There are a number of ways you can draw inspiration for a song idea by listening to other songs. Lyrics are copyrightable, so you obviously can’t take something someone says and use it in your own music, but you can draw inspiration from stories you love. Especially if those stories are already popular.
Start by listing a few songs with lyrics you really like. Think big picture here. Think about lyrics that tell a story you enjoy, as opposed to songs that simply have a line or two you think is great. It’ll be more appropriate for this exercise. It’s the message that’s important at this point, as opposed to how it’s being said.
I have a couple of examples of my own we could start with. Two songs with ideas I like that came to mind for me were “Unwritten” by Natasha Bedingfield and “Viva la Vida” by Coldplay. You can do an internet search for those lyrics, if you’d like, but like I said, this part is more about the story, and jotting down what the big ideas of these songs are to you.
With that in mind, the lyrics to “Unwritten” are about having a future that is completely within your control. It’s about being able to do whatever you want, and it delivers this message in a positive way.
Conversely, “Viva La Vida” has a pretty negative message, and is mainly about being stuck in the past. It’s about once having had it all, then losing it and being left to look back to wonder how it all went wrong.
I could easily use either of those ideas as a starting point for a song of my own. If my music is more upbeat and I’m inspired by the positive message in “Unwritten,” my big idea could be about all the possibilities the future holds. If I decide to write music that’s more of a downer, and I want my lyrics to reflect that, I could write a song inspired by the story in “Viva La Vida,” which discusses all of my losses.
So just by flipping through some old favorites, I’ve already got a couple of overall ideas that could be the basis for a new song. These two ideas are opposites so I’ve got a whole range of stuff in between them that’s available to me as well.
When you write a list of songs or other stories you like, don’t just limit yourself to two. Instead,write down as many as you can. The more big ideas you have, the easier it’ll be for you to write lyrics of your own, since you’ll have options. Plus, writing down many ideas can only offer you more choices later.
Altered Perspective Inspiration
What we just saw was a pretty general way of getting ideas. But we can get more specific than that. A technique I learned from Shane Adams, who’s a teacher at Berklee College of Music’s online extension school, is to look at an existing song from a different perspective than it currently does.
Let’s try it, by going back to “Unwritten.” That song is sung in the first person. It’s about someone with possibilities before her. She can do whatever she wants.
What if we wanted to write a song where we were looking at a second or third person perspective? What if the perspective was from the mother of the character in “Unwritten”? She’s watching her daughter grow up to realize her full potential. We could then talk about the joy we felt, as the mother, seeing her daughter come into her own to discovering the limitless possibilities in her future.
We could even talk about how we once had those same feelings of limitless possibilities when we were younger too. And now our own limitless possibilities and hopes for the future have been realized in our daughter, who has just come to terms with the same possibilities. The daughter is keeping the cycle moving.
That’s just an idea. I’m riffing. It doesn’t have to be that. Another thought would be to look at “Unwritten” from the perspective of the current narrator’s arch rival. You can write lyrics from the perspective of someone who’s competitive. This person would see Natasha Bedingfield’s character in “Unwritten” reaching for dreams and aspirations, and it would drive her crazy. In this perspective we’d be able to look at why it wouldn’t be good if Natasha Bedingfield’s character achieved her wildest dreams. That’s starting to put a negative twist on our originally positive idea, but that’s okay. We’re open to practically anything at this point.
If we choose either of these ideas, they’re definitely a departure from the original song’s idea. So, it’s not like we’re just copying the main idea from “Unwritten,” although that would be fine too, as mentioned previously.
Now let’s see what a different perspective can do for us when looking at “Viva La Vida” by Cold Play. In this song, Chris Martin’s character talks about how he once was king, and now he’s fallen. We could write a song from the point of view of one of the king’s servants who has witnessed the king’s decline. Did we enjoy this fall, or were we on good terms with the king, and were saddened when it happened? What happened to our family now that’s there’s a new ruler? Are we left poor? Or maybe we were part of the movement that overthrew the king.
You don’t have to stop there. If you really want a departure from what the original song was about, or you just want to keep pushing it to see how many ideas you can come up with, you can. For example, now we have this idea about a guy who helped to overthrow a kingdom. What if we took the perspective of the wife of the man who helped overthrow the kingdom? What did she witness while seeing that all go down? If you keep pushing these thoughts, the possibilities you can come up with are endless.
When you change the perspective of the song and decide who the speaker will be, you also have options of who you want to be speaking to. If we were Natasha Bedingfield’s character’s mother, would we be talking back to Natasha Bedingfield’s character? Or would we be talking to our husband, who’s the father? Or maybe it would be more of a narration, where’s she’s just speaking to herself as she watches her daughter grow up through the years. Thinking about who is being spoken to, and changing that from the original reference song will also help give you new ideas to use.
The article you just read was an excerpt from the Big Idea Module of our course, How to Write Songs That Sell.