Why Intuitive Songwriting? Because that’s where your creative genius lives.
Forget everything that’s holding you back from becoming a brilliant songwriter, and get ready to learn what intuitive songwriting is all about. This mini e-course is an introduction to my signature Intuitive Songwriting program. I'm going to show you how to strengthen your intuition and evoke the creative genius within you. I can’t wait to show you what you’re truly capable of as a songwriter, regardless of how experienced or inexperienced of a songwriter you are.
In this self-study mini e-course, I'm going to share my own intuitive approach to masterful songwriting, and I'm confident that you'll be on the road to writing your best songs yet after our time together.
In this first section, we are going to develop a deeper understanding of ourselves as songwriters and how we can approach our creative process with more clarity, confidence, compassion, and authenticity. Let this first week be a cleansing of your creative palate and an opportunity to recalibrate and rejuvenate before we dive into writing our best work yet.
I’m sure you’re wondering what intuitive songwriting is all about, so let’s dive right into what you’re going to learn in this week’s section:
I’m excited to share with you the methods I’ve learned from over a decade of songwriting myself. These are the same methods I still use today, and I have been so fortunate to have a prosperous and prolific career as an indie singer/songwriter for over 15 years now and with nine (9) original albums released.
As Kevin Spacey once said, “If you're lucky enough to do well, it's your responsibility to send the elevator back down.” That’s exactly how I feel now, and I can’t wait to help you become the very best songwriter I know you can be... So let’s get started!
Yours in music,
-Gregory Douglass, The Creative Advisor
PS- Please share your thoughts or ask questions anytime in the Q&A section throughout this course!
The Hallmark of Creativity
I believe that intuitive songwriting is the hallmark of my creativity as a songwriter. With hundreds of songs in my back-catalogue, and no end in sight to the flood of song ideas I always have, these intuitive songwriting methods I’m going to teach you have proven to be the most reliable and effective approach to songwriting I know. And throughout my observations over the years, I’ve learned just how many other legendary songwriters have also mastered the art of intuitive songwriting, so you’re in very good company here!
Legendary songwriting is intuitive songwriting. I’m talking about the kind of songs that change our lives, make an everlasting impression, and resonate with generations to come. Songs that are timeless, infectious, profound, universal, and deeply moving – the legendary kind.
“Do I know anything about music theory? Not much. I work mostly on feel. I can’t read music, but I know a little about chords and things… Without craft it can’t be art and without art the craft doesn’t mean anything.”
–Diane Warren, Grammy Award-Winning Songwriter
As incredible as it seems, music legends like Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Diane Warren, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Danny Elfman, Kurt Cobain, BB King, Dave Navarro, Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters), Marty Friedman (Megadeth) – all built their musical legacy with little to know knowledge of music theory. They all relied heavily on their intuition to create their own legendary music.
Intuitive songwriting leads to great songs, and great songs make songwriters more legitimate. Those are the songwriters who really rise to the top of their game. Great songs can be life-changing for listeners and even for the songwriters themselves. And the better our work is as songwriters, the more confidence we develop, the more fun we have, and the more opportunity we create for ourselves.
Your Intuitive Compass
Intuitive songwriting is all about trusting in your intuition to help you create your very best work. It’s relying on your instinct to help you craft your most masterful songs. It’s getting more in touch with your “right brain” and strengthening your connection with that greater, elusive creative source we all have access to. It’s deepening your understanding of yourself. It’s nourishing and championing the creative genius that lives inside us all. It’s also learning to interpret your intuition like an internal compass so that you may successfully navigate your way through creative uncertainty.
Intuitive songwriting is essential to your craft because creative energy is all around us and it’s capable of providing more value to our work than we could ever dream of providing on our own. This creative source of energy is where a flood of ideas can come rushing in from all at once if we are open to it. It’s where songs can almost write themselves if we let them. It’s where even the most brilliant and accomplished of artists can still be amazed with what they’ve created and simply say, “I have no idea where that came from!”
It may seem like magic that is out of your reach, but we all have access to this creative source of energy, and we can tap into it at any time. It’s a limitless source that is always available to us. It’s abundant, nourishing, expansive, inspiring, fulfilling, maddening, compelling, profound – everything we could ever feel connected to, and it’s all around us. We can access this creative energy through our intuition, and I’ll help you better understand this concept as we start to apply these practices throughout the course.
For now, it’s important to understand that you don’t need to have all the answers at once when you sit down to write a song. You simply need to show up and be open to whatever creative energy might move through you, or whatever creative insight become available to you. This is the very act of letting your intuition receive the information and help guide your songwriting process. This is intuitive songwriting, and I know it’s going to lead to some breakthrough songs for you moving forward!
The Importance of Intuition
In order to understand the importance of intuitive songwriting, we must understand the importance of intuition itself.
Definition of intuition: the ability to understand something immediately, without the need of conscious reasoning.
Definition of intuitive: using or based on what one feels to be true even without conscious reasoning; instinctive.
In a psychologytoday.com article called ###a href="https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/radical-remission/201405/the-science-behind-intuition" rel="nofollow" target="_blank">“The Science Behind Intuition: Why you should trust your gut,” Kelly Turner Ph.D. writes “Almost every Radical Remission cancer survivor I’ve studied used their intuition to help make decisions related to their healing process. Research on intuition and following your ‘gut’ instinct may explain why.”
Turner continues to explain how “Scientists have discovered that humans appear to have two, very different 'operating systems.' System 1 is our quick, instinctual, and often subconscious way of operating – it is controlled by our right brain and by other parts of our brain that have been around since prehistoric times, known as the 'limbic' and 'reptilian' parts of our brain. System 2 is our slower, more analytical, and conscious way of operating – it is controlled by our left brain and by newer parts of our brain that have only developed since prehistoric times (also known as the 'neocortex'). Researchers have found that intuition is part of System 1, which is why it comes on so rapidly and often does not make rational sense to us. In other words, intuitive decisions are not something that we have thought out carefully with reason, but rather choices that have arisen quickly out of instinct.”
Turner further argues that we should trust our gut instinct because “researchers have found that System 1 often knows the right answer long before System 2 does,” and that “when it comes to making major life decisions, such as which house to buy or which person to marry, trusting your intuition leads to better outcomes than trusting your logical, thinking brain.”
In Turner’s book “Radical Remission: Surviving Cancer Against All Odds,” she documents the importance of intuitive decision making as evidence that she believes helps even terminal patients turn their lives around. This is so important to understand because the intuitive mind – or “subconscious” mind as it is often referred to – is responsible for the most important decisions we can make in our lives.
We can apply this method of thinking to our songwriting in a similar way. Instead of allowing the left parts of our brain (or “System 2” as Turner referred to it) control our songwriting decisions, we’re going to learn how to strengthen our relationship with our instinct instead and let our right brains (“System 1”) do most of the deciding throughout this course.
I encourage you to further saturate this concept by diving into this inspiring article by Carolyn Gregoire at creatitivypost.com called “10 Things Highly Intuitive People Do Differently,” and see how intuitive you are already operating yourself!
The Essence of What We Love
Let me ask you this: have you ever wondered why you love the songs you love in the first place? Let’s take a closer look at the psychology behind this.
In an article by Amy Barr from tuenight.com, Barr examines why we love the things we love and writes “When a team of researchers from Arizona State University examined the motivation behind human attachment to possessions, they found that people form attachments when objects help narrate their life story. These lifeless 'things' become artifacts of the self.”
Barr further mentions Paul Bloom, a Professor in the Department of Psychology at Yale University and his book “How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like.” According to Bloom, “What matters most is not the world as it appears to our senses. Rather, the enjoyment we get from something deriving from what we think that thing really is. More generally, the proposal is that our likes and dislikes are powerfully influenced by our beliefs about the essences of things.”
What we can all pull from this is the importance of why our beliefs surrounding the essence of these things is so important to apply to our songwriting. Our beliefs surrounding the songs we love for example can take shape from many things such as:
When we hear a song we love, we are essentially having an intuitive response to it in one way or another, and this is at the heart of intuitive songwriting. Throughout this course, we are going to deepen our understanding of ourselves through our own intuition and explore the best ways to creatively apply these understandings to our songwriting.
The Creative Source of All Things
Author, spiritual guru and “light worker,” Gabrielle Bernstein recently stated in her “Spirit Junkies Masterclass” that "The presence of fear is a sure sign that you're relying on your own strength. A sure sign that we have disconnected from the presence of our power, it is a sure sign that we have disconnected from the connection that we have to spirit.”
So why am I kicking this lesson off with a sermon on fear? Because fear is what holds us back from everything. It holds us back from being the best songwriters we can be, and the best versions of ourselves we can be in any capacity. When it comes to the creative process, a lot of us get hung up on trying to provide all the answers ourselves without any help, and that’s why I love this quote from Gabrielle Bernstein.
I want to take this a step further and add that when she refers to “the connection that we have with spirit,” I believe she is referring to the source of all things – call it God, the Universe, the Divine Feminine, the Law of Attraction, or whatever you’d like. I believe this is the same source our creative energy comes from. As artists and creators, we have the opportunity to form a loving and productive relationship with this creative source, because it is the source of all things – but it doesn’t happen when fear is in charge.
When we let fear take charge, that’s when we experience writer’s block. Fear lets our ego or our inner critic make all of our creative decisions. Fear assumes that we have all the answers and tries to apply them without any help or guidance from our intuition. Our intuition is the doorway to our creative source, and fear is the gatekeeper.
So the first step to rocking your intuition is to strike a relationship with it, start trusting in it, and start relying upon until it becomes as second nature as the air you breathe! When you start to apply this perspective, you will begin to recognize when fear is taking the wheel. Let fear be a reminder to you that you're just relying on your own strength again, you’re disconnected from the presence of your creative power again, and it’s time to call upon and reconnect to your creative source again. Then thank fear for the friendly reminder, and kick him to the curb!
Remember, you are never really alone in this creative journey – you always have your creative source to call upon.
Take Less Responsibility For Your Ideas
Let’s take this concept a step further. Understanding that you are never alone in this creative journey means that you always have a creative source to draw from intuitively, so this will allow you to start taking less responsibility for your own ideas. This is an essential part of your creative process because your job is simply to show up for your creative source or “muse” as I like to call it, and be a willing “vessel” for new ideas and interpretations to flow freely.
As Woody Allen says, “Showing up is 80% of making great things happen.” So your only job as an artist and creator is to show up for your creative muse and welcome the creative free-flow.
An amazing song idea may suddenly come to you from this type of creative free-flow, but if you allow your inner critic (your left brain) to analyze it to death right away, you’ll successfully block that creative outlet from flowing freely. The same is true if you allow your ego to become inflated from your amazing new song idea, because this is another form of self-analyzation. Bear in mind that nothing is original (we’ll dive deeper into this concept in week two). Only your unique perspective and distinct interpretations are original, so there’s no need to pat yourself on the back incessantly. It doesn’t serve you during the creative process – it only limits your true potential. By taking less responsibility for your initial ideas, you are allowing the right brain to make its decisions intuitively – with minimal effort – and allowing your creative outlet to flow freely and easily.
All this said, it is important to celebrate your victories. Sparking a new song idea or making progress on a new song can be incredibly exciting, and certainly worth a pat on the back. Just be sure you your ego doesn’t get in the way of keeping the momentum going!
