How Do I Choose a Topic for a Song? Part 2
Using Art to Inspire your Lyrics
This article is Part 2 in a 4-part series about choosing song topics and will focus on generating inspiration by studying other works of art. If you haven’t already, please go check out Part 1 about common themes for songwriters.
Consume More Art
Creativity begets creativity. Likewise, I’ve heard it said that the best artists steal. Oftentimes, when I consume other people’s art it gives me ideas for my own creations. By art I don’t just mean paintings. Rather, I’m talking about any creative medium or outlet that you enjoy: movies, novels, comic books, music, paintings, drawing, or whatever.
To that end, the following techniques have all worked for me to some degree:
- Listen to New Music
- Rewrite A Song From A Different Perspective
- Watch a Movie or TV Show
- Read Poetry or a Story
- Appreciate Some Visual Art
One of these approaches may work better for you than others, so try each one out and see what sticks for you. Next we’ll break down each of these techniques and how you can apply them to your writing sessions.
1. Listen to New Music
Browse for an artist you’ve never listened to before and load up a selection of their songs. Sit down with a pen and paper, or open a notepad file on your computer. Listening to something new can excite your brain and lead to your own original ideas flowing out. This has happened to me in a variety of ways, including:
- I hear a verse in a song and anticipate how the next line will end, but the artist I’m listening to ends it differently. I think of how I would have written it instead, and that leads me to writing my own song based around that line variation I imagined.
- I mishear a lyric and write an original song with the lyric I thought that I heard
- I imagine how I would have written the lyrics if I had been in the same situation. For example, if the song is about a person being cheated on—I think about how I would have written about my reaction to finding out.
2. Rewrite A Song From A Different Perspective
In the same vein as the last suggestion, you can try rewriting a song from a different perspective or a different writing style. For example, there is a song called “Hey There Delilah” by the Plain White Tees. A young woman on YouTube wrote a song from the point of view of the titular Delilah as a response to the original song.
You don’t need to directly invoke the original song like she did and you probably should not use the same melody for your response lyrics if you plan on publishing the track. Just use the original song as a basis for the story or theme and put yourself into the moment of the narrative.
3. Watch a Movie or TV Show
On more than one occasion I have gotten an idea for a song by getting enamored with a movie I’ve never seen before. Try writing a song from the perspective of a certain character or about the movie’s storyline in general. Here are a few examples of known artists who used this approach:
- “Chain Saw” by The Ramones (written about the film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre)
- “Bat Country” by Avenged Sevenfold (written about the film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas)
- “A Change of Seasons” by Dream Theater (written about the film Dead Poets Society)
- “Early Sunsets over Monroeville” by My Chemical Romance (written about the film Dawn of the Dead)
- “Laura Palmer” by Bastille (written about the TV show Twin Peaks)
You don’t have to write about the exact plot of a movie either. I’ve written songs based only loosely on a character before. While re-watching the film The Blackcoat’s Daughter (I love that movie and if you’re into psychological horror you should check it out), I was struck by the subplot where a girl at a boarding school grapples with the possibility that she is pregnant and what she should do. I wrote a verse where I imagined what her internal thoughts may have sounded like. I kept writing more verses also from the perspective of the other main character, a girl whose parents may or may not be dead. While my song didn’t follow the actual plot of the film, I got an idea just be taking a novel perspective about these young women and their situations.
4. Read Poetry or a Story
In the same way you can watch a film and discover a new plot to write about, you can also read a short story or novel and try the same technique. It could be a retelling of the story, or thoughts from the perspective of a side character. Some examples of actual songs written this way include:
- “The Wizard” by Black Sabbath is actually about Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings
- “Big Brother” by David Bowie was inspired by George Orwell’s novel 1984.
- “Calypso” by Suzanne Vega was based on a section of Homer’s classic The Odyssey.
