Do you have lists of song titles you’ve never used, scraps of lyrics with a verse idea but no chorus, or a pile of melody ideas recorded on your iPhone? Do you look at them every once in a while and wonder: What do I do with these? They’re too good to just toss out but you don’t know how to turn them into a whole song.
You can look at these ideas as a bunch of dead-ends gathering dust. Or you can think of them as a gold mine that’s just waiting to be worked. My suggestion: Go with the gold mine thing.
Mining for lost lyric gold
Consider going back over these old ideas every two to three months. You obviously liked something about these titles, lyric lines, and melodies or you wouldn’t have kept them. An idea that moved you is the first step to writing a powerful song. Respect that.
Look for a lyric or melody line that resonates for you now and choose one – just one – to focus on. You’re going to work on developing this one idea into a whole song. It may not be the same song you would have written with that line a year ago. We all change as time goes on – learning new things, finding new interests, shifting emotional focus – so don’t try to recapture your original idea. Just go where the idea takes you now.
Develop your lyric idea
Ask yourself what that line is about. Why is it important to you? What do you want to tell listeners about it. I think of this as “interviewing yourself.” Ask yourself a lot of questions and write as much as you want to. Don’t think about writing a lyric; just say what you want to say. Then, after you have a good idea what you want to say, see if you can sum it up in one or two sentences and write them down.
Underneath those couple of sentences, make a list of related words, images, physical sensations, and actions they make you think of. Watch this video to learn more about how to do that.
Using your list of related words, start building a chorus section. You could start or end the chorus with that lyric line you’ve been saving. Then fill in the lines around it with the images and phrases from your list. Use the chorus section to tell your listener the most important thing you want them to know. In a song, the most important thing is often the emotion the singer feels. Try focusing on that. Here’s a songwriting tip that will help you develop the rest of your lyric.
Mining melody and chord ideas
If you’ve been recording snippets of melody into a computer, smartphone, or a handheld cassette or digital recorder, I hope you gave them descriptive titles. Using the default name – something like “Rec_23_06_21” – just won’t inspire you to come back and work on it. Call it something like “upbeat and fun” or “Sunny Day.” When you look through your melody library, it’ll be easier to match them up with some of your existing lyric ideas.
Try going through your melody and chord ideas today, listening to each one, and giving it a descriptive title – one that suggests the type of lyric you might write to it. When you hear a melody you want to work on, try adding a lyric phrase or rough lyric idea to it right on the spot. Working on these bits and pieces in the moment that inspiration strikes you is a great way to start developing them into something more substantial.
Once you have a couple of melody/lyric lines you like, decide on a song structure. Read this tip to learn more about how to use song structure effectively. Plug in the lines you’ve written where you think they belong. You could try them at the beginning of your chorus, or they might be the opening lines of your first verse. A song structure will give you a road map to follow that will help you keep your song moving forward from beginning to end.
A memorable melody uses an interesting pattern of repetition and variation. After you decide where your first line or lines will be used, try repeating the melody with a new lyric. You can then wrap up the song section with a payoff line if it’s a chorus, or a transition line if you’re moving from the verse to the chorus.
If your melodies are sounding a little dated, this is a good time to rewrite. Here are a couple of ideas:
=> Update your melody by starting some of your phrases earlier or later.
=> Fill in some of those predictable end-of-line pauses with a extra notes and words. This is a big help in breaking out of familiar, dated melody patterns.
Check out some of today’s retro hit songs like “Everybody Talks” by Neon Trees and “Classic” by MKTO. You’ll hear melodies with a lot of old-fashioned appeal and a fresh twist.
CHORDS: Chord progressions are repetitive and less complex than those we used to use. Consider using a simple three- or four-chord pattern. You can hear these types of progressions in many current hits. Listen to Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” to hear a big, contemporary hit song with a four-chord progression that’s the same in both the verse and chorus. OneRepublic’s hit “Apologize” is another good example.
On my song starter page, you’ll find chord progressions you can use. Just scroll down toward the bottom of the page. Here’s a video that will walk you through the Kelly Clarkson hit and show you what makes it tick.
Do It Now: Take one hour today to go through some of your old lyric and melody ideas. Pull out a couple and develop them further. And be sure to keep building up your gold mine of ideas and visiting it often.
by Robin Frederick
This post is based on my songwriting books: Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting, Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV, Study the Hits, and The 30-Minute Songwriter. Find out more about all of my print and eBooks on my Author page at Amazon. In each book you’ll find dozens of useful, real-world shortcuts that will show you how to craft songs that work for today’s music market, plus dozens of hands-on exercises to get your creative ideas flowing.