"To live a creative life we must loose our fear of being wrong." -Joseph Pierce
It’s important to show up for your creative muse and to show up often, because we aren’t here to write good songs, or even great songs. We’re here to write breakthrough songs and produce our very best work yet. Like anything else, consistency, accountability, persistence, and dedication are essential to your practice. You don’t develop a six-pack after one week at the gym, and you don’t become a master chef after only one year of training. The only magic bullet you’ll find in this course is learning how to harness the magic that can happen when you allow creative energy to flow through you intuitively. The rest is up to you to show up for your creative muse daily, faithfully, and authentically.
The methods I demonstrate throughout my full Intuitive Songwriting programs will help make your commitment to your craft easy for you because they make songwriting fun. Intuitive songwriting is something that you’ll look forward to doing every day, and the more you do it, the more you’ll reap the benefits from your songwriting. The more you “flex” your intuition and strengthen your relationship with your own creative muse, the more capable of a songwriter you will become – allowing for ideas to flow through you on-demand.
Your Musical Roots
I’ve come to understand a lot of common pain points for songwriters at all different stages of the game. For example, a lot of people struggle with writer’s block, feel challenged by writing melodies they like, or simply feel bored or stagnant with songwriting altogether. So before we get really hands-on, I’d like you to do some initial exploring or recalibrating with your own creative muse and take a closer look at your musical roots.
Here are a few questions to help deepen your awareness of where you’re really coming from musically. (Click below to download the Your Musical Roots worksheet):
Are you noticing a pattern here? Most of our influences resonate deeply with us because we see so much of our own potential in them. Somewhere in our subconscious mind we recognize that we carry these similarities with us, and the better we understand these similarities, the more we can apply them to our craft as songwriters.
Your Authentic Voice
Applying these similarities does not mean simply copying our influences. Your only job is to recognize the qualities that you love about your influences and explore them further. Perhaps they are mirroring some hidden potential within you. It’s important that you start applying them through your own unique perspective on the world. There will never another human being exactly like you with the exact same influences, thoughts, feelings, skills, interpretations, or creative expression. You are distinctly who you are and uniquely the result of everything that you experience. That is simply to say that while you have the ability to see aspects of yourself in others, you will never be a “rip-off” of anyone else so long as you remain true to your authentic voice and continually show up for your creative muse with honesty, integrity, and authenticity.
You may feel like you don’t yet have a voice as a songwriter, or that perhaps you’ve lost your voice somewhere along the way, but I assure you that it’s there. It might be waiting for you to discover it – to see yourself in your influences and the qualities they are mirroring back at you. Reconnecting to our musical roots can be very helpful for this because our influences are reminders of who we truly are and where we truly come from.
Showing up with an authentic voice to your songwriting will become easier and easier as you utilize the methods of intuitive songwriting, because there’s going to be a lot of self-discovery along the way. Remain open to receiving this information as it comes and own it like the one and only voice that you have. You will begin to see patterns, and those patterns will strengthen and evolve as your authentic voice becomes more apparent. Don’t be afraid of it – this is only your creative genius emerging.
"There is a voice that doesn't use words. Listen..." -Unknown
If you’re not already writing songs habitually, you might feel like you have a long way to go before you’d ever consider yourself a prolific songwriter. In this lesson, I’ll be introducing some foundational methods that you can apply immediately so that this concept doesn’t feel so out of reach. You might even end up sparking more song ideas and writing more songs than you know what to do with (this is a good thing, and I’ll show you why next week)!
Forming New Habits
To further drive home the importance of being committed to your songwriting, let’s take a look at how simple it is to form new habits. In a brainpickings.org article called “How Long It Takes to Form a New Habit,” Maria Popova writes “When he became interested in how long it takes for us to form or change a habit, psychologist Jeremy Dean found himself bombarded with the same magic answer from popular psychology websites and advice columns: 21 days.”
So there it is – proven by science – it takes only 21 days to form a new habit. That’s only three (3) weeks of committing yourself to something new! If you’ve been procrastinating or have had a difficult time starting (or finishing) a song, then this information should be music to your ears. Regardless of your current reality, it’s never too late to form healthy new habits and further commit yourself to your songwriting because all it takes is 21 days of feeling uncomfortable with something new before it becomes routine and begins to feel like second nature.
Songwriting Challenge: Let’s form a healthy new habit with our songwriting practice! I recommend reserving two (2) hours a day to write starting… right now! Two (2) hours a day will give you a welcomed opportunity to get into your creative “zone” and let the music flow through you. If you feel like you just don’t have the time, I encourage you to make the time. You can always get up earlier or move things around so that you can better prioritize your time. This habitual daily schedule will make all of the difference in what you produce over time, and will make you a prolific songwriter in no time. If two hours is simply unrealistic, then figure out what is a realistic daily time frame for your schedule – then commit to this schedule for at least 21 days. I’ll be very curious to hear how you feel on day 22 and see what you’ve created along the way!
Powerful Techniques From The Experts
Let’s take a look at some powerful techniques from musical experts that will enhance your singing and songwriting. These are musical experts that won’t cost you anything to learn from, but their techniques are more powerful than any curriculum is equipped to teach you. I’m talking about some of the greatest artists of our time, and the artists that you already love.
Song Assessment Exercise
Create a playlist of 5-10 songs that consists of a diverse selection of artists you already love, and start paying closer attention to what you love about each song. It’s important that this playlist is customized to your unique tastes and influences. Refer to your curated playlist and plan to listen to each song three (3) times in a row (click below to download the Song Assessment Exercise):
What have your observations yielded? Are you noticing any patterns here? What lights you up the most intuitively from your observations that you can gather and apply to your own songwriting process? Now that you’ve had a lesson from the experts, you can start experimenting with these techniques yourself!
Stealing Like An Artist
Author Austin Kleon introduced a radical concept in his book “Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative.” His message is simple: “You don’t need to be a genius, you just need to be yourself,” and this book is filled with poignant truths about creativity like, “Nothing is original, so embrace influence, collect ideas, and remix and re-imagine to discover your own path.”
In my opinion, ones creative genius essentially stems from the perfect marriage between all of these things. The only thing original in this world is our unique perspective on things. You have a steady opportunity to open yourself up to receiving an infinite source of creative information and respectfully “steal” from it. Pay attention to the experts, draw from the inspiration, gather every spark of an idea, and reinterpret what this information means to you. Then create distinct results through your own authentic voice and share your creations with others so that they may experience it, steal from it, and be inspired by too.
Here are two (2) song examples of my own that will help demonstrate how to respectfully “steal” like an artist and create distinct results through an authentic voice:
Song Example 1: “Hang Around”
I’ve always loved Cyndi Lauper’s classic song “Time After Time.” I think it’s one of the most flawlessly written and produced love songs of all time.
When I was working on songs for my 2006 Up & Away album, I sat down at my keyboard one day and with the intention of writing my own version of “Time After Time” in the hopes that I could write one of the best love songs of all time myself.
I began by searching for a pre-existing drum loop in my keyboard that was similar to “Time After Time” in its tempo and driving rhythmic nature because I felt a big part of the beauty of “Time After Time” was its mid-tempo rhythm. It felt so determined and committed to the message of the song, so that’s what I wanted in my song as well.
I found a pattern that was a “boom, boom-chick, boom, boom, chick” kind of a pattern, and that felt so good intuitively.
I looped the drum pattern for a while and decided to cue up a synth pad sound so I could really emulate that “Time After Time” 80’s vibe. This helped to get even more into that headspace and spark a good melodic idea. I focused on very basic open fifth chords in my left hand (which we’ll talk more about in week three) and played some chords to the loop until I landed on a three-chord pattern I really liked over the drum loop.
This felt good enough to feel comfortable singing over, so I started to sing whatever came through me intuitively until I landed on a melody that would eventually become my chorus. The words I was originally singing were “I’m around,” which then evolved to “hang around” once the storyline came together later on. I was already in the headspace of “Time After Time,” and I was feeling the storyline revolve around someone being there for someone else, so the words “I’m around” just came naturally.
Here’s a link to the song if you’re curious.
Song Example 2: “Bird On A Wire”
I wrote a pop song called “Bird On A Wire” a year ago when I was asked to write some pop songs for another artist. She was a female vocalist looking for mainstream appeal, and this song was their top pick. I wanted to go with a Janelle Monáe vibe because I had recently been listening to her latest album at the time, so I asked myself, “What would Janelle Monáe do?”
I started singing as I imagined myself in a Janelle Monáe music video and this mid-tempo, R&B-flavored idea started to emerge. It felt very cool and collected – almost like a song Lorde might write for Janelle Monáe to sing. It’s also worth noting that I was actually on a treadmill when I wrote this which seriously helped keep the creative flow in motion once the idea was sparked.
Suddenly I sang the words “I can’t resist” to a melody that was developing, realizing that I was respectfully stealing (or borrowing if you prefer) those words from a Tom Waits song called “Temptation.” It had been fresh on my mind from a jazz cover gig I had done the night before because it was a part of our regular repertoire, and I had always loved that line. I decided to roll with it, knowing that these words could always change later if they weren’t sitting well in the future – but wouldn’t you know, they ended up dictating the entire direction of the song!
After fleshing out this idea enough to decide upon the best structure for the song, I knew I wanted to keep it palatable enough for mainstream radio – short, catchy, and calculated. This required a formulaic song structure, and this is what felt like the best structure in the end: verse, pre-chorus, chorus, half-verse, pre-chorus, chorus, short instrumental break, chorus. I also wanted a good hook in the second half of each chorus, so I researched some lyrical trends of hit pop songs at the time and noticed how many songs were repeating a small section of a single word. That influenced me to write “like a bird on the wa-wire” in certain sections.
I’m very proud of how this song turned out, and it’s a great example of “stealing like an artist” from multiple aspects – melody, lyrics, song structure, and popular trends.
Here’s a demo recording of the song if you’re curious.
Survey Your Tribe
One of your assignments this week is to survey your closest friends, family and fans about how they really feel about your music. This will require you to be extremely vulnerable with your close inner circle, but it’s essential if you want to understand how other people perceive your music. Other people see you differently than you’ll ever see yourself. Therefore, it’s safe to assume they also hear your music differently than you’ll ever be able to hear yourself. It’s impossible to be as objective about ourselves as we can be about others, so as scary as this might feel to some people, it can be extremely transformational to your songwriting if you allow yourself to be open to feedback. Surveying your closest inner circle should prove to be the safest space to receive this kind of feedback, so trust that these are loving and supportive people you’ll be reaching out to. These people are your tribe, and they want nothing but the best for you and your creativity. Check out the Survey Your Tribe worksheet below.
This is a confidence-boosting exercise as well. When you can learn to take constructive criticism as well as you learn to take compliments, you promote a healthier mindset and a more balanced outlook on your creativity. Let it be another reminder that your art is greater than you and it’s your job as a songwriter to receive any information available to you that may help you craft your best work. Of course, you may not always agree on the feedback you receive or the help that is being offered, and that’s okay. That’s where your authentic voice steps in to reinterpret the information you are receiving through your songwriting as honestly and authentically as you can.
A Healthy Mindset
It’s important to develop and sustain a healthy, objective mindset when it comes to your songwriting. Every action you take to improve upon your writing will only go so far if you don’t really believe you can actually improve. I encourage you to show up for each step of your own creative process throughout this course with an open mind – with an eagerness to learn, grow, and evolve as a songwriter – and with the expectation that your songwriting can and will evolve throughout these six weeks together.
