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!