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How To Get Ideas
By Dan Palladino


I get a lot of email where songwriters ask how to come up with musical ideas. Following are some of the methods that I have used:

Since lyrics don't come easily for me, I'll discuss that topic first. Fifty percent of the battle is keeping your mind open for little lines that might be floating around, as you go about your daily routine. I've gotten great ideas during one on one conversations with others. Invariably, someone will say something that strikes me as funny or poetic and I'll make a note of it. It's just a matter of being on the look-out. I'd say that I'm equally participating in the conversation and trying to get some good lyrics out of it too. Sometimes, you can get even better stuff by eavesdropping on outside conversations. I know it sounds rude, but we're doing it for art's sake, right? Again, we're just keeping our ears and minds open.

TV, film and books can also be a good source of ideas. How many times have you been sitting in front of the tube, half asleep, when a good line just popped out at you? If you've trained yourself to be alert, it happens often. I always make sure there is some paper in the room, so I can quickly jot down the new gem.

So, what do we do with all of these little fragments? I enter everything I've collected into a notebook. Most of the time, I forget about it until I'm ready to write something. There's an advantage to letting the stuff sit for awhile: After some time has passed, it's very obvious which lines have potential and which are throw-aways. I don't like to put too much thought into it. Let your gut tell you if something is worth further development.

I've recently begun using the speed method of writing lyrics. I've found that it is very liberating to sit in front of the computer and just type away, without stopping. This means that you're not allowed to throw anything away. Whatever comes out of your demented brain is preserved forever. Once I've got the rough material down, I'll go back and see if there are any lines that could form the skeleton of a song. Just doing this exercise for thirty minutes can yield a whole tune, if you're lucky that day. Give it a try. Once you get over the whole "no editing" aspect, it's easy.

My final method of lyric writing is the title method. Again, sit in front of the computer and write possible song titles without thinking or stopping. Once you have a couple pages worth, let them sit for a day or two. Then, go back and the good ones will jump right out at you. Of course, the hard part is developing the idea into a good tune. I usually have to write about ten bad ones before I hit the one keeper.

An off-shoot of the above methods is the writing under pressure method. Get together with a songwriting friend. Now give yourselves thirty minutes, go into separate rooms and get busy! The goal could be to come up with chord changes and, at least a verse and chorus of lyrics. That's pressure! But it works very well.

You may have noticed that many of these ideas involve working against the clock. I think this is effective because it lets you get at the stuff that is uniquely you. Our first reaction when writing is usually "Boy, is that stupid!" Well, it may be! But if that's what's coming out, then that's the real you. That's the stuff that will hit listeners as being something fresh and new. Don't treat your words as if they're precious. Throw them around like old socks!
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© 2003 Dan Palladino
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