by Clay Mills
Mar 16, 2021
Ever wonder where your favorite artists or songwriters consistently find those great song ideas? I like to think of ideas as a creative river—constantly flowing by. It may sound simplistic, but maybe it’s purely a matter of learning how to catch them. Once you learn how to find great song ideas, it really is that easy.
Whether I’m standing in line at a Starbucks talking to a stranger or listening to a good friend pour their heart out about life. I’ll often find a great truth to write about. To that end, I’m always on the lookout to hook another song idea!
Here are some simple techniques for finding great song ideas that you can master and use right away!
Watching movies for song ideas.
Many classic songs have used lines from your favorite movies as titles. Kenny Chesney wrote the hit song “You Had Me From Hello” after watching the movie Jerry Mcguire. Kenny called songwriter Skip Ewing after hearing the line spoken in the movie and the duo turned it into a blockbuster hit. I personally used this technique to pen my first #1 song “Beautiful Mess.” I had been binge watching movies one afternoon and heard the phrase spoken in two movies in a row. After searching the internet, I discovered no one had written a hit yet with that title. You can bet I brought to my co-writers the next day and 20 plus years later the song still plays frequently on radio!
What a beautiful, what a beautiful mess I’m in
Spending all my time with you
There’s nothing that I’d rather do
What a sweet addition that I’m caught up in
I can’t get enough, can’t stop the hunger for your love
What a beautiful, what a beautiful mess I’m in…
One of my favorite lyricist and co-writers is Marty Dodson. Marty wrote the classic Kenny Chesney song “Everybody Wants To Go To Heaven.” He often suggests to students in his lyric classes that they check out ReelLifeWisdom. It’s a large library of famous movie lines and the perfect tool for this type of idea inspiration.
Conversations are rich with song ideas.
I sat down a couple of years ago to write with Darius Rucker (former lead singer of Hootie & The Blowfish) and told him I had just broken up with my girlfriend. Honestly, I wasn’t even sure I could write that day. I was distracted and second-guessing myself about the break-up. Darius said, “Man, I still think about a girlfriend from the fifth grade.” I said “really?” He smiled and replied, “Don‘t think I don‘t. “
A lightbulb went off in my song brain, and I became excited by the moment the song idea floated by.
That’s the thing about songwriters when they get a great idea. You could be dead tired, uninspired, or distracted like I was; but, the idea filled me with an energy from somewhere outside of myself. Ideas can have a life of their own, even demand to be written. It took us all of the next 90 minutes to write our first #1 hit together. “Don‘t Think I Don‘t Think About It” became the song that launched his solo career in grand fashion, and the first of four songs we penned together on radio over the next five years.
Warning: If a friend is telling you a personal or emotion situation they are going through, try not to pull out your phone and type a title into your notes for later. This is not a great way to keep friends. Don’t ask me how I know!
Book Titles…One of my best tips on how to find great song ideas.
Another technique for coming up with song ideas is to scan the latest bestseller’s book list. Many hit songs have taken book titles and used them as song titles. I know one Hall of Fame songwriter who spent one day a week in the public library scouring the shelves for song ideas. He could rattle off several #1 songs that he found on the bookshelves!
A couple examples of songs that were originally book titles…
“For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Metallica (Book by Ernest Hemingway)
“Charlotte Sometimes” by The Cure (Novel by Penelope Farmer)
“Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” by Rodney Crowell (Novel by Tom Robbins)
In case you are wondering, a song title or book title is not copyright protected. Therefore, you’ll often find songs, books, and movies with the same title.
Common phrases or idioms.
Songs at their essence are conversations between the artist and the audience.
So, common phrases or idioms work well as song ideas because they are conversational.
Example: Take the common phrase “Down and Out.” Songwriter Jimmy Cox turned it into “Nobody Loves You When You Are Down And Out.” It has become one of the most recorded blues songs of all time.
Common phrases often come with built-in attitude and swagger. Tom Petty tapped into this aspect of idioms throughout his career with songs like “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “Time To Move On,” and “I Won’t Back Down.”
Though, I don’t suggest stringing a list of idioms together in one song. Since they are common phrases, it’s easy to start sounding cliche. A little goes a long way!
Throughout history, questions have been used repeatedly for song ideas. Questions are powerful because they draw in and engage the listener. Why? Because a question requires an answer. If you don’t listen to the song, you don’t find out the answer. That intrigues people.
Here are a quick top-ten of my favorites:
1. “Do You Think I’m Sexy” (Rod Stewart)
2. “How Can I Live Without You” (LeeAnn Rimes)
3. “How Will I Know” (Whitney Houston)
4. “What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted” (Jimmy Ruffin)
5. “How Deep Is Your Love” (Bee Gees)
6. “Do You Really Wanna Hurt Me” (Culture Club)
7. “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” (The Clash)
8. “When Will I Be Loved” (Linda Ronstadt)
9. “What’s Going On” (Marvin Gaye)
10. “Isn’t She Lovely” (Stevie Wonder)
I bet you could double this list in a few minutes! Questions can make songs quite memorable when written well.
Opposites Attract/ Wordplay
Antonyms (words that are opposites) are a goldmine for songwriters searching for title ideas. They tickle the brain and make the audience see things in a different way.
“Nobody In His Right Mind Would Have Left Her.”
“Sleeping Single In A Double Bed”
“I Need A Good Love Bad”
“Much Too Young To Feel This Old”
“Full Moon And Empty Arms”
“A Bad Goodbye”
I guess opposites do attract…
The Big Little Word of Song Titles
Years ago, author Sheila Davis was kind enough to include one of my song titles in a her top songwriting book: The Craft of Lyric Writing. She wrote about words that were used often in song titles. One of the words that jumped out at me was only two letters! The word “if” was prevalent in big songs decade after decade and in every genre from R&B to country to pop. She also mentioned two other much-used words: “night” and “heart.” So what do you think my first “if” song title was? “If The Night Had A Heart.”
I thought, “How could I lose by using the top words?” But, being green to songwriting, I needed to write a much better song before that gem would ever get recorded. The word “if” has stuck with me over my career, and I have used it many times in titles. Shelia Davis stated in her book that it was the most common title word…after the word “love,” of course!
I usually start my day by pulling out pen and notepad to do a 9 Minute Songwriter Workout, which includes stream of consciousness writing. It’s my belief that our best ideas come from the subconscious—and we all can tap into this with regular practice. I don’t judge or question ANYTHING I write down. It isn’t a test. Confession, a lot of time, I still try to see how many titles I can come up with for a word such as “if.” “If The Night Had A Heart” came from doing this writing workout.
The sole purpose of the exercise is to train creative thinking to respond on command in a specific direction. I find it helps to write with pen and paper, instead of typing. A lot of studies show that your brain responds differently when writing, as opposed to typing. Anything to wake up and nurture the creative brain is good.
So, these techniques all have served me well in my career. You can use them today and every day to help you write. With a little practice, you will begin to spot great ideas easily and intuitively, whether you are talking to a friend or watching a movie on date night (though, some dates may not understand! lol). Once you get comfortable, you will have more than enough ideas to write your next big song!
Write on! Clay Mills
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