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Songwriting Survey
What do you find most inspiring and where do you find it when you're writing a song?


Sherman Dorn
An historian in Nashville, writes:
I get my inspiration from listening to good music and letting it percolate. Then I need silence (probably isolation from my daughter, too) and time.
Editor's note: A little later, Sherman decided he wasn't quite finished... This is what he had to say:
There are other things besides music which inspires songs -- generally, situations which call out for a song. Example of an as-yet-unsated need for a song, according to my twisted mind, is the term NASA has for the bag in shuttle toilets that's supposed to keep the solids (to use their euphemism) from coming back into the cabin: 'hydrophobic liners.' Now, I don't know about you, but I'm wondering WHO at NASA let slip that they had a rabid toilet on board, and why any astronaut would willingly place themselves in close proximity to a rabid thing at such a vulnerable moment. Either Dave Barry or Urban Tapestry should write something about this, clearly.
Irene Jackson,
A Shut-in Songwriter from Victoria, BC, writes:
I've written for so long that I've gone through many stages of inspiration. Originally, I think that just sitting down with the guitar and playing around with some chord progressions used to fire me up and that lasted for many years. Eventually, though, I realized that my lyrics were my weak link and I began to think about more interesting usages of words. In the last couple of years something I see or experience will bring a line to my head and I've often written almost a whole song lyrically in my head before picking up a pen! The most magical moments are when both words and music come simultaneously...it doesn't happen everyday but it's great when it does.

The things that inspire me now are different from what I was into in my twenties...I feel that there are more layers of yourself (no pun intended!) to explore when you're older, and your take on the world changes considerably. Being aware of having a unique perspective and yet singing it in a way that everyone can relate to is my ongoing challenge.


Debbie Ridpath Ohi
A writer/musician/webaddict in Toronto, writes:
Hearing a song I like a lot. Knowing my music group has a concert coming up. Eating chocolate.
Editor's note: Do we see a common theme coming out here, Deb? *chuckle* - Jodi
W. Scott (Cosmo) Snyder,
A filker from Illinois, writes:
Hmmmm... Sometimes it's a specific mood - especially if the mood is depressing or desperate. Those seem to give the most vivid inspiration. But, it could just as easily (at least these days) be a pun (bad or good), a good book, a movie, etc. I've often gotten inspiration from someone else's situation - I project feelings onto what I observe and write from that perspective. But then again, I've written a song about Blue Cheese, so anything is possible... :-{)}
Cola
A songwriter/drummer originally from CT, writes:
What I find most inspiring is the things that I have read before. When you read a lot, you enlarge your imagination. Especially when you read something that holds your interest. This comes in handy during "The Block" also. Just look at your collection of books and pick something to write about.
Jeffrey Taylor
A songwriter from Michigan, writes:
Love
Life in general
Troubles of friends around me
Jerome Hawk Freeman,
a songwriter from Ohio ( really ;-) )
The truth about any subject and the interpretations or different truths that a variety of people have, I can tap into that zone when I open my mind to thoughts that tend to rival my core beliefs.
Joe Kesselman
A Filker, Chairman of the Walkabout Clearwater Chorus, wheelbarrowtone and abuser of assorted instruments, writes:
Hard question. Most of my output is parody of some flavor, so obviously the songs I've been hearing are a major factor. Usually what will happen is that I'll see another take on the same story, or I'll find a pun which allows another story to spin off from the same starting point.

Perhaps that's the key word right there: STORY. If there isn't a tale worth telling in its own right, a song is just vocal music; you might as well stick with scat, which uses the instrument more effectively.

The story may be a simple one ("I live for the joy of singing"), or something much more substantial -- I wonder how many of us found ourselves repeating the storyline of something like "Christmas in the Trenches" to friends before we learned enough of it to sing it. But if the song doesn't have anything new to say, at least a new take on an old observation, it doesn't hold my interest. A few of my own early attempts got shelved again for just that reason: a few cute phrases, but no overall flow tying them together.

But the story isn't sufficient. I've got a story I've been trying to push into song form for years now (a bit of nautical history taken direct from a travel brochure!) which is clearly worth the effort but which has been resisting all my attempts. It seems I can't build momentum until I've got enough key phrases to allow me to find the "voice" of the singer and/or the personalities of the individuals being sung about. Again, that may tie back to my thinking of song as storytelling, but it seems to be the way I work best. So unless I'm lucky enough to stumble onto a strong image at the start, it's usually heavy going for a while, and a song may spend a long time on the shelf before there's enough to be worth actively working on. (This is one reason I find more highly stylized stuff -- Poe pastiches, for example -- easier to rattle off. The voice is already determined, which makes filling in the spaces around the key points considerably easier. Working within limits can yield a surprising amout of freedom...)

In this case, I suspect I need to sit down and do some of the same exercises that are useful for prose: Why is this fact so? What does that imply? Why this decision and not another? How did this succeed, and what were the risks? Run the implications backward and forward from the events that I do know about, and build a full context for them. _THEN_ I may know Susana Buckler well enough to try to turn her story into a Childish ballad.

