As a creative person in my late teens and 20s, I didn’t like being “boxed in.” That’s how I interpreted the concept of “healthy limits.” Now with a few more years under my belt, or decades rather, I know that boundaries help me define my space, my choices, relationships, and character, not to mention the music I write. Without getting too deep, boundaries are what give me a solid foundation on which to create something new. If I have too many choices melodically, lyrically, harmonically, rhythmically, with arrangement and song form, I’ll never finish a single song. So we songwriters borrow from those who came before us. We take a groove we like, we’re inspired by a sample, we think in terms of a particular vocal quality or use a chord progression from another song and write something new over it. We keep one foot planted in what we know already works, so the rest of us can let loose over top.
Try taking just 30-40 minutes daily to complete the activities below. And remember: there’s no pressure to write better, longer, or smarter. Daily writing isn’t a competitive sport, but more like steadily working out at the gym. A little each day can go a long, long way.
Day 11: Four By Four
Some of the simplest songs have a structure of a four-line verse moving into a four-line chorus. The chorus often carries the title in the first line, last line, or even all four lines. Instead of going down the rabbit hole with intricate melodies, chords, and lengthy lyrics, try writing a verse that uses a simple little melody repeated four times for a total of four lines of lyric. Follow it with a chorus that starts with the title, sung over a new, simple little motif. Try repeating the title again, and if you must, write a new third line before repeating the title one last time for line four. Simple and effective songs that do this are Tom Petty’s “Free Falling” and “Say” by John Mayer.
Day 12: Repeat the Chord Progression
Some of my favorite songs utilize a simple three- or four-chord progression all the way through the verse and chorus. All the contrast between sections comes from other areas like the melody, lyrics, and production. Using the same chord progression all the way through provides a solid framework, and knowing that some great songwriters have written legendary songs this way can help us “buy into” our own ideas even more. Try writing a simple verse and chorus with the same chorus progression. For listening examples, check out John Mayer’s “I Don’t Trust Myself with Loving You” and John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.”
Day 13: Get Real with Real Lyrics
When we listen to our favorite songs, we hear the lyric in context of the musical landscape. The music informs us how to emotionally interpret the lyric. A great production or performance can bump up the perceived quality of a lyric. Take away the music, and you might find the lyrics to songs you like are quite ordinary. Read the lyrics aloud of three songs you like. Notice your response to different lines. Is there cliché language? Is the message clear? Is the title strong? Does the language flow in a conversational manner? How does the lyric stand up apart from the music? Finally, how is the language you’re reading out loud any different than the language you use in your own lyrics? Recognizing that it’s not that different from our own can be a powerful motivator.
Day 14: Write for Fun
Take a break from pushing forward towards that artist or writing career, and write something you’d like to dance to, fall asleep to, hike to, roller-skate to, paint to, or cook to. Instead of thinking about what genre or mainstream artist your song might fit, write a verse and chorus you’d enjoy listening to while doing anything else you enjoy. You might start by grabbing a beat at a particular tempo that suits the mood of the activity. Or, model your song after another song, using the intro to set the mood and tempo.
Day 15: Take A Hike … or a Drive
Walking takes my mind off things, removing the pressure to “do” and allowing me to simply “be.” Maybe walking isn’t your thing, and there is another activity such as driving that allows your mind to wander. Whatever it is, try writing a half of a song while you’re doing it. Start with a title: a title that immediately brings lyrical concepts to your mind. The goal here is to let your mind breathe, and to follow the ideas wherever they lead without judgement. I like to record my thoughts using the microphone in notes on my phone. That way I can speak in conversational language the ideas that will eventually become the lyric itself. Walking enables me to key into a particular rhythm as well. As I feel the pulse of my shoes on the pavement, my ideas tend to fall out in rhymed couplets. Pretty soon, if I’m lenient enough with my ideas, I have a half-song when I arrive back home. As long as I stay true to “what” I want to say rather than “what rhymes with door,” I end up with some great ideas I didn’t have before my trek around the neighborhood.
Give yourself a pat on the back for digging in each day and doing the work of writing. As a wise professor once told me, 90 percent of what I write won’t be my best 10 percent. When I write nearly every day, I can take heart that I’m doing my part to allow the best ideas onto the page.