A healthy mindset is essential to have for your creativity, but it also benefits every aspect of your life. When you can prove to yourself what you’re truly capable of as a songwriter, it can be a real breakthrough moment, and those are the moments you can’t help but wonder what else you’re capable of. So I hope each breakthrough you have in this course will help you realize the scope of your own potential.
To help promote a healthy mindset, you must work to keep your mind clear of any ugly or self-sabotaging chatter. These kind of thoughts will never serve you – they are merely welcoming your ego to take over, and your ego loves to remind you of all your fears, doubts and judgements. Anytime you start to doubt yourself or get frustrated with the process, it’s important for you to recognize the noise that is distracting you from creating your best work. This is not as simple as it sounds for most people (myself included), so I recommend you take mindful action whenever this is happening. Take breaks as often as you need to so you can refresh and return to your creative process with a clearer mind. Or if you’re stuck on a certain idea you’re working on, circle back to another one that still needs work so you can show up with a clear mind for that one. Keep bouncing around to various ideas as often as you need to keep things fresh and objective.
I also encourage you to introduce meditation into your daily routine. I’m a busy person myself but I devote a brief 15 minutes a day to meditation and it makes all of the difference in sustaining a healthy mindset of my own. When I step away from everything mid-day to clear my head through meditation, I not only feel refreshed and clear-headed after, I have a new surge of energy and often double my productivity in a day as a result. It can often feel like two chances to wake up in the morning and “start the day off right!”
I use a meditation app called Headspace on my iPhone and I strongly recommend it. Headspace takes a refreshing approach toward meditation because it allows you to chose a path you are comfortable with at whatever time intervals you have available each day. Perhaps the best part is that each meditation is helping you to retrain your brain for sustaining a healthier mindset. It’s helps you better resolve any internal conflict you might be experiencing. You’ll learn how to put your thoughts and feelings into better perspective instead of letting them take you over or spiral out of control, and this can be an incredibly powerful practice in concentration for any songwriter. Any meditative practice will help you build a much better relationship with your thoughts and feelings, and stay more present in any productive scenario. I encourage you to try it for yourself and see if you can create a new meditation habit in the next 21 days!
Your Goals & Desires
It’s helpful to get feedback from people you love and trust, but it all comes down to what’s important to you. What do you really love and desire as a songwriter? What “gets you out of bed” every morning when it comes to your songwriting? I encourage you to give it some serious thought this week, and start by at least trying to answer these questions about your songwriting goals & desires (and check out the Songwriting Goals & Desires worksheet below):
I would love to hear your answer for at least the third question in the comments.
And if you’d like to dig a whole lot deeper, I encourage you to download my “EGO Boost” Action Sheet below and really get to know yourself intimately. Most people are amazed at what they uncover when they are willing to reassess, dig deeper, and ask themselves the really BIG questions.
Music has always been my ultimate creative outlet for digging deeper. It’s one of my greatest desires and has brought the most incredible people and rewarding experiences into my life. I’m a perpetual student and I’m always striving to dig deeper, challenge my limitations, and expand my heart, mind and soul. Music speaks to my core desires – the same core desires I lay out in this EGO Boost action sheet, so I encourage you to check it out and see what else you learn about yourself.
Week Two (2) Assignment
Song-Sparking Challenge! This week, try as many of the song-sparking methods I’m about to demonstrate in the next two videos. Incorporate them into your daily songwriting process throughout the course of this week. Collect as many ideas as you can on your voice recorder until you have 2-3 ideas you are genuinely excited about revisiting as potential ideas to further develop. They don’t have to be lengthy ideas – just a spark of an idea that you feel has some real potential!
Our plan throughout the remaining weeks of this course will be to develop our best idea into one of our very best songs. Each week moving forward will focus on a new aspect of your songwriting development until you have created a new song you are extremely proud of!
Now that you understand the importance of intuition and how it is essential for us as artists in order to make our greatest strides in creativity, it’s time to start applying ourselves in BIG ways this week! This is going to be easier for some than it will be for others, but remember that the power is all in your hands.
As Sara Bareilles writes, “Say what you want to say, and let the words fall out. Honestly, I want to see you be brave.”
I want to see you be brave throughout this course! Let your guard down and start getting comfortable with the uncomfortable. Take full advantage of this opportunity to really experience your songwriting in new and exciting ways. Embrace this wonderful community of songwriters, explore new territory, and let your curiosity and imagination run wild as if you’re a kid again! Remember when we use to make up silly songs on the fly as kids, without even thinking about it really? Bring yourself back to that imaginative time in your life. Give yourself the time you need to warm up to that creative place and grant yourself permission to rock your musical genius this week.
As it is often said, the more you put into this, the more you’re going to get out of it – and I’m all for breakthroughs and transformation because that’s what creativity is really all about, right?
Here’s what we’re going to master in this week’s lessons:
Now let’s jump right into sparking some amazing new song ideas!
Yours in music,
Gregory Douglass, The Creative Advisor
This week, try as many of the song-sparking methods I’m about to demonstrate in the next two videos. Incorporate them into your daily songwriting process throughout the course of this week. Collect as many ideas as you can on your voice recorder until you have 2-3 ideas you are genuinely excited about revisiting as potential ideas to further develop. They don’t have to be lengthy ideas – just a spark of an idea that you feel has some real potential! Each week moving forward will focus on a new aspect of our songwriting development until we have each created a new song we are extremely proud of!
”There’s no new idea. What is new is your perspective.” -Usher
How to spark your best song ideas without instrumentation
Let’s circle back to the understanding that what makes your ideas original is your unique perspective. In the following video demonstrations, we will put our unique perspective to the test and explore some great ways to spark some great ideas without any instrumentation. And by we I mean me :) I encourage you to watch the video above to really see these methods in action, but here’s a brief synopsis of them:
These are the most effective methods that work for me on a regular basis, but don’t just take my word for it. Here’s why they work from a scientific point of view…
In a Buffer Social article called “Why We Have Our Best Ideas in the Shower: The Science of Creativity,” scientific researchers Allen Braun and Siyuan Liu tracked the brain activity of rappers doing freestyle and turned it into a research study. They chose free-style rap because it’s a great example of a creative process that is both relatively easy to track and can be translated into lots of other areas, and what they found was fascinating. When we are being creative, some of our everyday brain areas are completely deactivated, while others we don’t use in our everyday lives light right up!
Here’s the conclusion that Braun came to: “We think what we see is a relaxation of ‘executive functions’ to allow more natural de-focused attention and uncensored processes to occur that might be the hallmark of creativity.”
Alice Flaherty, one of the most renowned neuroscientists researching creativity, argues that another important ingredient that’s very important for us to be creative is dopamine: The more dopamine that is released, the more creative we are. She says, “People vary in terms of their level of creative drive according to the activity of the dopamine pathways of the limbic system.”
Typical events that trigger an increased dopamine flow are of course, taking a warm shower, exercising, driving home, etc. So the chances of having brilliant ideas during those times are significantly higher!
According to Harvard Researcher Shelly Carson, another crucial factor is distraction. “In other words, a distraction may provide the break you need to disengage from a fixation on the ineffective solution.’’ -Shelly Carson, Harvard Researcher
So if you are focusing too intently on songwriting or any kind of problem-solving, jumping into the shower for example can become a real “incubation period” for your ideas. When you can relax and let your mind wander, your subconscious mind can surface and plant those ideas into your conscious mind.
The Three (3) Magic Ingredients
So this seems to be the magic combination: If you are in a relaxed state of mind, easy to distract, and full of dopamine, your brain will be more likely give you your best, most creative ideas. Science!
The big takeaway here is to make sure that you capture your song ideas however and whenever they happen. No matter how they show up, the key to intuitive songwriting is not to miss out on any idea once it enters our head, because it often disappears as quickly as it arrives. It’s also important that you capture all of your ideas, because an ok song idea can easily become a brilliant idea over time, but that’s an entirely different lesson altogether!
Check out these articles below for great recording options that are both free and easy to use.
I use iTalk Recorder on my iPhone because it allows me to record in various formats and transfer them to my computer over WiFi. It also gives different sound quality options in case you are worried about the size of your files.
Song-Sparking Challenge (Reminder)Again, the goal is to try as many of the song-sparking methods I’m demonstrating as you can this week. Incorporate them into your daily songwriting process throughout the course of the week. Collect as many ideas as you can on your voice recorder until you have 2-3 ideas you are genuinely excited about revisiting as potential ideas to further develop. They don’t have to be lengthy ideas – just a spark of an idea that you feel has some real potential! Each week moving forward will focus on a new aspect of our songwriting development until we have each created a new song we are extremely proud of!
How to spark your best song ideas with instrumentation
In the following video demonstrations, we will continue to put our unique perspective to the test and explore some great ways to spark some great ideas with the help of instrumentation. These three methods are incredibly effective, and you don’t need to be an experienced piano player or guitar player in order to put them to good use. I encourage you to watch the video above to really see these methods in action, but here’s a brief synopsis of them:
My Incredibly Effective Piano Trick:
This is a trick that I always use to spark song ideas when I’m on the piano, and all we really need is our left hand to execute this. We are going to create a power chord that consists of only three notes at once and use this as our foundation. Now I’m not a classically-trained pianist myself, so I can’t share much about music theory with you. All you need to know for this trick is what happens when an “open fifth” and a “power chord” join forces for this method:
The open fifth and power chord consists of only the root, fifth and their octave doublings.
So no matter what bass note you choose with your pinky finger, you’ll want to land your thumb on the octave of that note (the same note an octave higher), and then your pointer finger should easily land on the fifth of that chord.
Now try holding that fingering in your hand and moving up and down the keyboard with the same fingering position, and you should hear all sorts of lovely variations of the same chord structure.
What’s so effective about this method is that it keeps whatever chord you’re playing wide open to becoming a major or a minor chord over time. Therefore, it allows you to sing against it more freely and openly until you decide intuitively whether the idea is taking more of a major or minor direction throughout.
Once you begin to feel your idea taking shape, you can start to introduce some basic three-note chords to the right hand if you’d like, and make them major or minor depending on the direction!
My Incredibly Effective Guitar Trick:
This is a trick that I always use to spark song ideas when I’m on the guitar. If you’re not already a guitar player, don’t worry – this will be easy even for beginners as well!
First, download the GuitarToolkit app (if you have an iPhone), or something similar. This app is full of great perks, such as an extremely accurate guitar tuner, a precision metronome, more than two million chords, scales and arpeggios, and more.
Open up the app and select the “6 String” tab on the lower right. Let’s take a look at the “Tuning” section of our screen and scroll through various tuning variations. Most guitars should be tuned to “standard” tuning, which is conveniently located at the top of the tuning section of this app (EADGBE), but we want to find one that sounds beautiful all on it’s own. Scroll through and listen to a few you like and “star” them so you can keep track of your favorites.
Now let’s apply one of them to the tuning of our guitar. I personally love the “Open D” tuning (DADF#AD), so let’s aim for that one. Make a note of this tuning, click “Done” at the top left in the app and then click the “Tuner” tab in the bottom left. Now let’s tune the guitar, starting from the bottom string to the top string. If your guitar is already in standard, we will be dropping the bottom note down one (hence “Open D”). If you have any trouble with these, refer back to the tuning itself and listen to whether or not your notes are matching the tuning.