Joe would like to add this addendum to his entry:
Just discovered another form of inspiration, though it's going to be hard to use: Fell asleep on Sunday with the CD player going thru a few folk disks, and discovered I was dreaming perfectly usable alternate lyrics to them. Apparently the free-association involved in dreaming is perfectly happy to accept input from the real world. I knew that was true, and I knew I did a lot of my best writing in "background mode", but this is the first time I'd woken up with three verses fully formed.

Of course the problem was that since dreams take place entirely in short-term memory, I was only able to retain the lyrics for about a minute after waking up -- enough to know they really were good enough to be worth writing down, not enough to actually find a pencil and paper. If you try the experiment, make sure you have a tape recorder or pencil at your elbow (and perhaps the remote for your stereo as well, so you can kill the original if it's distracting you).

Might even be worth trying some variant on the lab experiments that have been run in the past: set up a timer that will awaken you, hopefully in mid-dream. Don't do this too often; you really do need a certain amount of uninterrupted dreaming... but it might be fun to see what, if anything, you can bring up from the depths.

Editor's note: Thanks, Joe. Nifty idea! --Jodi


Suzanne Jackson
A songwriter from Washington, DC, writes:
LIVE MUSIC, hands down. Also, the best songs I've ever written have been done in 15 minutes while attempting to describe a breakdown I've just come out of.
Sam Hensley
A singer/songwriter from The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, writes:
I find that the people in my life are the inspirations for most of my songs. The things that they notice and say, I try and transform into a singable medium. I also take things that I think about a lot. Stressful things, things that make me happy, most anything. The world around me is full of wonder, and those aspects of life that seem to be the most curious, these are the things that I write about most.
Scott Stulen
A 21 year old student at UWEC and songwriter from Eau Claire WI, writes:
I use an abstract method of song writing. I pick a large list of interesting words and then place these words on little individual notecards. The words that I pick are random sampling of the environment (advertising, TV, radio, magazines, internet etc.) Then I draw the words at random allowing this process to write the song and convey the meaning.
Matt Rushton
A Songwriter/Performer from Provo, Utah, writes:
I find relationships to be the most inspiring. Whether they are my personal relationships such as with my wife, Father, Mother, etc. or my observations of other peoples relationships. If I listen to other people tell me about themselves I can find interesting things to write about in my songs.
Victor Johnson
A songwriter/musician from Atlanta, writes:
I am inspired by ancient myths, folklore (including but not limited to Tolkien, Dr. Suess, Grimm, Anderson, Anne Rice, etc.)I am especially intrigued by ancient myths, mainly Greek ones. I create an impression of these stories by placing myself in them as if I was the character in the story. I intrepret them and try to relate them to the basic human experience. I don't know how I find them. I guess that's part of the mystery of songwriting. There should definately be some mystery involved.
Elliott Pacetti
A songwriter from St. Augustine, Florida, writes:
Life's experience, mine, or perferably, someone else's. I like to write songs we can all relate to. Simple language, simple rhymes. Reading the newspaper can be the subject, title and hook to a good song.
Greg Laboss
A singer songwriter from Coventry, RI, writes:
Experiences, other songs & imagination.
Lisa A. Shiel
A songwriter/college student living in north Texas, writes:
Since I'm mainly a lyricist, I find that listening to good music while I write helps me ge into it. I turn on my favorite music and just listen to it for a few minutes before I try to write anything. Also, I like to read through the lyrics to my favorite songs. This seems to help me get into the right frame of mind.
Jon SeiffAn easy-going guy of average height with a slight trick knee, writes:
I tape record myself while talking in my sleep and then deconstruct Shangri-La's lyrics and set them to a Bo Diddley/Hank Snow kind of mood.
Editor's Note: Hey, Jon - whatever works for you! *grin*
Frank Rowland
A part-time songwriter, who would like to record an indie, from Farmington, MO, writes:
Anything at all can be inspiring. Usually an idea hits as I'm driving to work, at that time I try to work out a rough detail and fine tune it from there. Mostly though, my inspiration is spontaneous and hits me when I least expect it.
Benjamin J. Gagnon
An amateur singer, songwriter and guitarist from Northern Ontario, writes:
I am most inspired by the ups and downs that we all feel throughout our lives. I am most impressed by inner strength.

Inspiration for most of my songs has been drawn from my own personal experiences. I like to write songs that get things out in the open. I hate having things bottled up inside.