- “Cath…” by Death Cab for Cutie is a retelling of Emily Bronte’s novel Wuthering Heights
- “Cute Without the E (Cut from the Team)” by Taking Back Sunday is based on the play Othello by William Shakespeare (and the music video for the song is based on the film Fight Club)
- “If I Die Young” by The Band Perry is based on Lord Tennyson’s poem “Lady of Shallot”
Additionally, you can experiment with reading the poetry of a writer you’ve never read before. Rather than springboard an idea from the poet’s story, what I sometimes do is study the way a poet phrases his/her words and maybe emulate or incorporate his/her style into my own original lyrics. This technique can also be adapted to reading lyrics.
For example, I developed my technique of peppering verses with pop culture references from studying the writing style of Rich Cronin from LFO, Patrick “Rudeboy” Tilon from Urban Dance Squad, and Anthony Kiedis of The Red Hot Chili Peppers. I likely also owe some of my writing style to my study of poets like Robert Frost, Anne Sexton, and Charles Simic.
For more famous examples: Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse read a lot of Charles Bukowski and even wrote a song about the poet. Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins and Kurt Cobain of Nirvana have both cited William S. Burroughs as an influence on their songwriting. Lastly, Lana Del Rey cites Walt Whitman as being a poetic influence for her own lyrics.
(Also…Olivia Rodrigo agrees with me that reading poetry will improve your songs.)
5. Appreciate Some Visual Art
Paintings, photos, and illustrations are also a great way to generate song ideas. Try to imagine what story the art is trying to tell. Are there characters in frame? If so, where could they be going to or what could they be thinking about? Is the painting a landscape? What would it be like to be standing in that spot? What would you be thinking if you were strolling through those streets?
Here are some examples of songs by known artists that were inspired by a painting:
- “Big Eyes” by Lana Del Rey (written about portraits painted by Margaret Keane)
- “16 Shades of Blue” by Tori Amos (written about The Black Clock by painter Paul Cezanne)
- “Dreamland” by Our Lady Peace (inspired by the works of Norman Rockwell)
- “Sunny Came Home” by Shawn Colvin (inspired by a painting by one of Colvin’s friends, Julie Speed)
- “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” by The Beatles (written about a drawing John Lennon’s son made of his classmate named Lucy)
There are a few ways you can find visuals to use as inspiration. All of them can be done from the comfort of your own computer. If you’re struggling to think of a song topic, try some of the following:
- Visit art websites and browse their selection of paintings. If you find one that speaks to you, open a notepad file or a physical notebook and start jotting down your potential lyric ideas. Make sure to save the link to where you founding the painting, or write down the title and artist name so you can find it again later. Remember, it’s not a crime to be inspired by another work of art nor is it cheating; but don’t attempt to use a painting or drawing as your album cover without express written permission from the artist. Here are some sites I’ve visited to peruse art:
- https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Paintings (classical public domain art)
- https://fineartamerica.com/art/paintings/classical (original paintings by independent artists)
- https://www.artfinder.com/shop/paintings/#/ (more original paintings for sale)
- https://www.artstation.com/?sort_by=community (independent artists in just about every medium you can think of. Many artists on here also take commissions if you want a custom album cover drawn or painted)
- https://www.reddit.com/r/painting/ (a subreddit of user-submitted original art)
- https://www.reddit.com/r/Illustration/ (a subreddit of user-submitted drawings and graphic design illustrations. PRO TIP: filter by most popular in the past week or month to weed through the lower-quality posts)
- Visit a stock photography website and browse photos or search for a common theme. The bonus with this technique is that, when using a royalty-free stock repository, you can also use the photo as the album art if it leads to a finished song. Sites I prefer include:
- Go on a search engine, switch to “image” search and enter a topic or phrase with the word “aesthetic” at the end of your term. I’ve tried this on multiple search engines and, strangely enough, I’ve had the best results using DuckDuckGo’s image search. But any search engine will work. Examples of terms you could try:
- Lost love aesthetic
- Sad girl aesthetic
- Good times aesthetic
- Browse tags on Tumblr or WeHeartIt. Yes, those sites still exist. If you make an account on either of them, you can also like or repost images that you find appealing. You can also groups images with similar themes by tags on your own page to use as an inspiration board. The links to these sites are:
Onto Part 3: Technical Tips
If you’re still hungry for help on picking a song topic, join me in Part 3 in this series where I will provide some practical and technical “cheats” for generating song ideas.