Friday, October 24, 2003

Getting Stuck

In August we learned that you CAN write a song. In September we talked about how to get started. So this month we'll talk about what comes next - you get stuck!

One question I'm often asked is whether writing a song is "hard." Many kids (and adults) seem to think it must be hard. Kids often tell me "I wrote a song but it's not very good," or "I tried to write a song but I got stuck."

To me, songwriting is not hard, but it does take a lot of work. You have to have patience with yourself and keep after it. Don't settle for "it's not very good." Keep working on your song until you think it's great!

If you get stuck, that's normal. I get stuck on my songs all the time. I have words that don't seem right, or the music doesn't sound right, and I don't know how to fix it. Or maybe I can't think of any words or music at all.

It's easy to get stuck, but lucky for me, and for you, there are lots of easy ways to get unstuck too! Here are some thoughts...

Don't sweat it.

First of all, writing a song should be fun! Don't take it too seriously. If your song makes you happy, then enjoy it! Don't worry if it's not good enough for anyone else to hear, just... wait a minute, that sounds familiar...

What I'm trying to say is, give yourself a break! You haven't written very many songs. This might even be your first one. You can't expect to write a number-one hit right off the bat! So just have fun with it. You will get better at it the more you do it.

Still, there might be a time when the song you're writing is really important to you. Maybe you're writing a song for your mom for Mother's Day. Maybe you have something important to tell the world, or you want to write a song to sing for a talent show. Maybe you just want to prove to yourself that you can write a great song.

Whatever the reason, you really want to finish this song, but you are stuck! Don't panic. You will get unstuck. Just believing that will help you a lot!

On the other hand, don't wait around hoping the song will magically fix itself. There are things you can DO. So read on, and do them...

Writing is not a linear process.

I am going to tell you a secret, and this was one of the hardest things for me to learn about writing. Writing is not a linear process!

The word "linear" means "in a straight line." When you read a story or listen to a song, you hear it in a straight line from start to finish. But you can bet it wasn't written that way!

When I first write words down for a song, I may have no idea where in the song they will go; I might end up writing the third verse then the first verse then the second. I'll probably write the last line of a verse before I write the first line. The paper I work on is always a mess. I cross out lines and re-write them. I draw arrows all over the place. When it's too messy to read, I re-copy it onto a clean sheet.

The biggest mistake new writers make, I think, is to try to write linear. If you start with the first line, and try to get it perfect in your head before you write it down, then work on the second line, then the third, always trying to get it right before you go on, so you won't have to change it later, well... guess what? You will be STUCK in NO TIME FLAT!!!


* Don't worry about whether the words are perfect; just write something. You can change it later if you need to.

* If your pencil is on the first verse but your brain is on the last verse, just skip a line and start writing the last verse. You can put it in the right order later.

* If you write one verse (or line) and then get stuck on the second, try writing something new to go before what you already have, instead of after it.

Gather the right tools.

Don't sit there feeling stuck because you don't have what you need to get some work done!

After reading that last part about nonlinear writing, you know that you will need LOTS of blank paper. If it worries you to waste paper, then use scratch paper. (Keep a box to collect any paper that is blank on one side and would otherwise be trash.)

While you're at it, get a few sharp pencils, too. (Don't worry about an eraser - erasing just slows you down. If you must get rid of some words, cross them out.)

You might want scissors and tape. When your page gets messy you can cut out the good parts, then tape them onto a blank sheet in the right order. That way you don't have to re-copy it all.

Three good books you'll need to use are a dictionary, a thesaurus, and a rhyming dictionary.

You will want a dictionary in case you think a particular word might work, but you aren't sure about the meaning. Then you can look it up.

A thesaurus is a book of synonyms (words that mean close to the same thing.) So if you say to yourself, I need a word that means "kid" but "kid" doesn't really fit, then find "kid" in a thesaurus and you will have: baby, bairn, boy, child, girl, infant, lad, lass, son, toddler, teen, tot, tyke, and youngster to choose from!

If you need a word that rhymes with "kid," look up "id" in your rhyming dictionary. (Yes, the "k" is missing - you look up words by their endings!) Then you will have: bid, did, grid, hid, lid, ... all the way through "toilet lid" and "underbid" to choose from.

Don't sit there stuck because you can't think of the right word - use these tools! If you don't have a dictionary, thesaurus, and rhyming dictionary at home, maybe you can do your writing at the library and use theirs.

A rhyming trick.

If you can't get to a rhyming dictionary, one trick to use is this:

1. Take the first letter or consonant sound off of your word. (Example: "Crab" becomes "ab")

2. Go through the alphabet from A to Z and make a new word with each letter at the start. (Example: Ab, Bab, Cab, Dab, Fab, etc.)