Lee Elliott
A former NCSA member now living and songwriting in Austin TX, writes:
Hmmm. It seems to happen so many ways. I think I've conditioned myself not to wait to be inspired, which seems souless I suppose. I think it's just the rush of creating a song, no matter how good or bad it is the next day, that keeps me going.
Steve Hammond
A Nashville songwriter who loves lyrics and is looking for melodies, writes:
People are the source, I think, of most inspiration, although I find myself inspired often in the fall of the year. This year has been productive relative to ideas and lyrics and I have a good start on a number of tunes. The seasons somehow access an inspiration, but I think people are the real source. We gain understanding by living in a community.
Paul C. Nelson
A New Hampshire-based singer/songwriter, writes:
Real-life situations or "still-life moments" that cry out to be captured in song. I can be inspired almost anywhere; my most productive time is early morning (before the "brain fog" lifts) and late night (when shadows set the mood).
Herb Conner
A lyricist wannabe from S.C., stuck in Az., writes:
Strong emotions (real or imaginary), from love (of course) to being really pissed off! And, a tune, one I make up or one I borrowed. Usually, when I borrow one, I like the tune but, think I can do the lyrics better! In my humble opinion, of course.
D. B.
A late-night, secret life songwriter from North Carolina, writes:
Inspiration comes through the culmination of a specific set of memories. Usually, an event will signal to me that these memories have been building into something of collective significance. At that point I try to express the collective feeling in a song. So, I'm most inspired when I can articulate the connections I see between a number of different images. I think I truly succeeded about two times.
James Spivey
A member of "T.R.E.", a R&B quartet from California, and a songwriter, writes:
I find most of my inspiration in my past. Things I've been through, things I've experienced, etc. I find it easier to write about things I know are true rather than making things up. I write in hopes that maybe someone out there can relate to the song and helps them get through whatever thier situation is. My outlook is that if I can touch one person with one of my songs, and it helps them, then I've succeeded. Music to me is all about emotion, if you can feel it, you can write it.
David E. Schindler
A fairly well published, but still completely broke, now semi pro writer and producer from Toronto, writes:
My best ideas come in the car, and I always carry a notebook. Often, they are just a single line of poetry, or a little scrap of tune, but I always stop and write them down, and I never worry if they sound dumb or derivative. I also keep everything. Although today's profound insight usually becomes tomorrow's mindless drivel, every once in a while, it turns out the other way. Good songs don't jump out of the ether. They are mostly the product of endless rewrites, sometimes over months, so I never get discouraged. I always try to have a few on the go at any one time, so if I get cornered on one idea I can move on. After all, it's not like the world is clawing at my door for the next hit!
Kim
A student, soprano, beginning songwriter from PA, writes:
I usually find most of my inspiration from sad things, the lyrics and music pop into my head with those things, while if I'm writing about something happy, I usually have to really sit and think about it.
Lee Harless
A songwriter from Blacksburg Va., writes:
I am continually inspired by radio. Radio seems to have the most power (even over t.v. folks ) as far as exploiting and getting music heard. I am motivated by the fact that if I can write good music, I can win radio play time ! My other inspirations are my wife, my previous life style, and my life experiences. I think most people would be doing good to draw from their life experiences to bring about song lyrics, or story lines, also the mood of a certain piece can be brought about from a life experience. Happy writing!
Michael Krumrey
A lyricist dreamer occasional realist : ), writes:
I get a lot of inspiration from visualizing a situation. As a professional daydreamer, I sit down and place myself in the middle of what I am writing. I get my inspiration from sensing every detail. Its a simple goal if you approach it from the right direction. You may get writers block, but you have never had dreamers block. If you get lost don't try to picture the next line, picture the whole scene, feel the next line. It may not work for those individuals trapped in reality, but it works for me.
Brian Cullen
An Irish songwriter based in Japan, writes:
Life, old stories, relationships
Col
A Bassman from Liverpool,England, writes:
I get inspiration for songs from everything. The trees, the sunset, the garbage! Anything! Most of the time I work with the singer of the group (I'm the bass player), and we bounce ideas off each other. For example I come up with the theme, and maybe a good one liner, and he makes it all fit. I tend to write music first, and he tends to write lyrics first. After all, it's always good to get a second opinion.
Rick Antonoff
A lawyer from NYC who's just starting to get serious about his songwriting, writes:
My best songs are inspired by thinking about or remembering an emotional moment in time and trying to freeze it and draw it out so that it lasts the length of a song. For example, the moment in the begining of a relationship where you feel a mixture of excitement that you found love and fear that it'll end up in pain like the others ("The Verge of Love") or the moment when a relationship ends and you want to make sure you've said everything you have to say before the other person leaves for good ("We Have One Last Moment To Share"). Other songs have been inspired by catchy lines or phrases that serve as a title. For example, I heard someone say "opportunity knocks" and immediately wrote a childrens' song about using imagination to become anything you want to become. Another song I wrote, called "You Still Got The Stuff" about still being in love with someone after many years, I wrote after hearing a song on the radio called "All I Want Is You" by Carley Simon. Perhaps the most interesting inspiration I got is from a nonfiction book about a young man who left his middle-class Virginia home to live on the road out west until he eventually left civilization altogether to live entirely in the wilderness where he soon died. I was struck by the story and wrote a song by trying to get inside the young man's head, not as a journalist reporting on what happened to him, but as an artist trying to express what I feel about his experience, as if it was me who did the things he did, projecting my feelings into his experience and attributing those feelings to him as the narrator of my song. Maybe unfair, but hey, it's art. I also, like many others, come up with stuff by finding chord progressions on guitar or piano.

Finishing a first draft, being happy with it and having something tangible to work with. Revising is a big pain but I love watching a song get better and better until I can't think of anything else to do to it. At that point, I'm ready to play it to my wife and seeing her react to it (positively or otherwise) inspires me to keep writing songs even though I'll probably never be able to make a real living at it.


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