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?