scientists call this the hypnagogic state. It's a mental space between waking and dreaming where our minds are just alert enough to pay attention but relaxed enough not to overthink them.
To access this special state, Dali would sit in a chair and hold a spoon in his hand. He would concentrate on gripping the spoon loosely while allowing the boredom to wash over him. Then, as he started to sleep into a dream state, the spoon would fall out of his hands and the noise would startle him awake. Upon coming back to consciousness, he would have fresh images and ideas from his subconscious that he could use to inspire his art.
Another way to do this, without the spoon, is to keep a paper journal and pen by your bedside. When you first wake up in the morning (or in the middle of the night), write down everything you remember from your dreams. Don't censor yourself, just let it all pour out until you've recalled all the key moments.
I've personally used this technique for years and sometimes I'm lucky enough to hear musical snippets in a dream. When I wake up and start playing them, full songs come out almost automatically.
Song lyric prompts and lyric generators
When you don't have time to doze off or go on a walk, song lyric prompts can be a quick and easy way to activate your imagination. For example, you might know that you want to write a love song but are unsure what to say. We've written some articles previously about random lyric generator websites and AI software like ChatGPT. You can use these kinds of tools to start writing songs when you feel stuck.
Don't want an app to write lyrics for you? Try searching Google for blog posts with song prompts and lyric ideas that you can write about. If those feel too contrived, you can open a book to a random page and drop your finger somewhere on it. Scan for a topic that inspires you. Movies and TV shows are another great resource - think about compelling scenes and write about a character or event.
Melody and chord progression generators
If you have a vibe in mind but need some musical material to kickstart your creative process, melody and chord generators are an excellent option. We've compiled a list of our favorite random melody generators and chord generator plugins.
AudioCipher lets users type in word and convert it directly into music as a source of random inspiration. Choose any key signature and set the rhythm parameters. Then you can drag the MIDI directly to your DAW if you're a digital music producer. This is a great way to generate ideas quickly and start making edits as you see fit.
The Cut-Up Technique: Lyrics and audio samples
The cut-up technique is a classic songwriting method invented by poet and novelist William Burroughs. Many professional songwriters including Kurt Cobain, David Bowie, and Thom Yorke of Radiohead have come out and admitted that they use it. Essentially, you take some existing text from a magazine or newspaper and cut it up into strips of paper. Then you shuffle them around and toss them onto a flat surface.
With your text strips spread out on the table, you can rearrange them intuitively to form new sentences. It may sound simplistic, but this method has been regarded as an almost magical process. Just focus on the new meanings that arise in between the text. Let your imagination reinterpret the phrases and have a pad ready to start writing down ideas as they come to you.
If you're a music producer, this same technique will also work with audio samples. One of the most popular ways to chop samples is with an MPC controller or Ableton Push. They let you assign small segments of an audio sample to each pad, you can chop quickly jump between different clips. Instead of trying to write a chord progression or melody with conventional instruments, you can enter into a more relaxed, freestyle creative approach.
Pick out three clips at a time and try to imagine how they would fit together. Even content that feels very different can be unified as you add new layers and blend it together in a kind of sonic collage.
Meditation: Binaural beats & brainwave entrainment
Meditation is one of the best ways to find inner peace when you aren't in a great place mentally. Drama with friends and family life can make it difficult to go inward and find that place where all song ideas come from. Binaural beats are one of the best kept secrets for targeting meditative states.
The word binaural comes from the way these special sounds are created. Basically you have two slightly different waveforms in your left and right speakers that create a third wave, or interference pattern, in your brain itself. Binaural beats can be used to target the low alpha brainwave states associated with meditation and hold you there, so you don't have to make as much of an effort. They call this neurological effect brainwave entrainment.
To get the most from this practice, seat yourself somewhere comfortable and close your eyes. You'll need to take at least 10 minutes to really get the benefits from this exercise. Lets the sound wash over you take some deep breaths. When you finish the session, your mind will be clearer and you'll have an easier time focusing on your songwriting. Try listening to them before bed to wake up refreshed the next day.
The Taboos: Mind altering drugs (legal and illegal)
There are all sorts of "evil ways" to find inspiration that people hesitate to talk about. A lot of great musicians have used drugs to go into altered states and find inspiration for their songs. The good news is that you don't need to break the law to take advantage of these performance enhancing substances.
One of the best mind altering drugs for musicians is caffeine. Beethoven famously drank a cup of coffee every morning before composing his symphonies. Tobacco, alcohol and cannabis have also been used for centuries to stimulate creativity.
If you make a good living and can afford them, nootropic stacks are a less common but powerful (and legal) way to achieve better cognitive function.
Fair warning though... Countless musicians have both testified that drug use has led them down dark and destructive paths as a musician. Drugs may be an alluring shortcut, but they can have longterm negative side effects. So if you go this route, always practice moderation. Less is more!
Final thoughts: Developing your song ideas
There are so many ways to inspire new song ideas. One day you might feel like meditating, while the next day you might take a walk or listen to a playlist that puts you in the right mood. These techniques aren't complicated but they are the essential foundation for creating good music.
Once you've got an idea, the next step is developing it into a finished song. Remember what Edison said - Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. There are lots of Youtube tutorials that will teach you how to turn song ideas into full songs. Those techniques are going to be genre specific, but at the end of the day, just let your imagination transform the music into something that's uniquely your own and the rest will follow.