A Place to Write

Your environment is a very important consideration when it comes to creativity. Trying to write songs in an environment where you can’t get into a focused creative mood can be harmful and frustrating. Consistently doing this can create negative associations which could put you off creativity altogether.

For some people, being at home is essential for writing. A quiet, peaceful and comfortable space such as a spare room or studio can offer a pleasant environment for translating thoughts and feelings into music. Often this is the only way to access creative tools such as musical instruments, computers and software.

Sometimes, however, the stability and comfort of the home environment can be counter-productive and can hinder the creative process. A change of environment can shake up the senses and awaken new creative ideas; some songwriters find that they write more freely when out and about whether this is in hotel rooms, friend’s houses, libraries or, rain permitting, sat on a bench in the park.

Taking the idea of writing out and about to a further extreme is the idea of writing on the move. Woody Guthrie supposedly scribbled songs in his notepad whilst commuting to work on the subway (including, presumably, the wonderful Talking Subway). If you can keep your pen steady, and avoid the noise and bustle of rush hour, trains and buses provide an excellent opportunity to reflect whilst watching the world pass by the window.

Time of day can make a big difference to the flow of creativity. Late nights and early mornings give the sense of being in a silent sleeping world, providing a level of meditative quiet and calm that allows you to listen to even the quietest of the brain’s creative murmurs.

Picking the right time isn’t just about day/night, you may also find that you write more effectively before, after or during certain activities. How does writing before you’ve eaten compare to writing afterwards (studies have shown that hunger can enhance intelligence and reasoning)? Does it help if you have a limited time window in which to write, or do you fare better with an open ended period of time?

Personally, I find that I write well immediately after I have been out and about travelling for a couple of days, as my brain tries to process what I’ve seen and done and adapts to being home again; but everybody operates differently.

The tools that you have to hand can also contribute significantly to creativity. Some people swear by the good old fashioned notepad and pen. Others are perfectly comfortable using their phone, a tablet or a laptop – although it is advisable to back up your work if you do this. For me, all of these methods work equally well, depending on my mood and where I am, but I do try and ensure I have a notepad to hand at all times.

There are more unconventional options, though; I have spoken to someone who swears by the reassuring mechanical clunk of a typewriter, although I’ve never seen somebody with a typewriter on a train. I have never spoken to anybody who chooses to use text-to-speech recognition software to write songs, but they must exist somewhere.

Access to musical instruments is another important consideration. Unless you can create the music in your head, you will want to have access to a guitar and/or keyboard of some sort. Travel guitars and ukeleles are very useful for this purpose – I personally swear by the wonderful Yamaha GL1 Guitalele.

It can also help to have a range of other instruments within easy reach. You never know where a song could be taken by the impromptu addition of a harmonica’s rough overtones, for example. What kind of melodies could grow out of a jam session with a tin whistle and a drum machine?

Cleanliness, tidiness and organisation are other environmental considerations that shouldn’t be overlooked. A cluttered desk often ends up not being used because it feels like clearing it would be such a massive undertaking. A dirty or unkempt room can provide distracting visual background noise. Cleaning your house may not seem like a creative task, but it may be conducive to creativity by helping you to get your mind into the right place.

On the other hand, for some people, creativity can be spurred by chaos. Want to write a number 1 hit? Spill your coffee! Throw all your belongings on the floor! (Do consider whether this is actually you before trying, though).

Of course, it may be that there isn’t a single environment that you prefer for the whole songwriting process. Many people find that they come up with ideas and start songs in more chaotic and transient environments (e.g. on the train, or out of the house) but need a quiet, tidy well organised workspace when they are fleshing out their songs and editing them.

Do you know what your optimal working environment is for writing songs? Do you prefer different environments depending on where you’re up to in the creative process? If you don’t know, or find that you are often bothered by your environment, It may be worth experimenting with different approaches to see if you can find a configuration that works well for you.

Coming up with Lyrical Ideas

There are countless different topics that you can write a song about. Of course there are certain themes that underpin the majority of music; love, anger, joy, sadness, nostalgia, death etc., but the specific story or situation that is being written about can vary almost infinitely (if you want a neat example of this, think “Eleanor Rigby” and “Yellow Submarine” by The Beatles).

In spite of this, and the vast variety and richness of lived experience, we can sometimes struggle to find inspiration for writing. I would like to share a few techniques that might help to give your creative brain a bit of a shake and find inspiration for your next song.

Travelling – Go out for a walk. One or two hours should do the trick, whether it’s in the countryside, on a beach, in the woods, or in a town you’ve never visited before. Alternatively, take a long train journey. Don’t take your headphones – just soak in your surroundings and let your mind and imagination do the rest. Travelling does wonders to our brains, and personally I have found a literal ‘change of scenery’ to be responsible, at least as a catalyst, for the vast majority of songs I have written.

Books & Films – What was the last film you watched that your really enjoyed? Or the last book that made you really feel something? Think about the characters and the stories that touched you… could these, or the feelings evoked by them, be turned into a song? I don’t necessarily mean you should explicitly write about the film or the book – although it’s been done to good effect (Kate Bush – Wuthering Heights, Scott Walker – The Seventh Seal); you could also try distilling the key elements and transposing them into different situations. For example, if you watched a superhero film, you might be able to lift out an element of the storyline and place it in an office environment. Have fun and be playful.

