Where do you find inspiration? It is as intangible and elusive as a ghost. You know when you have it, and can’t manufacture it when you don’t. Without it, creative work is a chore, and often a fuitless one. With it, magic happens.
The question of where inspiration comes from interests me, and over the years I’ve kept notes about where the inspiration for successful songs has come from. It has been found in many and varied places. Most of all, it comes from real life - especially from sincere insights into life truths, and emotional responses to events and relationships. Some artists seem to have discovered ways to help the creative process, and inspire inspiration.
Here are 7 places to find inspiration for songs:
1. A Logical Process
Jimmy Webb has written some classic songs, including “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “Up, Up and Away” and “Macarthur Park”. His songs have been recorded or performed by Glen Campbell, The 5th Dimension, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and Bobby Goldsboro, among others.
He always believed that he wrote songs by instinct and by what felt right, until someone asked the question: “How do you write your songs?” As he thought about the answer to that question, he realised that he usually followed a logical process, at least in the early stages of writing songs.
After deciding on the type of song to write (ballad, rhythm and blues, rock), Webb next decides on the title of the song. The title serves as an inspiration for the rest of the song. But where does the inspiration for the title come from? All over the place!
Jimmy has found song titles in everyday speech, familiar phrases, an interesting turn of a phrase, intense emotions, deeply felt convictions, a pleasant place or thing, and a friend’s insight into a problem or feeling. The use of a familiar phrase or everyday saying in the title can increase the possibility of people relating to the song, and it becoming popular.
After choosing a title, Webb then thinks about the form of the song - how to structure the verse, chorus and bridge of the song - but leaving room for the song to go where it wants to. After that, he writes the song, normally the melody first, then the lyrics.
2. Love and a Broken Heart
But Jimmy Webb didn’t start writing songs with a formula. His first song came from a broken heart: “When I was thirteen I saw my sweetheart sipping slurpies at the Dairy Queen with a rival and I went home and wrote my first song.”
Songs about broken hearts have almost become a cliche. But they continue to be written because hearts continue to be broken, and we all relate to that feeling of lostness and aloneness. We also relate to love songs because they express strong feelings that we want to hang on to, and remind us of past experiences.
3. A Pregnant Phrase
Bob Barratt used to collect song and lyric ideas, and keep them in a long scribbled list on scraps of paper. These ideas later became over 250 songs, sung by the likes of Brigitte Bardot and Danny Williams, and familiar jingles, including the Yellow Pages “Let Your Fingers Do the Walking” jingle.
The ideas that Barratt collected came from life, and could pop up at any time. If he didn’t record them soon after, the ideas would be lost. Some of his song ideas have come from conversations with friends, newspaper headlines, everyday phrases, and plays on words.
His advice was: “A good hook can lead to a good tune, and the lyrics will follow.”
4. Doodling on Piano or Guitar
A melody will often suggest itself to you as you sit playing a chord progression on your keyboard or guitar. Or the mood that your playing elicits may suggest lyric ideas, or a general theme for your song. Or as you play, you might experiment with more colorful chords that give you goosepimples and move your emotions.
“Ebony and Ivory” started to be written when Paul McCartney sat down at a piano and started fiddling in the key of E major. He had a Spike Milligan joke on his mind: “You know, it’s a funny kind of thing - black notes, white notes, and you need to play the two to make harmony, folks.” And as he played some notes, he hit a nice-sounding interval that happened to be made of one black note and one white. The song’s title came to him, and a new song was born.
Collaborating with a friend or group of friends who are creative and on the same wavelength can produce unique results you never would have come up with on your own. You may have an idea for a song title, or a chord progression, and your friends may run a totally different way with your ideas than you ever would have dreamed.
Getting comments from friends on a half finished song may spark new ideas, or lead to constructive criticism. Once John Lennon and Paul McCartney had both half finished songs which fitted together perfectly. You never know where collaboration will lead you!
6. Spontaneous Musical Ideas
A song or song idea can write itself almost automatically. You may be driving late at night and a melody idea pops into your head. Perhaps you were humming to yourself without realizing. Perhaps you will wake up one morning with a tune in your head.
The beauty of nature can inspire musical ideas - some of Beethoven’s best melody ideas came while walking through a field. Good moods and bad moods can lead to creative thinking that form the basis of a song.
7. A Person
People inspire songs - especially inspiring people, but also troubled people, people who symbolize a cause or issue, fictional characters, and people we know.
Bernie Taupin’s song “Daniel” (sung by Elton John) was about a person - a Vietnam Vet who returned home after the war, lost his eyesight, and decided to leave America and go to Spain. However, Elton thought the song was too long, and left out the last verse, which leaves the song largely unexplained.
The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and Moving Pictures’ “What About Me” are about several people in situations that move us. The people may be fictional, but we can all empathize with the situations they find themselves in.
What About You?
If you are serious about songwriting, you need to recognize when inspiration hits, and learn to nurture a sense of inspiration in your own life.
What inspires you? Where has inspiration from your songs come from? What songs that others have written inspire you? Let us know in the comments.