When we push our writing process outside our comfort zone, it sometimes leaves us feeling unsure how to assess the quality of what we’re writing. After all, we’ve got nothing to compare it to. We might find it hard to allow ourselves to move outside our genre, fearing that being too “eclectic” will dilute our sound and brand as an artist. If generating pieces of songs is leaving you feeling fragmented, don’t fear. The remedy is to push through, and continue trying on a variety of writing approaches. In any case, the only thing you have to lose is going back to the same old approaches that result in the same old stumbling blocks. And who goes out searching for that? Instead, try the activities below, allowing 45 minutes or less for each one.
Day 6: One Title, Different Tempos
Think of a song title or draw a title-worthy phrase from a book, article, or leaky conversation. Try setting it to melody over a very slow tempo. Close your eyes and sing it several times at that tempo. Really taste the words and hear what they mean as you sing it. Now, choose a much faster tempo and sing the same melody and title lyric again several times. Listen to how the message of the title changes. Draft an outline of the song at both tempos, exploring what the verses and choruses would say in just a few sentences based on the message of the title.
Day 7: Poetic Rhythm
If you’ve done object writing before, this activity will sound familiar. Today you’re going to write stream-of-conscious, sensory-based material from a keyword such as “teacup,” “jumbo jet,” or “pocket knife.” But instead of writing in paragraph form, you’ll write with a rhythm in mind. Speak the lyrics of “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” It goes “MAR-y HAD a LIT-tle LAMB,” with every other syllable being a strongly stressed sound. You might notice your voice rises in pitch and intensity on those strong stresses. The syllables in-between are weak stresses. One major difference between lyrics and poetry is that lyrics carry a rhythm in each line that is defined by our melody. Melody has a repeating rhythmic pattern we call a motif. So when you write about a song concept to generate lyric ideas, try writing using a repeating rhythmic pattern. It will enable you to set the lyric to melody with greater ease.
You might use the pattern of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” or you might try another pattern, using triplets like this:
DUM da da DUM da da DUM da da DUM
Here is an example, written from the keyword “Hot Air Balloon”:
Billowing colors aloft in the sky
floating as light as the breeze
Lit with a flame as it rises and falls
circling the world in a dream
You can vary the lengths of the lines, while maintaining the triplet pattern. Don’t concern yourself with rhyme unless a great rhyme surfaces. And make sure to let the inspiration flow without assessing the value of what you’ve written until long after it’s down on paper or screen.
Day 8: Creative Collisions
We use metaphors every day, many times without even knowing it. A metaphor is what we get when we collide one word against another that don’t literally belong together. “Dark clouds” is no metaphor, but “marshmallow clouds” is. The more familiar the metaphor, (think “broken heart”), the more cliché the collision sounds.
To make your own metaphors, try making a list of interesting nouns, verbs, and adjectives.
When you’re finished, simply try thrusting two or three of them together at random. Make a short sentence, exploring their collision.
Her ruffled lips fluttered gossip
The friendly carousel whistled around and around
The friendly pavement shielded an even worse accident
The pavement fluttered in the heat
Her rusty lips kept telling the same old story
Take the collisions wherever you feel them going, building full sentences from the metaphors that arise. Great metaphors can be excellent first lines of lyric, immediately drawing the listener in.
Day 9: Pick up a Different Instrument
Remember switching instruments with your friends back in band class on a substitute teacher day? Okay, maybe that’s not a shared memory. All the same, try picking up an instrument you can’t play or one that you rarely play. Strum a chord and find some notes you think sound pretty. Let the pressure to be skilled simply fall off of you. Then write a verse and chorus.
Day 10: Write Something ‘Bad’
That’s no idiom. I’m talking about the bass lick that everyone recognizes from the Michael Jackson song “Bad.” Coming up with a one- or two-measure instrumental riff as the basis for your song can be a great way to immediately hook the listener. It gives our song a fingerprint all its own. To write this way, pay special attention to rhythm. Rhythm, even more than pitch, defines our motifs, and these kinds of instrumental riffs are built on a strong rhythmic identity.
After all these exercises, take a day or two to rest. If you must write, go ahead, but give yourself the opportunity to re-energize doing things you enjoy. You’ve earned it. Talk to you next Monday!