3. Some won't make sense, but write down that ones that do. (Example: Cab, Dab, Fab, etc.)

4. Don't forget to try common two-letter combinations, too, such as "th" and "dr." (Example: Drab, Blab, Flab)

5. To get two syllable words, use common prefixes at the beginning - try this with all your one syllable words form step 2. (Example: Rehab, Prefab)

If you're stuck coming up with a word that rhymes, this method works pretty well to give you a few quick choices.


Don't worry about spelling!! Just write. As long as YOU can tell what word you mean, spelling doesn't matter. There is no need to get stuck just because you don't know how to spell a word! When your song is finished and you want to make a nice copy, then worry about spelling.

Go back to brainstorming.

Last time we talked about brainstorming as a way to get started. It's also a good way to get unstuck.

Suppose you are writing a song about your dog and you already brainstormed. One thing you wrote was that you take him to the park. So you write "I take Fido to the park." But it doesn't fill much space, or seem that interesting. So now you are stuck.

Get out a blank piece of paper and do some more brainstorming about your dog at the park. Close your eyes for a minute and picture the two of you there. What do you see? What do you hear? How do you feel? How does Fido feel? Write down everything that comes to mind. He chases squirrels, he barks at ducks, he pees on a tree... everything!

Now go back to your song. You have lots of words to choose from. You write, "At the park, Fido chases squirrels. He barks at ducks and little girls." (You decided to leave out the part about peeing on trees, so you can sing this to Grandma and not be embarrassed.)

Now you're getting somewhere!!

Write what you know, or do your research!

Maybe you are stuck because you don't know much about the topic of your song. If you're writing about your dog, Fido, and you don't really have a dog, that could be a problem!

In this case there are two choices - write about something else, or do your research.

If you must write about Fido, even though you don't have a dog, start by reading everything you can about dogs. Write down the interesting stuff. Then go borrow somebody's dog - take him for a walk or to the park. Play with him. Feed him. Pet him. Write down things you notice or find interesting. Now you have material to work with!

Get into character!

Here's a way to brainstorm that might help if you are running out of words for your song. Become the subject of your song. If you are writing about Fido the Dog, then be Fido the Dog. Imagine the world from his point of view. Start with a blank page and write as if you are Fido describing your day...

"Boy am I hungry. That bacon smells awesome! I can't stop slobbering! I hope he gives me some. Maybe if I jump up on my hind legs and whine just a little..."

Soon you'll have a thousand new ideas to work with! They don't have to go into your song with Fido saying them (unless that's what you want) - you can repeat the details using your own point of view, like: "Bacon makes Fido stand up on his legs; he whines and he slobbers, he dances and begs."

Give your brain an assignment, and do something else for a while.

So maybe you're really stuck, and your brain just ain't storming. Did you know that your brain can solve problems on its own, while you aren't using it? It's amazing - give it a try!!

I do this all the time. I give my brain an assignment, then go do something else. By the time I get back to the song, I usually can get unstuck right away, because my brain has been working on it without me.

Do it like this:

1. Try to figure out exactly what you're stuck on. Is it a particular word? Do you have verse one, but no ideas for verse two? Maybe you are telling a story and you don't know what should happen in the middle. Whatever it is, tell it to your brain, like this: "Brain, I need to figure out ...." You fill in the rest.

Be as specific as you can.

For example: "I need to figure out the next word" is not very specific. "I need to figure out a good word that describes my dog" is better. "I need to figure out a way to describe my dog that also rhymes with the word 'Fido'" is even better!

2. Write down your brain's assignment.

3. Do something else: go for a walk, take a shower, take a nap, (just before bed might be a great time to give your brain an assignment!) ride your bike, read a book, listen to music, mow the lawn, mop the floor, take Fido to the park to chase squirrels - whatever. (I don't recommend TV or video games for this - they may keep your brain too busy for it to work on your song.)

4. Don't try to think about the song while you do this something else you are doing.

5. At some point, the answer may just pop into your head. If not, that's OK. When you have time to work on your song again, look at your brain's assignment. (You did write it down, right?) The answer may come then. If not, try a different assignment for your brain, or try one of the other ideas below.

The forest for the trees.

Have you heard the expression that you couldn't see the forest for the trees? It means you are paying too much attention to the details to see the whole thing.

If you are stuck working on the details of your song (particular words) then it might help to look at the whole song for a while. Get a fresh page and ask yourself how many verses will there be? What will each verse be about? Write a sentence about each verse, but don't try to make it rhyme or fit with the music. You are writing an outline!

Now go back and see if the details come in more easily. Sing what you have so far, and sing "la de da de da" wherever there are words missing. Your brain just might fill in those missing words for you.

Do something else creative

If you are really stuck, take a break and do something else creative. This will give your brain a different kind of stimulation and might help loosen up some new ideas for your song. You can color, paint, play with Play-Doh, build a block castle, build with Leggos, or act out a scene with your stuffed animals or action figures.