Once you’re guitar is tuned to this beautiful open tuning, you’ll notice that all you have to do is strum for it to sound beautiful on it’s own! But let’s take advantage of the bottom three strings in order to keep our chords open to becoming major or minor later on (just as we did with the piano trick). All we’ll need to do is bar the bottom three strings with our thumb and try different variations of this until we land on something we like.
Again, this method allows you to sing against your guitar chords more freely and openly until you decide intuitively whether the idea is taking more of a major or minor direction.
Once you begin to feel your idea taking shape, you can allow these chords to become more involved.
I also encourage you to learn some of the basic chords in standard tuning so you can start learning to play other people’s songs more easily, and therefore, continue your practice of stealing like an artist!
My Incredibly Effective Drum Loop Trick:
This is a trick that I always use to spark song ideas when I’m seeking to write more of a rhythm-inspired song idea. If you don’t already have a good sense of rhythm, once again, don’t worry – this will be easy for beginners as well!
There are a lot of drum loop applications available for all devices, so if you don’t already have something to work with on your computer, smartphone or tablet, I suggest you do a basic Google search to find something that will work for you. There are lots of free to reasonably priced iPhone app options available on the app store that will do the trick. And if you are on a Mac, you should already have some version of GarageBand in your Applications folder (which contains a sound bank of pre-recorded drum sequences you can easily access).
Launch your drum loop application of choice, and scroll through various pre-recorded drum sequences until you land on something you like. If you want to get more advanced, you can create something of your own – perhaps even at a slower tempo to make things easier – and then increase the number to your desired tempo.
Once you’ve landed on a drum sequence you like, let it loop while you sing over it. If you are struggling to “riff” on melodies of your own, you can always steal like an artist as a launching point until your melody evolves into something more original.
If you want to take this method a step further, try introducing some instrumentation into the mix, such as the open fifth power chords we learned on the piano. Again, once you begin to feel your idea taking more concrete shape, you can allow these chords to become more involved depending on the direction of your idea.
I hope you’re already seeing some exciting results from some of these song-sparking methods. What’s proving to be effective for you, and where are you struggling with some of these methods? I’d love for you to let me know in the comments section!
100 Good Songs = 10 Brilliant Songs
Let’s think preliminarily about what you might like to do with your songwriting once this course is over. Are you planning to record your next (or first) single, EP, or full-length album? Are you looking to create some basic demo recordings in the end to pitch to other artists or projects? Or are you simply looking to create some basic demo recordings to just keep all to yourself? I’d love to hear your answers in our next group session!
Whatever your master plans are for your songwriting, you’ll want to guarantee that your next recording project consists only of your very best songs. The only way to accomplish this is through volume and curation! In other words, you need to start writing a whole bunch of songs in order to guarantee that your very best will rise to the top. This is not to overwhelm you if you’re just getting started, it is just to reinforce the importance of your daily songwriting practice as a way of life. Again, the more you put into your songwriting, the more creative output you will have, the more options you will create for yourself to be able to curate.
100 good songs will likely lead to 10 brilliant songs. And brilliant songs are what we’re aiming for here because a brilliant song is a legendary song. This is why it’s so important to collect as many song ideas as possible in order to curate your very best ideas. The best ideas will maximize your chances of developing your best songs.
Singer/songwriter, Seth Glier made it his mission to write 100 songs before recording his latest album “If I Could Change One Thing.” He knew that 100 good songs would lead him to at least 10 of his very best songs for the album, and after personally hearing the album, I think he was absolutely right! Many of these songs he wrote himself, and many of them he co-write with various different songwriters, which can be another powerful way to expand your songwriting potential (more on this in a bit).
It’s so important to capture all of your song-sparking endeavors because creative energy is an elusive force that moves swiftly through us. As we learned before, ideas can leave as quickly as they come, so always keep that voice recording rolling. We want to allow our subconscious mind (or our right brains) to do the real work during this process, so we can’t have our conscious minds (or our left brains) interfering by trying to remember and actively catalogue such things.
As David Allen, author of “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity” would say, “Get it out of your head and into a trusted system.”
The Power of Co-Writing
I’ve been a solo songwriter throughout my entire career so far, and only recently have I learned the power of co-writing with other artists myself. Writing songs has always been a private endeavor, and in many ways has felt like diary entries set to music. It never occurred to me that I might enjoy writing with another artist until I tried it because the process had always been so deeply personal. But it’s been incredible to co-create with other compatible songwriters over the last few years. It’s not always a genre-specific compatibility, but more a personal or professional compatibility that often leads to fascinating results!
Two distinctly different artists can come together in a co-writing session to write a song that often transcends each individual artist and what they might otherwise write on their own. Nearly every successful co-writing session I’ve had has lead to surprising and often profoundly powerful songs in the end – and every time, I’ve thought to myself, “Wow, I would never have written that on my own!”
If you’re struggling with sparking song ideas on your own that you’re genuinely excited about, or if you’d just like to take your songwriting potential even further, then I suggest you consider exploring some co-writing opportunities. Reach out to your local pool of songwriters, or maybe even consider a collaboration with a close family member or friend who might be able to contribute a specific aspect of their own, like lyrics or instrumentation. You’ll likely be pleasantly surprised at what you co-create together.
So how exactly are you going to write 100 songs this year? Well we’ve already talked about the importance of committing to your craft and the daily discipline that it requires. This should become much easier to do when you’ve developed a new habit after your 21-day songwriting challenge of course, but many of you will still feel the resistance more often than you’d care to admit.
We all need help with our creative endurance to keep things in motion, so I strongly encourage you to read “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield to help you remain inspired and motivated throughout the rest of this course.
“Since 2002, The War of Art has inspired people around the world to defeat "Resistance"; to recognize and knock down dream-blocking barriers and to silence the naysayers within us. Resistance kicks everyone's butt, and the desire to defeat it is equally as universal. The War of Art identifies the enemy that every one of us must face, outlines a battle plan to conquer this internal foe, then pinpoints just how to achieve the greatest success.”
The Power of Song
I can’t think of a more powerful and convincing argument than what the following video demonstrates about the undeniable importance of music. So if you’re still doubting yourself as a songwriter for any reason at all, or wondering if it will even make any difference in the world, then this lesson is going to change your perspective once and for all! Watch “Alive Inside” until the end and you will understand the impact your songs can have on another person: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fyZQf0p73QM
Last week we learned about the beliefs we can form surrounding the songs we love and how these beliefs can take shape from our own personal experiences, our unique perspectives, and our emotional attachments to music. I think “Alive Inside” is such an incredibly compelling story about just how deep these attachments can take root – far deeper than we can even fully comprehend.
Needless to say, the importance of our songwriting is largely about the profound effect it can have on others. A song has the power to heal people and even save lives. A song can leave such a permanent impression that it literally becomes a part of one’s self-identity. And who would we be without the influence of music in our lives?
Selfishness = Selflessness
The potential we have to impact the lives of others through our songs is a profound aspect of songwriting, but it’s only half of the story when it comes to the significance of our music. It’s also a deeply healing, incredibly rewarding and self-fulfilling pursuit for us personally as songwriters.
Sometimes I feel guilty because I can easily spend hours writing when I’m in my creative zone. I’m having so much fun that I completely lose track of time! That’s when the work doesn’t feel like work at all because it’s more of a labor of love. Even though I know that my songwriting is an essential part of my responsibility as an artist, it often feels selfish – and therefore, almost irresponsible of me to be spending so much time on it some days.
I’ve also felt guilty at times when I’ve been approached by fans who have been deeply affected by my songs – thanking me profusely for doing something I already selfishly love to do. In those moments, I can’t help but wonder if they realize that I would do it anyway, even if they weren’t listening at all?
In a recent interview between Bill Clinton and Stephen Colbert, Clinton put all of this into perspective for me when Colbert jokingly asked him, “Why help other people? What’s in it for you?” Clinton’s response was as surprising as it was transformative for me. He said, “I want to leave a better world. The reason you should do things for other people is selfish. There’s no difference between selfish and selfless if you understand how the world works. We’re all tied together. We live in an interdependent world.”
You can check out the video snippet of this interview here: https://youtu.be/o55zARrNSsA
When we are in pursuing what we love, we are actually operating in alignment with the world. It can feel like we’re being selfish doing what we love, but we are also being of service to others. As songwriters, we are able to touch people in ways that we may never even become aware of, but we’re synonymously doing it out of the love of our craft. It’s a beautiful exchange.
Selfishness equals selflessness, so go create and share it with someone!
Real Fan Stories
Over the years, I’ve received some incredible fan mail from folks who have opened their hearts to share their stories and confess the impact that my music has had on them. I want to share a few of them with you now to drive home this idea that selfishness equals selflessness (all names are omitted for obvious reasons):
"Dear Gregory, My uncle in Indianapolis got me into your music as inspiration when I came out in middle school. :-)"
“Dear Gregory, I was just writing to tell you that I am listening to your song "Goodbye" on repeat this evening because I'm about to make some big life decisions. I'm leaving the country for five weeks literally the day right after my high school graduation. Then I'm moving to New York City for college. So this song means alot to me right now, and while I know that you're really busy, I thought maybe you would like to know that one of your songs has impacted one of your loving fans this much!”
“Gregory, I literally grew up listening to your music, and you were one of the major inspirations in starting my acoustic project. I can't thank you enough for making the music that you do. Covering your song "Shot By The Light Of The Moon" was something I have wanted to do for such a long time. I'm not sure if you know, but the lead guitars on the CD are played by my father. As a veteran of the Vietnam War, the song has always spoken to him deeply. And of course, being his son, it did the same to me. Recording that song together was one of the coolest experiences of my life.”
“Gregory, When I listen to your music it reminds me of how apparent it is that music is a transcendent art form. As you know I'm sure, a human can forget everything, friends, family, their life, their name – and in all the loss, music remains. Thank you for your lyrics, your voice, and your soul.”
And just for the record, I define my idea of “success” as a songwriter by these stories – not by the prospect of winning a Grammy Award. These kind of responses from people are more rewarding than any award I could ever receive. I cannot think of a better way to spend my time than creating the music I love to create and sharing it with the world so that others may benefit from it as much as I do.
This is why honest songwriting is so essential for your success as a songwriter. Because it matters to you and it matters to others. Because you never know who’s really listening and how much your songs are going to matter to them.
Week Three (3) Songwriting Assignment
This week, focus your attention on whatever one (1) song idea you are the most excited about from last week’s song-sparking sessions, and continue to build it out into a semi-completed “first draft” of a song using only preliminary song lyrics and/or lyric placeholders. Do not worry yourself over lyrics this week as we will dive into implementing lyrics that matter throughout week four (4) next week – just focus on creating a solid melody, theme/storyline, and song structure that you feel good about.
Again, our plan throughout the remaining weeks of this course will be to develop our best ideas into one of our very best songs. Each week moving forward will focus on a new aspect of our songwriting development until we have each created a new song we are extremely proud of!
Music Before Lyrics
In John Pape’s “Learn How To Write Songs” songwriting blog, John conducted a songwriting poll over the course of several months to find out how songwriters start their songwriting process. He learned that most songwriters start with lyrics first, followed by writing a chord progression, and in third place was starting with a melody.
