How Do I Choose a Topic for a Song: Part 3
Cheats and Tricks for Generating Song Ideas
Not all good song lyrics just flow out of a person’s head like sweet lyrical honey. Sometimes we need to pilfer, plunder, borrow, and imitate our way into a creative flow. In this third part of my 4-part series, I’ll share with you some tricks or songwriting “cheats” that I’ve used in the past for coming up with song topics, themes, titles, and even lines. These are techniques I’ve employed in my own songwriting practices.
I’ve heard the phrase over and over again that great artists steal, so here are some ways that I’ve “stolen” ideas for lyrics.
In general, all of these techniques can be referred to as what I call “line rummaging”. Line Rummaging is when you look for interesting sentences or word clusters that would sound good together in a line of lyrics. You don’t want to rummage through actual published literature, as that would be plagiarism. What I’m talking about is finding common expressions or interesting metaphors on the internet that can jumpstart a creative writing session. My four primary techniques for line rummaging are:
- Browsing social media comments
- Consulting adage dictionaries for common, fair use phrases
- Browsing Wikipedia lists on topics, maxims, phrases, etc.
- Searching thesauruses and word association sites
1. Browse Social Media Comments
I came across this technique accidentally but it has worked wonders for me on my less-inspired days. What I’ll do is browse through the comments of whatever YouTube videos I’m watching and look for any stories or phrases that look interesting. If I see something I like, I’ll put it down in a notepad file and start freewriting from it—or just save all the interesting comments for using later in the same manner. Top comments on static song videos are a great place to find emotive stories or shower thoughts.
Here’s an example I found in the comments of the song “Sleep” by Slowdive. The commenter said:
“The instrumental sounds like when the party is over and everyone is going home or sleeping”
I thought that was a really neat perspective being set up and I wrote a song based around the idea of “when the party is over and everyone’s gone home”. This phrase could work as a theme, as a title (name a song “when the party is over” and work out lyrics from that topic), or even as a song lyric (“when the party’s over / and the morning breaks / coffee poured cold / with a fresh headache”).
Story comments can generate some interest song ideas, too. I once read a comment, beneath a video for a song (I can’t remember what the song was), from a young man who said his sister died in a car wreck because she was texting while driving; he pointed out how weird it felt that one day she was there as usual and the next day his whole life was different without her. This poignant story prompted me to write a song about a girl dying in a car crash.
YouTube is not the only social media you can use for this technique, it’s just the one I visit the most frequently. Any site that allows comments or discussions can be perused for topics in a similar manner, such as: Reddit, Instagram, or Tumblr.
2. Idiom Dictionaries
An idiom is a common expression that is meant figuratively instead of literally. For example, the phrase “break a leg” is an idiom. You can use idioms to season your lyrics with more interesting word selections but with relatable meanings. Instead of writing a stale lyrics like:
I almost died when you left me Now faces don’t look very friendly
You could employ some idioms and get the same meaning with more interesting word combinations:
I almost caught the last bus when you left me And the faces on that route don’t look too friendly
In this example, to “catch the (last) bus” is an expression to mean someone died or possibly even committed suicide. With the addition of that idiom, I was then able to tie the second line of the couplet into the same theme by saying the faces of that bus’ passengers don’t look friendly (a bus of death, hence the other passengers are other dead souls and one would assume being ferried to the afterlife on public transit would not make you feel very chipper).
There are a number of places where you can find idioms, including:
- The Free Dictionary’s Idiom Section (if you search for a word using this dictionary, idioms related to the word’s meaning will show up.
- Dictionary.com also has some slang included in their database that you can peruse while doing word searches.
- Urban Dictionary is a user-created compendium of slang terms. (Warning though: some of the phrases you’ll find on there are vulgar.)
You can also just go to google and type in “slang words for…” or “idioms for…” and whatever term you’re looking to replace. In my example, you could google “idioms for dying” and browse the lists that show up in the search results.
3. Wikipedia Phrase Lists
Very similar to the previous approach, you can look through collections of idioms, adages, maxims, phrases, and proverbs for anything that catches your eye. If you see a phrase you really like, copy it to an ideas notepad file along with the meaning of the phrase. You can collect the ones you like and test them out later during your songwriting session.
Wikipedia offers several different lists of expressions and idioms. Here are a few of the lists you may want to browse:
- Adages category page
- List of eponymous laws
- List of proverbial phrases
- English-language Idioms page
- English phrases category
- List of English-language idioms of the 19th Century
4. Word Associations / Thesaurus Salad
Lastly, you can use thesauruses and word association sites to find interesting word clusters around a common theme. Those word clusters can then be used as a basis for building a rough song skeleton.
Some sites you can try include:
- Related Words (a word association generator)
- Free Thesaurus (an online thesaurus)
- Thesaurus.com (another online thesaurus)
- Phrase Thesaurus (you can search for phrases related to a word)
- Words to Use (a word reference tool where words are grouped in a different manner than a regular thesaurus)
Onto Part 4: Pop Topics from the Charts
If you would like to see what the top songwriters are writing about, please proceed to Part 4 in my 4-part series on finding song topics.