If you feel like you're getting too old for some of this stuff, great! Do it and it will REALLY give your brain a jolt! You may suddenly find yourself humming or singing while you play, and presto, you're right back into writing your song.

Use visualization.

So you sit down to work on your song and you have no ideas. Maybe it's time to try a visualization.

Close your eyes and imagine that you have finished this song, and it's great. You are getting ready to perform it. You step out onto the stage and take the microphone. The crowd cheers. The music starts. You feel the beat. The audience is moving and grooving in their seats. You take a breath and sing...

Just let it play in your head like a movie - this is daydreaming!! The only difference is that you get yourself started on purpose, to daydream about your song.

When you start singing in your daydream, you might find that the song is right there! Just watch and listen as long as you can.

Then write down or record what you heard. It may be hard to remember it all, but even if you get a few words or a little bit of music down, that's great! Now you have something to work with, where you didn't have anything at all before!

If you are writing a song for a particular reason, make sure you daydream about the actual way you will use the song. For instance if you are writing a song for your brother on his birthday, picture yourself at the birthday party. Think of all the people who will be there. The candles are lit. Everyone sings "Happy Birthday" and your brother blows out the candles. Then you stand up and say, "I have a song I'd like to sing..."

As you are singing, picture the people's reaction. Your brother has a big grin on his face. Your parents are weeping with joy. Your brother's friends' mouths are hanging open in awe!

Seriously - this is YOUR daydream, and it is important to visualize things going your way! Imagine that your song is great and people are loving it. It will help you to write a great song!!

Try this whenever you get stuck. Even if you don't get specific words or music from your daydream, it will help build your confidence. If you can picture success, you can achieve success!!

Think of your song as a long-term project.

Finally, remember, if the song you are writing is important to you, then it's worth some effort to write it. Don't expect to do it all at once. You may get stuck and unstuck many times before the song is done. Give yourself lots of days, and work on it a little each day.

Try not to skip a day, even if all you do is read over what you already have. That way your brain will keep working on it for you whenever it gets a chance.

Have patience with yourself and hang in there. You'll finish your song, and you'll love it! All your friends and family will be really impressed, too! Believe it! Do it!

Wednesday, September 24, 2003


Two of the questions I'm asked most often about songwriting are about getting started: Where do you get your ideas? Do you start with words or music?

Inspiration can come as words, music, or both. It can also be a feeling or a concept or a title.

Here are some examples from my own songs:

"Lisa Lee Elizabeth" began as a "what if?" I thought, "What if somebody had a really long weird name?"

"Hanging Out With Heroes at the Library" began with our summer reading program theme one year. The theme was "Hanging Out With Heroes at the Library" so I just wrote a song with that title.

As many have guessed, "The Brainiacs" was inspired by "The Addams Family" theme song - I was trying to make up something like it, but different. Before I even knew what "The Braniacs" would be about, I came up with the series of three notes, two snaps, two more notes, and a pop, which starts off the song.

I got "Jungle Junk" started by playing with the sounds of some words together: "Jingle jangle jungle junk..." I wrote all the words before I added any music.

"Grandma's House Tonight" began with words and music. I was singing what I was doing: "Backing out the driveway, into the street..." There's a name for making stuff up off the top of your head - it's called improvising. Most of what I improvise disappears into thin air never to be heard again, and we can be very glad of that! But if I improvise long enough I always run into a new idea that's worth keeping!

Finally, I don't always wait for inspiration to strike me. Sometimes I go looking for it, especially when I need a song on a particular topic. For last summer's library programs I needed songs about dinosaurs, so I did some brainstorming. I sat down and wrote out as many ideas as I could about dinosaurs. Most of the ideas I didn't use, but the song "You're a Dinosaur" grew out of that first brainstorming session.

OK, so that's how I get my ideas. But what about you? You can write a song, too! How will you get started?

The best way to learn how is to do it. So, I will give you some things to try. Do the ones that seem easiest to you. See if you can write a short song!

Just try it and have fun...

Oh, and please write back to let me know how it went!


1. Ask "What if?" Come up with your own what-if questions - write down as many as you can think of. Then pick your favorite, and answer it with a song (or story or poem). Here are some ideas to get you started - just fill in the blanks! What if there was a really huge _______? What if there was a teeny tiny ________? What if all the __________ disappeared? What if it rained __________?

2. Start with a good title. Whenever you see a slogan or title or clever saying - on a sign, bumper sticker, poster, on TV, in a book, in a movie - ask yourself if it might make a good song title. Sometimes changing a well-known saying around makes a good title too. Write them down as you find them. Pick your favorite and try singing it!