In my humble opinion, every great song begins with a strong melody or a strong instrumental motif, and not always the lyrics first. You can write strong song lyrics that even Dylan would be envious of, but if the music itself falls short, it’s just not the best song it can be. Now don’t get me wrong – I have a deep appreciation for profound and life-altering lyrics, but when it comes to a great song, it’s all about the music for me.
I have learned to rely heavily on my “intuitive ear” over the years because I have no real knowledge of music theory. It hasn’t always been easy to communicate with other musicians without being able to speak the “language of music” fluently, but I believe this “limitation” has been a blessing in so many other ways. For example, I haven’t ever felt the restraints of music theory rules and regulations, and this lack of knowledge has forced me to rely more heavily on my right brain and my intuition as a musician. It has required me to listen more carefully to things, and pay closer attention to what’s making the songs I love work so beautifully.
So my opportunity here is to simply show up for you exactly where I’m at with music and mentor you through my own strengths in those ways. And it’s your opportunity to show up exactly where you’re at with music, absorb what you can from this course, and amplify your own potential as a songwriter. This course is not about strengthening your knowledge of music theory, it’s about learning to rely more heavily on your right brain and listening more carefully to the music that you love and love to create.
This week, you’re going to learn:
Music is so subjective to personal tastes, so I’m not going to tell you how to write a certain way throughout the rest of this course. I can only offer helpful suggestions that have worked for me, and continue to encourage you to keep learning from the masters – the artists you already love. Keep listening and learning from them while you continue to respectfully “steal like an artist.” Experiment with any observations you’ve made and apply them at the discretion of your intuition as you continue to grow stronger and more confident in your own songwriting process.
My intuitive songwriting methods are built upon the foundation of music before lyrics because I believe this approach will help you craft your very best songs, so let’s dive into how you can achieve this in your own songwriting.
Yours in music,
Let’s start by focusing your attention on whatever one (1) song idea you are the most excited about from last week’s song-sparking sessions, and continue to build it out into a semi-completed “first draft” of a song throughout the week. The goal for this lesson is to expand upon your song idea and transform it into an amazing melody for just one (1) designated section of your song-in-progress (verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge, etc). We’re going to take things one section at a time to help build more clarity and direction around the central theme of your developing song.
Visualize A World In Your Head
Let’s take that idea you love and pay closer attention to it. What do you like about it? How does your idea make you feel? What does it remind you of? Roll with this feeling and start to visualize an entire world in your head that consists of different elements, possibilities, and even potential characters (yourself included) based upon how your song idea makes you feel.
No one has mastered the art of building a world in their head quite like Regina Spektor for example. Her songs are always intriguing, extremely unique, and usually very easy to understand the world she has created. They almost always command your attention because of the stories they tell. Every aspect of her songwriting supports the story she wants – music, lyrics, instrumentation, rhythm, song structure, and performance – and these ingredients make each musical world come to life for the listener.
In Regina’s song “Poor Little Rich Boy,” she paints a portrait of a presumably wealthy and very privileged boy struggling to appreciate what he has because he’s got problems of his own. While our focus is not on lyrics this week, here are some select lines from the song to help demonstrate how she builds a great big world through her storytelling:
You don't love your girlfriend
And you think that you should but she thinks that she's fat
But she isn't but you don't love her anyway
And you don't love your mother
And you know that you should
And you wish that you would
But you don't anyway
She tells rich boy’s story in a way that makes you feel his agony through how annoyed he is with himself and everyone around him. If you listen to the song, you’ll hear rich boy’s youthful attitude and resounding annoyance in her voice simply by the way she sings the supporting melody and lyrics. Her minimalistic piano and percussion also help to drive home the nagging feeling rich boy seems to always carry with him.
She continues to juxtapose his struggles with lines like:
Poor little rich boy, all the world is okay
The water runs off your skin and down into the drain
You're reading Fitzgerald, you're reading Hemingway
They're both super smart and drinking in the cafes
Perhaps rich boy’s struggle is unlike what many of us can relate to who aren’t rich and privileged ourselves, but Regina bridges that gap for us in this song and allows us to step into rich boy’s elite world and understand what it feels like to be him for 2 minutes and 30 seconds.
Use Words & Syllables As Placeholders
If you’re following the demonstrations I presented in week two (2), then you might have already allowed yourself to sing “gibberish” to help facilitate the development of your melody ideas in the song-sparking phase. What words, syllables, or sounds have presented themselves to you from the gibberish of your song idea? Were there any prominent words, vowel sounds, or syllables anywhere? If so, give yourself permission to roll with them for now – even if you don’t like the words themselves – and try using them as placeholders for your developing melody.
In my “Hang Around” example from week one (1), I mentioned that the initial idea for this song came from singing over some basic chords until I landed on a simple melody I liked. As I continued to sing that melody, words started to form intuitively until I was singing “I’m around,” so I used these words as placeholders until after I had further developed my melody, theme, and song structure. Once I began to flesh out the lyrics, it became clear over time that my lover was the telling the story during that particular line of the song, and the line evolved to become “hang around” instead of “I’m around.”
Let Intuitive Words Speak
Let’s take this a step further and assume that certain words came to you intuitively that accompanied any gibberish or otherwise during your song-sparking sessions. They might be words that you don’t necessarily like but they are good placeholders for the rhythm of your melody, so you decide to keep them. Before you dismiss them entirely as nothing more than temporary placeholders, allow yourself to be open to the possibility that your intuition might be telling you something more with the words that came to fruition. Perhaps there’s a different initial theme emerging that what you initially had in mind. These type of transitions are so important to the evolution of a song because each new development opens up a whole new world of possibilities that can often help shape even stronger melodies. Sometimes it’s best to stay the course, but good ideas become greater as they evolve in new and fascinating directions. How can you know for sure? Trust your intuition!
I recently sparked a song idea during a short walk through my neighborhood that was accompanied by some very poignant words. It’s important to note that I was feeling really good and extremely appreciative for all the L.A. sunshine I had newly inherited. Having lived in northern Vermont my whole life where it’s overcast most of the time, this was not something I wanted to take for granted. At one point I just stopped walking, closed my eyes, and let the flood of sunshine pour over me as I smiled from ear to ear. After a few moments of basking in the light, I continued walking and started to hum. I felt the rhythm taking shape that mirrored my excitement for the flood of Vitamin D I was saturating. Suddenly a melody started to form, and the words accompanied: “Oh, here comes the flood.” It was beautifully describing how I was already feeling, but I noticed it had a darker undertone lyrically. I listened carefully to my words and realized that it was also describing the overwhelming feeling of starting over on the other side of the country. It’s as though my intuition was trying to convey even more truth behind what I was feeling through both the melody and the words.
This deeper understanding about how I was feeling led the song idea to evolve in a different direction than I had initially anticipated. I was simply letting my intuition speak for itself, and it was leading me down a path to more honest songwriting.
Let Your Melody Reveal Itself
Take any intuitive information you’ve gathered from the previous exercises, and continue to riff on the melody of your song idea with these new insights in mind until you have a section that feels more complete. Perhaps you have a good feel for the placement of your idea already. Is the melody of your song idea feeling more like a verse, pre-chorus, chorus, or bridge?
More often than not, my own ideas usually feel like chorus ideas, then I work my way backward and forward. Sometimes I develop an idea as a chorus and it ends up becoming a verse later on, but usually my song-sparking sessions lead to great chorus ideas. Regardless of whether your idea is feeling more like a chorus, pre-chorus, verse, or bridge, I encourage you commit to developing it fully as one section before you move on. It’s much easier for more great ideas to present themselves after you are confident with a certain section, and you don’t want to get ahead of yourself.
Let’s say your idea feels like a good first line of a potential chorus section, and now you need a second line to complete the section.
In the idea example I mentioned above, I started with a melody and the words: “Oh, here comes the flood.” As soon as I developed a stronger understanding of my initial theme and the general direction of this section through visualization and absorbing how I was feeling, I began to expand upon that melody (you can refer to the lesson video above to hear the melody reference).
I already felt the rhythm in 6/8 time, and I had the first line, “Oh, here comes the flood.” I even heard some sparks of instrumentation that was energetic, powerful, hopeful, uplifting and using mostly major chords. This was definitely feeling like a power-ballad chorus to me. I knew I wanted something to follow the first two measures of that line, so I kept riffing on a melody for another two-measure cycle until I landed on another supportive idea.
I continued to riff on new possibilities to complete the cycle, and I landed on: “Oh, here comes the flood, maybe you and I can da da da da da da…” I already knew I liked the words “here comes the flood,” and what it had the potential to symbolize, but I immediately felt like the words “maybe you and I can” and “da da da da da da” were just placeholders.
What’s important is that these words helped me shape the rhythm for a new melody and expand upon my current idea in order to complete the section. Suddenly, I had a chorus section all primed and ready to expand into other sections and eventually revisit for some compelling lyrics (which we will tackle in week four). Having become more confident with the first line, “Oh, here comes the flood,” it was easier for a continuation of that melody to reveal itself intuitively.
Now that you have an emerging theme and a great melody section to work with (verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge, etc.), let’s use this section to help further develop your theme and tell a compelling story. Try collecting any theme-related ideas in an Evernote notebook of its own so you can refer back at any time and potentially pull from any existing ideas as you go along.
Use Your Authentic Voice
Observe the perspective you feel most comfortable taking when it comes to developing your theme, and see if you notice any patterns. For example, I often write from a female perspective. I’m convinced my “muse” is a older, wiser woman who has lived many lives and has a ton of insight to share, so that’s the perspective I often write from naturally. I’m not sure why this is, but it’s my authentic voice, so it’s essential for my songwriting that I own it and honor it!
Commit To An Initial Theme
Prepare yourself to commit to an initial central theme as soon as possible so that you can explore things further. The clearer you are about the direction your story is headed, the easier it will be to expand upon it lyrically, melodically and structurally. I say “initial theme” because this can always change as your song evolves, but the very act of committing to an initial theme will allow your intuition to explore various possibilities for your storyline. This exploration may lead you to new insights and breakthroughs about your theme, and you may end up taking on a different theme entirely in the end.
The idea is that each phase of songwriting you initially commit to will free up more capacity for your right brain to pave the way for new possibilities. Commit to whatever’s working right now so you can move on with the understanding that you can always come back to it and change your mind later on.
Internal Ways To Develop A Storyline
Here are some internal ways that might inspire your storyline development. Take a good look in the mirror and check in with yourself for this. How are you feeling about things in your personal life? What are your current desires or pain points? Who do you miss or feel truly grateful for?
This might be a great time to revisit some of the personal insights you collected from my EGO Boost” Action Sheet. If your goal is to tell a compelling story, then you might want to explore some possibilities on the following topics in order to stay honest throughout your songwriting.
Love, appreciation, and positivity are always very universal topics that everyone can connect to at a deep level. There are many songs written about everlasting love in a first person narrative (Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” written by Dolly Parton, for example) and in third person (Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon” for example). There are also many songs that tell stories of excitement and joy in first person (Katrina & The Waves’ “I’m Walking On Sunshine” for example) and in third person (ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” for example).
The more universal the theme is, the more these songs can take on specific and significant meanings to us personally. Most of the time, the songwriter may have an entirely different storyline than what the song means to us as the listeners because of the personal attachments we’ve formed. So the more universal your theme, story and lyrics are, the easier it will be for your listeners to connect to your songs as if you had written it just for them.
