The ABCs of Songwriting Ideas (as in, where to find good ones)

A stronomy: from Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” the Train’s “Drops of Jupiter,” the heavens have been a haven for song ideas for decades.

Bible: The inspiring possibilities are endless — proverbs, characters, stories, oh…and that God dude.

Coffee shops and cafes: Poets and writers have had the right idea for generations — sit in a cafe sipping espresso watching the world go by, and the ideas will eventually arrive. Is it the caffeine? Who knows…

reams: The fantastical stories you come up with while you’re sleeping can be great fodder for songwriting. Keep a notebook by your bed for jotting down ideas quickly post-dream.

Experiences: Every life has unique stories, and yours is no different. Tap into your own life experiences that are original yet relatable.

Friends and Family: Sick of riffing on your own stories for songwriting inspiration? No problem…just steal a few from your nearest and dearest. You can always change the names of the guilty.

Gardens: Flowers, vegetables, things that grow in the earth. That’s life, really, and experiencing it is a great way to get inspired to write. So take a walk in the park, stroll in your backyard, dig in the dirt, or at least go buy a bouquet for someone you love.

History: Okay, so maybe you didn’t do so well in high school history. But our planet’s past is great fodder for writing — whether it’s war, peace, politics or just people. So, buy a book, or take a class.

Interests: What are your own personal interests? Whether it’s hot-air ballooning, video games, Civil War reenactments or Italy, the stuff you like could make great details in your next song.

Journals: Keeping track of your life in a diary or journal can be a great way to glean mine-worthy lines for a future song. So whether you type up your feelings and day-to-day life in a blog or just a spiral notebook, start writing!

Kids: Children are creative, magical and say the funniest stuff. So whether it’s your own kid or one you care about or hang out with from time to time, get down to a child’s level for a while…it could inspire your next big tune.

Literature: Get lost in a good book — and I defy you not to come up with a few lyrical ideas. From Plato to Austen to Dickens to Nabakov to Orwell to oh…and then there’s that guy Shakespeare…the possibilities are endless.

Movies: Films are often about big ideas or intimate storytelling or sweeping visuals or incredible special effects — all powerful sensory tools to bring emotions to the surface, from joy and laughter to anger or tears. Songs can really be mini-movies with similar power (minus the special effects, usually) so it’s no surprise that movies, whether classics like “The Godfather” or the latest flick, can get your songwriting juices flowing.

News: Whether it’s in old-style newspapers or new-style news apps, staying on top of current events is a tried-and-true way to get song ideas. You may not end up with another “Ohio,” but it could be something even better. Okay, maybe not, but it’s always worth trying.

Oprah: Okay, I’m not really talking Oprah here — but any kind of self-help ideas. Hey, even standing in the self-help aisle at Barnes & Noble could spur some great ideas…turn your troubles and challenges into chords and lyrics!

Poems: Songwriters from Bob Dylan and Tom Waits to Neil Young and Jim Morrison have been inspired by poetry. Check out classic poets such as Edgar Allen Poe, e.e. cummings and Emily Dickinson, or get pumped by the most modern wordsmiths.

Questions: Being curious and asking questions — about life, about people, about the world — is a big part of being opening up yourself creatively. So ask…who? what? where? when? why?

Radio: From NPR to news, college radio and even guilty-pleasure music, the radio is still an important way to get new information — and new beats to boogie in your seat to. So if you’re going through a dry creative spell, pump up the volume!

Songwriters: Listening to other songwriters, both live and recorded, is one of the best way to get your own songwriting ideas both musically and lyrically. You might want to dive deep into Dylan, or boost your knowledge of the Beatles, or hear the latest local songwriter sing at your Main Street coffee shop — all might inspire some new ideas.

Travel: Traveling in planes, trains and automobiles to destinations near and far has inspired some of the most famous songs of all-time, from the Beatles’ “Back in the USSR,” to Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere.”

Unhappiness: Few things can so easily inspire a new tune as unhappiness. In fact, it’s said that unhappiness is far easier to write about then happiness…so when you’ve had a bad day, a bad month, or a bad year…hey, it’s always good fodder for your songs.

Visual Art: Painting. Drawing. Sculpture. Whether it’s in your house or the Metropolitan Museum, seeing how visual artists expressed their feelings and ideas might give you some new notions of how to do it in song.

Wikipedia: There’s nothing on earth, practically, that hasn’t been written about in this online Encyclopedia that offers millions of possible song ideas. Just type a word into Wikipedia and see what comes up, then challenge yourself to spend 30 minutes writing about it.

eXboyfriends/girlfriends/husbands/wives: I’ve had great runs of breakup tunes in my years of songwriting, and you can too. Sure, it’s tough to have an ex-anything, but the great thing about them is how song-inspiring they can be.

Yoga: Yoga and meditation can quiet the body and mind, opening you up to new songwriting ideas and possibilities. Whether you take a class or just spend a few minutes practicing at home, you might be surprised at how getting Zen can zap new life into your tunes.

Zombies: To be honest, I don’t know much about zombies, but they seem to be everywhere — in music, on TV and in movies. So there must be something about them worth writing a song about. Do you think so?

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  • Z – See Re:Your Brains by Jonathan Coulton! 

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  • maberube

    A dubious exercise, I thought.  But i have indeed used at least half of these things for springboards and many others immediately brought to mind songs from other people that I knew were inspired by such.  Nicely done.  Although I expected “M” to be movies.  And love is obvious, so literature might have done well there.  I love making alternate stories for characters in movies and books, or relating them to my own life in some way.

  • Oooh, MAB, you’re right about movies and literature…I missed out on those! I’m going to change them…that’s what’s great about blog posts. 🙂

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  • Nicholas_Lee

    This is a well thought out list, and very diverse in subject matter. I may refer to this for an idea next time I get writer’s block.

  • Dummerjan

    Whatever gives rhythm gives me an idea.
    For example:
    Leave a message
    in this empty box
    I’d really to accomplish this
    but there are hidden locks…

  • future

    $$$Dabbling wit da devil ##$###Dabling wit da devil#$$$$#### Dabbling with the devil will darken your soul and after he is done you will have no place to go,##$$$$$##YES,, he will put GODs in your pocket and put more GODs n ya wallets and place them in your hand to help persuade your fellow man. #$##$Do not dabble if ya do not wanna stay #$$###If this is true watcha going to say ##$##on the upcoming judgment day @@#Dabbling wit da devil is just one way$#$#

  • Nathaniel David Stein

    This song is awesome. Great recommendation!

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