Hint: Go to the library, look at the books on the shelf, and write down any titles that you really like. I once wrote a song using a book title: "Nasty Stinky Sneakers."

3. Start with a bit of music. Listen to the sounds around you. All kinds of things make rhythms and melodies. What does a bird sing? A school bus door? A cash register? What rhythm does the washing machine make? How about a woodpecker? (We had one pecking on our house today!!) Pick a sound you like and see if you can imitate it by singing it. Can you add words? Turn it into a song!

4. Start with word play.

Rhymes - pick a word and write down several words that rhyme with it. See if you can make a sentence out of them!

Here's an example: My daughter, Evalyn, and I made up a song together today. She was scooping up her "ice cream juice" as she calls it, and I said, "The ice cream juice is on the loose!" She added, "Chasing a goose!" And later she added "In a caboose." I started singing it as a song: "The ice cream juice / is on the loose / chasing a goose / in a chartreuse caboose!" (She had a ball changing the color on me - the caboose was blue, then green, then yellow... )

Alliteration - sometimes the same sound several times in a row sounds silly! Like the "S" sound in that last sentence. Pick an animal and write it down. Then find other words that use the same sounds. Try putting the words together different ways. For example you might have a "sneaky snake snack," or a "pink pig playing in the park" or a "fine fish swishing." See if you can sing your words! Turn them into a song!

5. Improvise. Little kids are great at this - they will just open their mouths and start singing whatever comes to mind. Older kids and adults get embarrassed - they tend to think it has to sound good or they have no right making such a lot of noise. Well, I'm giving you permission to make all the noise you want!

I like to do this in the shower, while driving, or doing the dishes. Just sing whatever comes to mind. You don't have to use words if you don't want to - sing "la la la" or "doo doo doo" or even "la doo da doo" if you want to get fancy. Don't worry if it's good or not. If you're lucky, you'll sing something you like. If so, sing that one part again into a tape recorder so you don't forget. Use it to start making up a song.

Hint: Improvising is something you get better at the more you practice doing it!

Another Hint: Maybe the only thing you can think of is a song you already know. That's OK. Sing it. Then sing another one. Then sing part of the first and suddenly switch to the second one. Or just start changing the words, or start changing the melody. Pretty soon you'll be singing your own ideas!

6. Brainstorm. Get a big blank sheet of paper. Write your favorite topic at the top or in the middle. Then start writing down ideas and words related to your topic. Put them anywhere on the page that makes sense to you. Draw pictures if you want, too. Ask yourself lots of questions and write down the answers. Whatever your topic is, what do you like (or hate) about it? How do you feel about it? What does it look, sound, feel, smell, or taste like? What does it do? What do you wish about it? In a few minutes you will have a page full of good song ideas.

Hint: If you don't see a good song idea on your page, try some of the other ideas listed above and use them with your brainstorming page. Add some what-ifs, or try the word play ideas or improvise using words from your brainstorming session.

Good luck, and have fun! Don't forget to write and let me know about your song!

Friday, August 01, 2003

You Can Write a Song!

Yes you can! Your brain was designed to make music - it's part of being human.

Sometimes people lose their music from not using it, but you are young, and you love music - I know because you're on my fan list!!

So you can write a song!!

Look at my daughter, Evalyn. When she was only one year old she started writing songs! Her first one went "Mmmm ba mmmm" over and over.

OK, so you're thinking "Mmmm ba mmmm" isn't exactly a million seller, and you're right. But Evalyn's song was a big hit around here. She loved singing it, and her mom and dad loved hearing it. And what better reason is there to sing your own songs than for the pure fun of it?

Am I saying that any old sound you make is a song? Well, no...

Songs have two parts, words and music. Music can be any sort of "organized sound." Usually music has rhythm and melody.

If you aren't sure what rhythm and melody are exactly, don't worry. They are both in you and they come out naturally when you sing.

So if you sing a few words, does that mean you wrote a song? Almost...

If you write down what you sing, record it, or remember it in your head so that you can sing it pretty much the same way every time, then congratulations, you wrote a song!

Songs can be short or long; they can repeat the same thing over and over and over or never repeat at all; they can be nonsense or they can tell a story. But all songs tell something - even if it's just a feeling.

Do you need a guitar or piano to write a song? No! Your voice is an instrument, so use it!

Do you need to be able to read or write music notation? No! Written music is just one way to remember how a song goes. Get a tape recorder and sing into it. That's what I do, and it's an easy way to remember your song!

When Evalyn sang "Mmmm ba mmmm," even though her "words" were nonsense, they were the same every time. They had a particular rhythm and melody. And she was telling us something with the way she sang it - she ways saying "I feel calm and happy." Her song was as sweet to my ears as anything I've heard on the radio!

If a one-year-old baby can do it, so can you!

So next time you feel happy, sad, angry, or silly, let the world know with your very own song!