So don’t be afraid to approach your storyline differently than it might translate to your listener. For example, Patty Griffin wrote one of her greatest love songs “Heavenly Day” about her dog on one sunny afternoon. To the listener, it might sound like she’s singing about her lover on their wedding day, and it’s no surprise that so many people choose to include this song in their own wedding day. That’s the power of honest songwriting with a universal theme.
Disappointment and heartbreak also make very universal themes for songs. There are countless songs already about these topics of course, but always keep in mind that your unique perspective makes an old theme new again.
In Kate Bush’s “Top of the City,” she sings about unrequited love and the longing to heal a broken heart. Some would agree that this is a song about someone taking their own life in attempt to end their ongoing pain and suffering. She tells this story beautifully through descriptive city imagery, and every aspect of the music supports the feeling of her subject reaching taller heights as she sings “One more step to the top of the city…” It’s a unique perspective on universal themes because there’s beauty and release throughout the song up against a tragic storyline – but unlike the more literal style of Regina Spektor’s “Poor Little Rich Boy” example, the listener doesn’t know for sure whether Kate Bush’s “Top of the City” is in fact about someone’s suicide attempt. Instead, it remains more open to personal connections that unite us with the kind of unrequited love and longing to heal a broken heart that so many of us can relate to in our own way.
You might even try documenting an interesting experience that you’ve had. I wrote my song “Black Lung” about an experience I had in high school when my lung collapsed the night before the opening night of a musical I was starring in. It was a crazy, surreal experience so I set the story to very theatrical music, and wrote it from a morphine-induced perspective from my week at the hospital.
External Ways To Develop A Storyline
Here are some external ways that might inspire your storyline development. Take a good look outside of yourself for this. This will also be a great opportunity to try and deepen your understanding and compassion for others. Who comes to mind as a good case study? How do you think they are feeling about things in their personal life? What are their current desires or pain points from your perspective? Again, if your goal is to tell a compelling story, then you might want to explore some possibilities from similar topics we just explored, but from the perspective of others or from your own perspective of what others might be going through.
For example, I wrote a song about a friend with a terrible track record of bad relationships called “Sail The Sea,” and told the story from her perspective, sung in first person. Even though the song wasn’t about me at all, I decided to take on her character as if she was me and capture both her dark sense of humor and her tough persona throughout.
Melody Gardot’s “It Gonna Come” is written about the overwhelming homeless population here in Los Angeles. In an interview, she touched upon her conversations with a particular homeless man and described how much she was impacted by his stories in the verses. She then reflects upon the “rat race” that is the great “American dream” from a more universal perspective throughout each chorus.
This is also a good opportunity to pull from something that has inspired you at one time or another. If you continue keeping these type of notes together in an Evernote notebook, you should have plenty to draw from after some time. For example, I recently incorporated a line from an episode of Orange Is The New Black based on a line from one of the characters in the show. It was Aleida Diaz’s tough mother character responding to her daughter Daya's art project in a flashback sequence. She looks at her young daughter's painting and says, “That and a nickel will get you five cents.” I hadn’t heard that expression before, and I thought it might be great in a song. It ended up inspiring a confessional theme for me, as well as a very unique and interesting melody and guitar pattern.
Now that you have a concrete initial theme and a solid song section you’re genuinely excited about moving forward with, you can start to craft additional sections to help organize your song and tell more of your story. We’ve been talking about the development of strong melodies and a working theme, so in this lesson we’ll continue to develop various song sections and focus on a song structure that will have the greatest impact on your listener.
Song Structure Essentials
As I mentioned before, there are already many other songwriting courses that focus on foundational methods and songwriting techniques, so I’m going to refrain from getting too technical here. That said, I do want to highlight the song structure essentials of a typical pop song as a launching point for how you might begin to structure your own song. A typical pop song might consist of a verse, pre-chorus, chorus, second verse, second pre-chorus, second chorus, instrumental or bridge section, and then a third or final chorus.
Here’s a quick breakdown of each section:
The structure of your song doesn’t necessarily need to be formulaic though. It truly depends on your intentions as a songwriter – who you’re writing for, what you’re writing about, and how you’re trying to tell your story. In my opinion, some of the most powerful songs are short and cut to the heart of the matter quickly, leaving out several of the song sections I just mentioned altogether.
For example, the song structure of Patty Griffin’s “Rain” is nothing but a verse, chorus, second verse, second chorus. At the other end of the spectrum, I wrote a song called “Up & Away” that veers more into the world of progressive rock and abandons the more traditional pop song structure. It consists of a verse, chorus, second verse, chorus, a new “B” section, a new “C” section, a new “D” section, a new “E” section, and a unique ending that recalls the beginning of a verse. This song is more of a compilation of several different “movements” that all came together from separate song ideas, and I decided to integrate them all into one epic “art-pop” song of its own.
So how do you decide what the right song structure is for your song? In my opinion, there are no rules in honest songwriting, so I would encourage you to structure your song however you feel it will have the greatest impact on your listener – and you can do this intuitively in the following ways.
What’s Your Narrative?
Start to think about what the narrative (or narratives) of your song might look like throughout. What is the narrative of your current song section? Is it a direct narrative, or are you telling this from another person’s perspective? Allow yourself to explore different possibilities and pay attention to what feels the most intuitively honest and compelling for the story you’re telling. Don’t be afraid to jump between different narratives told from different perspectives if it feels right – especially if you think it will add more substance to your storyline.
Does Your Song Hold Its Own?
Start to think about how you can structure your song so that the melody, story, basic instrumentation, and structure will “hold its own” independent of any additional band instrumentation or fancy production that might come of a future recording. Additional production or instrumentation can certainly help to build the song the way you might hear it in your head, but you want your song to hold its own so that anything additional doesn’t become a giant “bandaid” for a song that flatlines without the extra support. Make sure your song is structured to help build your melody throughout so that it translates powerfully on its own.
Experiment With Time Signatures
Remain open to your song taking shape in new directions as you introduce new ingredients to the mix, such as new time signatures. A vast majority of songs out there are in 4/4 time, but this might not be the strongest fit for your song. What time signature is your song currently in? Try 3/4 time, or even 5/4 time if you want to make things even more interesting. Some of the greatest songs are in alternative time signatures:
“Famous Songs in Slightly Odd Time Signatures – A Guide to Rhythms” article points out that “Peter Gabriel’s ‘Solsbury Hill’ is in 7/4” time, and that Outkast’s “ ‘Hey Ya’ actually features an 11/4 time signature.
Experiment With Measures & Musical Phrases
You might notice that a large majority of the songs you listen to are fairly formulaic when it comes to their musical phrases. For example, a typical pop chorus might be in 4/4 time and consist of 4 measures (with 4 beats per measure). Some artists like to mix things up a bit, and Anais Mitchell’s “Wilderland” is a great example of this. Her song is in 4/4 time but she has created inconsistent measures throughout to help support her theme and allow the listener to feel the “bewilderment” of her storyline even deeper.
In Sunny Day Real Estate’s “100 Million,” the song exists in 4/4 time throughout the verses and switches to 6/8 throughout each chorus. They continue to experiment with their phrasing with inconsistent measures throughout their choruses as well. As a listener, these musical decisions help me feel the pain of the “daily grind” from their storyline throughout the verses, but then helps me feel the sorrow of the same “daily grind” they are referring to as alternative perspective.
These are both great examples of how powerful alternative measures and musical phrases can help support the music and storyline of your song and strengthen the impact for your listener.
Continue Stealing Like An Artist
Return to some of your original mentors and favorite artists again for added inspiration. What are the song structures for some of your favorite songs? Again, I often like shorter songs that pack an emotional punch and have simplified song structures, like Patty Griffin’s song “Rain” (verse, chorus, second verse, second chorus). I even wrote a song of my own called “Crazy Love” to mirror the same chord structure, and to attempt to pack the same kind of emotional punch as Patty Griffin’s “Rain.”
You can also try diving into different types of music that are new (or new to you) to help inspire new directions. Just be careful not to get too hung up on passing trends in popular music if you want to create a legendary song that is truly timeless.
What artists have you recently heard that have piqued your interest? What artists have you been meaning to listen to? Now’s the time to listen and learn!
You might even try listening to some instrumental-only music or music with vocals sung in different languages so that your focus remains on the melody and the strength of the music while you continue to develop your song. This is a great exercise in sharpening your “intuitive ear” and will help keep your focus on music before lyrics during this stage of your songwriting.
Check out Tin Hat Trio’s “Beverly's March” as an example of an illuminating instrumental piece. You can also check out Zap Mama’s “Gissié” and Le Mystere des voix Bulgares’ “Pilentze Pee” for some inspiring international examples of vocals in different languages.
Try introducing some new (or additional) instrumentation to the mix. This might spark some new ideas or steer your melody into a different direction as you are developing additional sections. Continue to experiment with new guitar tunings or different piano or guitar chords up against the same melody and be open to where that might take you.
Sia is responsible for writing some of the biggest hits in the last decade for pop superstars like Rhianna, Katy Perry, Beyonce, and Britney Spears. In her own songwriting process, she uses a piano player to help her write most of her biggest hits. While she’s a piano player herself, it helps her to remain more focused on sparking strong melodies in collaboration with her piano player, and less distracted by trying to accompany herself. This has certainly worked quite well for her, and you can check out All 73 Songs Sia Has Written for Other Artists, Ranked to see just how well it’s worked!
When I first began writing my song “Madeline,” I sat down with my guitar in hand and decided I wanted to write a fairly revealing song about a man I knew. I wanted to keep the storyline more relatable to people and thought it might be easier to tell if the character was a woman instead of a man, so I decided to write it in the style of Concrete Blonde’s “Caroline.” I wanted an interesting guitar pattern so I referenced Patty Larkin’s “Don’t” and mirrored the rhythm of her guitar riff to help propel the melody. I used Concrete Blonde’s “Caroline” as a lyric placeholder until it become “Madeline.” Eventually, the song was recorded and piano replaced the guitar altogether, so you never know how things will evolve for the better!
Circle Back Around
If you’re struggling to create additional sections to embody your song, try circling back around. It will not help to force anything because you’ll only be allowing your left brain to take over for your right brain, and that will never yield the creative results you’re truly looking for. Don’t work overtime on something that just isn’t coming together intuitively. Simply move on to to a new idea or circle back to an old one because you will have a fresh perspective on something different. And you just might find a perfect match for the idea you’ve been struggling with upon revisiting older ideas.
When I was working on a verse section for my song “From Now On,” I was struggling to create a chorus section I liked for it. I circled back often and tried different possibilities, but my intuition was not convinced, so I let go of the verse section for awhile. One day not long after, I decided to dedicate several hours to revisiting many years worth of older song ideas that I had “starred” as ideas I thought had real potential to finish someday. One of the ideas happened to be a powerful chorus section that I had forgotten all about, and immediately, my intuitive alarm sounded. It fit like a glove with my new verse section, and I knew it was the chorus I had been waiting for. But here’s the most incredible part – it was a chorus section I had created 10 years prior to my new verse section! So now when someone asks me how long it takes to write a song, I always say, “Sometimes it takes an hour, and sometimes it takes ten years!”