Your Life – What’s going on in your life at the moment? Write down a list of the five things that have bothered you or emotionally moved you in the past few weeks. Can you write about these? You could even write in the third person, if a different perspective would help; try writing a letter to yourself, from the perspective of a friend, about one of these issues. See if you can lift any quotes from the letter into lines in a song. A quick word of warning though; many cringeworthy attempts have been made at writing songs about not being able to write songs. Think twice before attempting this.

Idea Matrix – Take a blank piece of paper and draw a square with a cross in it so you have four boxes. Label them ‘People’, ‘Places’, ‘Events’ and ‘Objects/Things’. Come up with five things at random to put in each box. Now, try combining these different aspects in various combinations and see if a situation or a scene comes to mind that you could write about. This can be a surprisingly effective way of reaching into your subconscious for inspiration.


Fig 1 – This may or may not be the Idea Matrix used when writing a certain famous nautically themed Beatles song.

Random Title Generators – There are quite a few ‘random generators’ available on the internet that can help to trigger inspiration. My personal favourite is this one: http://muse.fawm.org/titular. In fact I have written two songs based on titles generated by this little website. They can be strangely poetic.

Inspiration and the development of ideas for lyrics is a big part of songwriting and shouldn’t be overlooked. Whilst sometimes the ideas just seem to flow freely, even the best songwriters can be stumped by a lack of inspiration from time to time. Trying a different approach is always worthwhile; even if it doesn’t work, you might find yourself refreshed when you go back to your ‘normal’ way of doing things..

If you have any experiences with any of the above ideas, or any techniques that have worked for you, why not get in touch to let me know or pop a comment below this article?

Lyrics, Melody or Chords: Which Comes First?

The question of “Which came first – the lyrics or the music” is almost as ubiquitous as the whole chicken/egg debate. It’s a question that songwriters are often asked, and there really does not seem to be a consensus either way.

Some songwriters swear by starting with the music, whilst others need to have some words before any musical inspiration comes their way.

For another group, the words and the music tend to come at the same time, and it can be difficult to marry up disparate musical and lyrical ideas if they arise separately.

For the rest of us, every song is different, and the first sign of life could be anything from a rhyming couplet, a bass line, a synth melody or a little rhythmic figure on a pair of egg shakers.

But if you have some words, or a melody, or some chords, where do you go next? Below I’ve put together a few brief guidelines to help you out.

I’ve got some words…

Brilliant! Words are wonderful creatures. Do you have an entire song or just part of one? If you’ve only got part of one, that’s fine. It can help to move onto the music before writing any more, as the musical direction might guide and inspire your next steps lyrically.

The rhythm of the words is important. Say the words out loud and try and work out where the emphasis should be, and when the pitch of your speech rises or falls. This will help you to fit a melody to them.

A good next step could be a chord progression that fits the lengths of the lines and sections that you have written. The chords will also help you to pin down your melody. Are there any words or lines that you would like to emphasise for emotional effect? If so, that’s a great opportunity to add a surprising or dramatic chord change.

I’ve got a melody…

It can be tricky to start with a melody, but strong melodies that stand on their own are rare beasts indeed, so don’t let it go!

Fitting words around an existing melody with no context can be tough, as there are so many unanswered questions. What is the song about? Who is singing it and what kind of tone of voice are you going to use? Also, it can be very restrictive; the syllables, emphasis and pattern of the words have to fit the melody exactly, or it could sound fairly stilted and awkward.

Therefore, it might be a good idea to use your catchy and interesting melody as the basis for a chord progression. If words that fit comfortably into it are not forthcoming, perhaps it could be an instrumental theme that you use within the song. You could always use a variant of this theme, or borrow elements of it, when you have some lyrics, freeing you up to write words outside of the strict melodic structure, but within the feel and style that you have established with the music.

I’ve got a chord progression…

If you’ve come up with a chord progression that’s worth remembering, this can be an excellent basis for a song. Many of us have written songs by sitting playing chords on a guitar or piano and then singing over them in a stream of consciousness type fashion. The complexity of the human brain means that the results can be surprisingly pleasant… why not give it a go?

Alternatively, you could look through your old notebooks and try singing along to the chord progression with any lyrical scraps you have written down in the past. You never know, the chords you are playing might capture the mood of the words, or give them colour that they never previously had.

Finally, a chord progression is an excellent starting point for a melody. Remember, your melody doesn’t have to be made up purely of notes that are within the chords you’re playing. Passing notes should be used liberally to make things flow. And don’t be afraid to embellish your chords to expand your melodic options… there’s nothing quite like a well-placed Suspended 2nd, a 9th or a Major 7th to add interest and depth to a song.

If you can’t get any further…

Sometimes, you have some words, or some chords, or a melody, but you can’t get a convincing song out of it. Don’t be discouraged if this happens – it’s probably not worth trying to force matters. Just record or write down what you’ve got, and store it away for a rainy day. Viewed with fresh eyes, your creative snippets could someday develop into something new and amazing.