Newer songwriters sometimes fall into the trap of making their songs too busy all around. It’s not always easy to imagine the addition of other instrumentation or potential production down the road for a song you’re writing on just voice and guitar for example, so it’s easy to fill up space with an unnecessary amount of lyrics, vocals or instrumental lines during the writing process. Make sure you leave enough space for other things to happen during each phase of your writing so that the evolution of your song is for the betterment of the song itself and not just filling up empty space.
Flood Your Brain
Let’s circle back to that Buffer Social article called “Why We Have Our Best Ideas in the Shower: The Science of Creativity.” Author Leo Widrich encourages us to flood our brains and put our capabilities to the test. He says, “Try to solve something you’ve never attempted before and always thought you can only do a lot later in your career. As a writer, write a piece longer than you think you can write. Your brain will be put in a shock situation and naturally engage more of your creative area then it normally would. And although you might not succeed at the task at first, you will find that other tasks will come a lot easier through your increased brain activity then.”
This kind of proficiency challenge is exactly the mindset I had when I wrote some of my more epic songs like “Up & Away,” and “Black Lung,” and I was proud and amazed by what I had accomplished by challenging myself. I climbed to greater heights through my songwriting, and I was able to write more “completely” than I ever thought was possible!
Keep Learning From The Masters
In closing to this week’s lessons, I want to reiterate that music is so subjective to personal tastes, so I’m not going to tell you how to write a certain way throughout the rest of this course. I can only offer helpful suggestions that have worked for me, and continue to encourage you to keep learning from the masters – the artists you already love. Keep listening and learning from them while you continue to respectfully “steal like an artist.” Experiment with any observations you’ve made and apply them at the discretion of your intuition as you continue to grow stronger and more confident in your own songwriting process.
Week Four (4) Songwriting Assignment
This week, keep the momentum going on whatever one (1) song idea you have built out into a semi-completed “first draft” of a song this past week. Now that you’ve solidified a solid melody, theme/storyline, and song structure that you feel good about, this week’s goal is to replace any preliminary song lyrics and/or lyric placeholders with some profound and deeply impactful lyrics that will captivate your listener.
Again, our plan throughout the remaining weeks of this course will be to continue to develop at least one (1) of our very best songs. Each week moving forward will focus on a new aspect of our songwriting development until we have each created a new song we are extremely proud of!
Lyrics That Matter
In Steven Pressfield’s latest book, “Nobody Wants To Read Your Sh*t,” Pressfield explains, “When you understand that nobody wants to read your shit, you develop empathy. You acquire the skill that is indispensable to all artists and entrepreneurs—the ability to switch back and forth in your imagination from your own point of view as writer/painter/seller to the point of view of your reader/gallery-goer/customer. You learn to ask yourself with every sentence and every phrase: Is this interesting? Is it fun or challenging or inventive? Am I giving the reader enough? Is she bored? Is she following where I want to lead her?"
I believe these are the most important questions a songwriter can ask themselves about writing the kind of profound and impactful lyrics that will resonate deeply with your listener – song lyrics that matter. This is the phase of songwriting where you can invite your left brain back to the party to help your right brain take a more discerning look at what you’ve already brought to fruition.
If you consider yourself a bad lyricist, or don’t really know where to begin with writing song lyrics, then you haven’t been paying attention. Incredible lyrics exist in every song you love, and these songs are happy to teach you everything you need to know about writing lyrics that resonate deeply, because they’ve already resonated deeply with you! So start listening, assessing, and appreciating lyrics that have shaped the songs you love in a whole new light.
Consider listening to 5-10 songs you love for their compelling lyrics, and take some notes in Evernote about what lyrics resonate with you and why. Are you noticing any patterns here? If so, start experimenting with your own lyrics in a similar way.
For me personally, writing lyrics can be the most challenging part of the process. Sometimes it can be tedious and painstaking, but it doesn’t have to be. If you’ve successfully completed a “first draft” of a song with preliminary song lyrics and/or lyric placeholders, then you’re already halfway there. The rest will unfold throughout this lesson.
Here’s what you’re going to learn this week:
Now that you have a better understanding of the lyrics that already resonate deeply with you from the songs you already love, let’s take a look at seven (7) great ways to jumpstart the lyric writing process so that you can write more captivating lyrics than you ever have before:
Hopefully my seven (7) ways to jumpstart the lyric writing process has yielded some intriguing results for you. I encourage you to pull from any ideas you’ve collected and apply them to your song so that you can begin to experiment with various lyrical rhythms throughout this lesson.
Experiment with Pronunciation and Inflection
Words themselves have a natural rhythm and inflection to them when you speak them, but it’s not always the rhythm or inflection you’re looking for up against your melody. For example, in Anais Mitchell’s "Young Man In America," she uses an alternative pronunciation for the word “America” in order to create a unique and interesting rhyme sequence:
Hungry as a prairie dog
Young man in America
Young man in America
Hungry, hungry, running every which way
Young man in Americay
In Seal’s “Crazy,” he places the emphasis on SUR-vive instead of sur-VIVE – which is of course, the way we would normally pronounce it in conversation. His melody choices naturally place more of the emphasis on “sur” and helps move the melody line along.
Stretch Your Words
You don’t necessarily have to let the natural syllables of your words confine you. Artists frequently stretch the words they want to use in pop music these days in order to make a statement and to help pack more personality into their choruses for example.
In Rhianna’s “Umbrella,” she stretches the word “umbrella” as she sings:
You can stand under my umbrella
(Ella ella eh eh eh)
Under my umbrella
(Ella ella eh eh eh)
In my song “Bird On A Wire” that I referenced earlier, I stretch out the word “wire” as I sing:
And now you’re taking me higher
Like a bird on the wa-wire
In Eliot Sumner’s “After Dark,” she stretches the one syllable word “here” to cover two syllables of her melody (and two notes within her melody):
So stay now, what if I stay now?
If I stay here I might lose again
Nicki Minaj experiments with the word “bass” in her song “Super Bass” by repeating words that help describe what a “super bass” might sound like, and effectively stretching the bass concept as far as she can throughout her chorus with:
Can't you hear that boom, badoom, boom, boom, badoom, boom, bass?
You got that super bass
Experiment with Lyric Timing
Sometimes the simplest solution is the most powerfully effective solution when it comes to your song lyrics. For example, in Eliot Sumner’s “Let My Love Lie On Your Life,” she sings:
So let my love lie on your life
Let my love lie on your life
She sings the first line against the “one” of each measure, then repeats the same line against the “and” of each measure.
*On a side note, it’s worth mentioning that Eliot Sumner is the daughter of Sting, and I particularly love hearing how much her father may have intentionally (or unintentionally) influenced the direction of this song. I personally hear a lot of The Police in her music!
In my own song “Naysayer,” I use a similar approach and simply repeat the word “naysayer” four times throughout the chorus with slightly different timing:
(Rest) naysayer, naysayer
The Rambler’s Technique
Legendary artists like Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon almost defy the rhythmic restraints of lyrics and melody altogether in some of their greatest songs by using what I lovingly call “The Rambler’s Technique.” For beginner songwriters, this approach can sound like the songwriter is trying to cram as many words into a verse as they can. But when this is administered well, your lyrics should flow naturally like you’re telling a memorable story – or rather, singing a memorable story.
Check out Joni Mitchell’s “California,” Paul Simon’s “Graceland,” and even R.E.M.’s "It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" as good examples of “The Rambler’s Technique,” and of powerfully effective storytelling.
One of the most powerful tools in your lyricist toolbelt is the use of metaphors. For beginner songwriters, metaphors can sometimes come across as cheesy or sounding too cliche, but when this is administered well, it can be a defining aspect of your song and an anchor for your listener. Get into the mindset of being as descriptive and poetic as you can be with your lyrics this week.
Let’s take a look at some great examples of braver and bolder storytelling in songs through the use of powerful metaphors.
In Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall," he sings “it’s a hard rain that’s gonna fall” to represent nuclear fallout and apocalyptic consequences through his signature storytelling.
Kings of Leon’s “Sex On Fire,” leads singer Caleb Followill sings:
Your sex is on fire
With what's just transpired
To the listener, it sounds like a fierce metaphor for uncontrollable lust and the story of a one-night stand. You can really feel the “heat” of the song through its lyrics and through the band’s intense performance as well.
In Atlas Genius’ “Trojans,” the lyrics seem to describe a breakup and the memories that come flooding in with the phrase “Your Trojans in my head.” Some argue that this is referring to the memories of the writer’s past relationship that come rushing in like a team of Trojan horses, while others argue that it’s referring to a Trojan Virus, which is usually attached to a file download. Once a computer trojan is in your computer, it spreads and corrupts the whole system. One can delete the original file it came with, but once the trojan is there, it's near impossible to get rid of it without rebooting your entire system. Either scenario provides vivid imagery for the listener of this song through powerful metaphors.
In Tom Waits’ “Time,” he describes the sadness of an anonymous person whose work consumes their entire life, using lyrics like:
The shadow boys are breaking all the laws
And you're east of East St. Louis
And the wind is making speeches
And the rain sounds like a round of applause
Some argue that the song’s verses illustrate various peoples "times" in life, and how most people waste their time being alive – suddenly desiring a true appreciation for their life once their time comes to an end. The chorus lyrics help illustrate this through powerful yet simplistic lyrics like:
And it's Time Time Time
That you love
And it's Time Time Time
Circling back to Eliot Sumner’s “Let My Love Lie On Your Life,” she sings “I wanna fucking overwhelm you” in the third verse. This is not only a fierce metaphor, but it’s also a great example of a descriptive phrase that takes the whole concept further than usual. In other words, instead of simply saying “I want to have an impact on you,” she goes a step further with “I want to overwhelm you,” and then another step further with “I want to fucking overwhelm you” for maximum lyrical impact.
Sometimes the power of good song lyrics is all in the simplicity of being really honest – and the truth is often sophistication enough. The most compelling songwriting always focuses on an honest storyline first, and everything else is secondary.
When you have something honest to say, you don’t need to be so dependent on routine rhyming patterns or go-to cliches because the story speaks for itself. In fact, you don’t always need lyrics to even rhyme at all. In Twenty One Pilots “Stressed Out,” they sing:
I wish I found some better sounds no one's ever heard,
I wish I had a better voice that sang some better words,
I wish I found some chords in an order that is new,
I wish I didn't have to rhyme every time I sing,
I was told when I get older all my fears would shrink,
But now I'm insecure and I care what people think.
They follow a defined rhyming pattern until they break their own pattern with the line “I wish I didn't have to rhyme every time I sing,” which is both clever and funny – and they certainly weren’t banned from mainstream radio for breaking any songwriting rules! Twenty One Pilots proves they can have a sense of humor about themselves in this song while still delivering a very honest storyline throughout.
In Martin Sexton’s “The Way I Am,” he writes about the separation of a fisherman and his wife in the first two verses. They both admit that they don’t like the way they are throughout the song. He resolves the song in the third verse by relating to their stories himself and sings:
And you and me walked down the shores of our youth
Chasing the sunrise, challenging the truth
It's all so distant now I've seen too many lies
Turning my vision into crumbling demise
Makes me wanna say
You know I don't like the way I am
No, I don't like the way I am
But I'm gonna change the way I am
I'm gonna change the way I am
As we’ve seen in some of these examples, sometimes it’s as simple as repeating a compelling line to really drive the message to the heart of your listener.
Patty Griffin writes about a closeted gay male classmate she went to high school with in her song “Tony,” depicting his sudden and unexpected suicide as she sings:
They wrote it in the local rag
Death comes to the local fag
I guess you finally stopped believing
That any hope would ever find you
Well I know that story,
I was sitting right behind you
In Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way,” Lindsey Buckingham writes:
You can go your own way
You can call it another lonely day
While many fans argue that this was a breakup song he wrote about Stevie Nicks, for me it’s always brought more of a positive and hopeful message to the table. To me, the lyrics suggests that all it takes is being open to “going your own way” in order to break the cycle of feeling lonely all the time.
I recently had a song idea in the car as I was stopped at a left turning red light, and there was a homeless woman next to me trying to collect money in the median who inspired me. She immediately stirred up mixed emotions in me because I always feel so deeply for the heartbreaking number of homeless people here in Los Angeles. I always wish there was more I could do to help, but there are so many aspects that keep my guard up most of the time. As I collected my thoughts shortly after, I started to sing and eventually solidified some initial lyrics:
Don’t like the sight of you, I confess
Don’t like the smell of your soiled dress
Don’t like the notion of your distress
So I walk on by
I know so many of us can relate to this bag of mixed emotions who are more fortunate than others. It’s a topic that most people feel uncomfortable talking about, so it’s a conversation I’d like to have through music. Perhaps it will spark more conversation outside of the song and lead to greater change.
Final Songwriting Assignment: This week, we’re going to place that brilliant new song of yours under a microscope and put your inner critic to work. Now that you’ve introduced some deeply impactful lyrics that are sure to captivate your listener, you are in the home stretch, so congratulate yourself on a job well done! It’s time to get hyper-critical now and see if you can make an amazing song even better with the song assessment suggestions I will be introducing to you in this week’s lessons.
Your Creative Critic
There are different ways we could describe our internal critic. We could call it our ego, our judgemental side, or even our darker side. Sometimes our inner critic can take over and sabotage everything we love as we hold ourselves hostage from crippling fear, doubts, and insecurities. Our inner critic can certainly be our worst enemy at times, but it can also be our best friend in creativity. I prefer to call it our “creative critic” because it can be one of our greatest songwriting assets – especially throughout the final stages.
Think of your creative critic as a faithful co-writing partner, or as the divine union of your left brain and right brain working productively together. They each have their own strengths and weaknesses, so it’s essential that they work together to help in the expansion of your songs from great to magnificent. You’ve already let your right brain build the foundation of your new song, so now you can let your left brain take a more discerning look at your song and help you improve upon any detail that may benefit from this type of laser-focus.
Here’s what you’re going to learn this week:
These lessons will help you make your final assessment on your song through small changes that will make a big difference. For many of you, this will make all of the difference in how your song is received and how deeply it will impact your listener, so let’s start critiquing!
Earlier in the course, we talked about the importance of your right brain taking the lead in your creative process. A lot of creative people get hung up when they are letting their left brains lead the way, and they often do this without even realizing. That’s when they experience writer’s block or lose interest altogether in their craft, because they are trying to think their way through their creative process instead of feel their way through. Hopefully you’ve learned throughout this course that when it comes to creativity, the right brain should always be your first order of business. This is why we’ve followed the music-before-lyrics method in this course. If you look back at each phase of the Intuitive Songwriting process, you’ll see that we started out by allowing our right brain to do most of the work, and have gradually introduced our left brain to help fine-tune everything. I believe this is effective because the more confident you become with the creative direction of your song, the easier it is for your left brain to help out in ways that are constructive instead of destructive.
Try listening to some new music this week (2-3 songs), and pay careful attention to what you like and don’t about each song. Analyze every aspect of each song – note for note and word for word – and think about what you’d do if you could tweak anything about them. Take notes in Evernote, and dissect the hell out of each song as though you are a music critic for a reputable arts and entertainment blog or something of that nature. Try to be fair and reasonable throughout this exercise, but don’t hold back. Be honest about what is working and not working for you about every aspect. Then listen to 2-3 songs you already know and critique the hell out of those until you have really honed your skills for critiquing songs.
This is all about developing a discerning palate and showing up for your own songwriting as objectively as you can, which can be more challenging than you think. It’s not easy to listen with a fresh perspective after spending so much time carefully crafting a song of your own. Typically I would encourage you to step away from your song for a week so that you can distance yourself from it long enough to almost forget how it even goes, but we only have a week until our next group session. ;) That said, try stepping away from it for at least a day or two so you can gain some clarity when you return to it. Stepping away allows you to revisit things with “fresh ears” as some say, and with a more objective perspective that will be closer to how a stranger might hear your song for the first time.
Here are some suggestions for how you might go about critiquing any songs you listen to, including your own:
Now that you’ve honed your critiquing skills, it’s time to take your melody a giant step forward and transform it from a strong melody to masterful melody. Never assume that your first attempt at writing a melody is your final attempt because it can always be stronger with the help of your creative critic.
Make Your Intro Matter
Solidify a strong introduction to your song, and make it matter. Most of your potential listeners have short attention spans so make sure you hook them in right away before they lose interest. They need enough of a reason to stick around in order to experience the full impact of your song.
I assume that you’re already feeling pretty good about the overall melody of your song at this stage, but if it still feels weak in certain sections, try singing it with a different rhythm pattern or the same rhythm pattern on the off-beat. You can also try experimenting with alternative notes with the same chords, or the same notes against alternative chords.
Let’s say there’s a certain “hook” to your chorus that you really love, but you’re feeling the verses are flatlining a bit in comparison. Try repeating the pattern of notes from the chorus hook you love, but not necessarily with the same notes. Your pattern could become a signature part of your song and make it all the more memorable for your listener.
Spark New Ideas
If you feel like your melody is missing something but you can’t quite put your finger on it, try circling back to some of the song-sparking methods we covered in week two (2). And remember to keep that voice recorder rolling so you can stop and recall anything you might have created in the moment. That way, you won’t lose track of any new ideas that may have escaped you as quickly as they arrived.
If there are aspects of your melody that are sounding a bit too monotonous, keep experimenting with rhythm and varying note lengths to help bring more musical movement to the table. This could land you a new hook that will help make your melody even more memorable.
Change Things Around
Again, make sure your song elements or sections aren’t too reminiscent of other elements or sections. Does the verse sound too much like the chorus? If you have recording software, experiment with moving things around. You might be pleasantly surprised with the outcome.
Is your song sounding too busy in certain sections, or not busy enough? Does your song need to be shortened or extended at all? Remember to leave breathing room, but not too much breathing room. You’ll have to feel this one out intuitively.
You can also try re-imagining various sections, like focusing on vocals-only at the end of your song, or a creating more of a “breakdown” section in the first half of your last chorus with more simplified instrumentation before you bring it back to a more powerful place again.
Push Your Limits
This is your last chance to be brave and bold with your song, so push your limits and try some alternative melody lines and song arrangements that make you uncomfortable! You might land on something that is a good compromise between what you originally had in place and the extreme alternative.
Always stay true to your authentic voice, but be aware of what your fans come to expect and often look forward to when it comes to the music they love. For example, a lot of people look forward to hearing a big final chorus at the end of pop songs. Just know your audience, but don’t compromise any creative integrity in the process.
If you want more tips on how to transform strong melodies into masterful melodies, check out John Smith’s “Seven Steps To Writing Memorable Melodies.”
Now that you’ve crafted a masterful melody and powerful song lyrics, it’s time to take those lyrics a giant step forward and transform them from meaningful to masterful. Never assume that your first attempt at writing lyrics is your final draft because they can always be better with the help of your creative critic.
Keep saturating yourself with song lyrics from artists you already love so you can get your head fully immersed in the game of masterful lyric writing. There are always opportunities for more riveting language and captivating storytelling. There is so much we can learn from the music we love, especially when we focus only on one aspect of a complete song at a time. So go forth, and saturate yourself in song lyrics.
Never settle for lyrics you’re not absolutely happy with. If this is a song you intend to record at some point, remember that you’ll have to live with the recording for the rest of your life – and I guarantee that one word you settled for is going to drive you insane every time you hear it. Just don’t take the easy way out in any aspect of your songwriting because you’ll be compromising the entire song. Persevere until every word feels like gold, and avoid writing any “filler” lines as a quick way to complete your rhyme patterns. This is the lazy man’s approach, and it can be a death sentence for your song.
It pains me to use Shawn Colvin as an example of lazy lyric writing because she is one of my greatest heroes, but in Shawn Colvin’s “Mona Lisa,” she sings:
And it was just a mirage
So I hid in the garage
I believe this to be one of the laziest lyric writing examples I can think of. If you hear the song and read the lyrics, you’ll see that this “garage” reference has nothing to do with the rest of the song, except for being a presumably quick and easy way to rhyme with the word “mirage.” (How do I really feel?) ;)
Analyze The Sounds
Carefully analyze the sounds of each word you’ve chosen because not all words sound good when they are sung. A powerful lyric on paper may be actually taking away from your song when it’s being sung, so make sure the performance of your words are equally as moving as the meaning behind them.
Deepen Your Perspective
Try deepening the perspective of your storyline if you feel your lyrics are falling flat. It might be because your storyline is too one-dimensional, so try throwing multiple perspectives into the mix. For example, you might start by setting the stage of your topic in the first verse, then adding a new perspective on how the topic makes you feel in the chorus, and even introducing a third perspective in the second verse. You can experiment with other aspects, such as past, present and future as well.
Stretch Your Words
Continue experimenting with stretching any words that might have a stronger impact to your storyline. This might be more effective than certain words that are currently supporting the exact number of syllables you originally had in mind for your melody, and any new stretch words might contribute to a more interesting melody as well.
Push Your Limits
Again, this is your last chance to be brave and bold with your song, so push your limits and try some alternative lyrics, phrases or expressions that make you uncomfortable! You might land on something that is a good compromise between what you originally had in place and the extreme alternative.
Assuming that you’ve been working on your new song for quite awhile now, it’s probably time to step away from it for a bit. Even if it’s just for a day or two, stepping away from your song will allow you to circle back to it with fresh perspective. When you hear it again with a clear mind, anything that doesn’t feel right will be more likely to jump out at you immediately.
Gregory Douglass is an internationally renowned independent singer/songwriter and music industry expert with over a decade of experience as a full-time musician. With nine critically acclaimed studio albums of original songs under his belt, Gregory has shared the stage with artists countless artists like They Might Be Giants, Shawn Colvin, The Weepies, Jason Mraz, Regina Spektor, and Margaret Cho. According to Pandora’s founder, Tim Westergren, Gregory is one of the top independent artists on Pandora radio today. Gregory has written and sold 100,000+ songs digitally on his own and his videos have amounted to over 600,000 views on Youtube alone. His recent spotlight on NPR’s “Morning Edition” has coined him “one of New England’s best-kept secrets.”
Gregory founded The Creative Advisor as a platform to help create community and teach other independent artists a proactive approach to sustaining their careers. The Creative Advisor offers career coaching, training tutorials, and indie artist/music industry interviews via dynamic videos, articles, and teachings. Education and career sustainability is at the heart of The Creative Advisor, and it’s our independent road map for today’s music industry.
Gregory founded Creative Songwriter Academy and launched his signature Intuitive Songwriting program in 2015 and has been inspiring songwriters of all levels ever since. The intuitive songwriting methods teach songwriters how to strengthen their intuition and evoke the creative genius within.