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carol m

Thinking up Ideas for Song Lyrics Part 1

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Sometimes members say they get stuck and can't write any new song lyrics no matter how they try. So I thought I would put together a few of the subjects and ideas that have been used over the years that might trigger a spark of creativity when inspiration seems to have dried up.

By listing some of the themes that have already been used for countless songs, maybe an idea will appear like magic and the writer's block will be forgotten in the rush to put words to music ( :winkthumb: )

I have no idea how to structure these ideas so I will put them down as they occur to me.

Any of these subjects can be serious or comedy, real or imagined etc.

In these ideas and examples, I’m not talking or thinking about good ‘Pop Songs’ or songs of/for commercial success, (which depend more on the music, the riff, and the hook, and where the lyrics could really be anything), but the singer-songwriter type of lyrics.

A Character (real or imaginary).

The character themselves described - could be one of several characters in a song, or a story about that person (real or imagined) - what they did, what they didn't do, or what they did to someone else. Maybe someone you admire or hate, or find annoying or attractive. It could be a character in the news, or in history, or the guy/girl in the pub, or down the street. Or someone completely imagined eg Rocket Man where a character is used in a situation to express an emotion.


Leonard Cohen: Joan of Arc

Dylan: The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll, or the imagined Knocking on Heaven’s Door

Joni Mitchell: Cherokee Louse, Marcie, The Last Time I Saw Michael, Coyote,

American Pie: the whole song is a list of characters.

Paul Simon: Graceland starts as homage to Elvis but turns out to be a personal song about emotion and relationships.

Dylan: ‘Bob Dylan’s Blues’ kicks off with The Lone Ranger and Tonto, and each verse has a different character/subject. For me, this song is a great song for its use of melody, lyric and most of all delivery to create a feeling of jaunty, cocky, young, ‘I don’t give a damn’ ‘Eat my Dust’ bravado for example, on the line “With my hat in my hand, and my boots on my feet’ – it doesn’t look like much on paper, but with his delivery, it says everything that this song is ‘about’ and you have the image of him, feeling untouchable and on top of the world, ‘walking down the street’ perfectly.

Paul Kelly: The Ballad of Queenie and Rover

Marrianne Faithfull: The Ballad of Lucie Jordon.

John Prine: Sam Stone

Jimmi Hendrix: Hey Joe

Something that has Happened to You.

For example a memorable event from childhood, adolescence, school, on holiday, getting/losing love etc.

It could be set in a particular setting such as in a car, on a road-trip, train, plane etc. The situation might influence the mood, style or rhythm of the song. Bringing some emotional drama to the situation adds interest eg anticipation, fear, anxiety, exhilaration, happiness, heart-break, reminiscence, regret. There may be another person(s) involved either with the singer or as a memory.

It could include dialogue - many songs do if you notice (I've only just started noticing this).

Some examples:

Paul Simon- America – a bus trip with lots of characters, but the song is really about being ‘lost and I’m empty and I don’t know why’ (I think that’s the line).

Dylan – Bob Dylan’s Dream – set in a dream, in a train with a ‘train’ rhythm, minor chords for the emotion of memory of happy times past and feelings of loss and regret, and characters from his youth all bound up in the story of an alleged ‘dream’ – it could be a daydream or a night dream, it doesn’t matter, what makes this a strong song, and therefore memorable and impressive, is again the intensity of the feelings that he achieves with the rhythm, lyrics and delivery. Even the use of the blues harp, not ‘pretty’ but intense, that re-inforces the impact of his experience, and therefore, the song.

Marrianne Faithfull – Times Square – starts off as a night spent walking in Times Square, but is really about personal desolation and the desolation she sees around her.

Bruce Springsteen: Blood Brothers

Something You Have Seen or Experienced.

Probably happening to someone else, eg in a club, on the street, at work, in a band, in the family, or a friend - even something like a storm, flood, drought, car crash, train wreck etc.

It could even be sparked by something on the TV, a film or a concert.


Dylan – Chimes of Freedom - don’t ask me to say exactly what the experience was, but whatever it was, it was intense and the song is intense as a result. This song is crammed with images and yet the singer is clearly a major character too, and there is no doubt that this 'event', or epiphany really happened to him.

Bruce Cockburn: All the Diamonds - expressing the joy of what he sees on a particularly beautiful day ' All the diamonds in this world, that mean anything to me, Are conjured up by wind and sunlight, Sparkling on the sea'. He then ties it into his past travels, brings in God and prayer, and there is some really fantastic guitar finger picking.

An Object

A ring, car, house, garden, rose, old toy, a photo, stars, moon, a pet (horse, dog, cat, etc) guitar, anything that stirs an emotion in you, or has a history or story behind it (real or imagined). Maybe wanting it, getting it, losing it etc.

No, not Ring of Fire – think up your own examples for this one, my mind’s gone blank on me.

A Bible Story – or similar.

Either straight in your own words, or the same story with modern characters in a modern setting, either linked in some way with the original story, or simply pinching the story line as a theme and populating it with your own characters and situation.

Some examples:

Leonard Cohen: The Story of Isaac, The Song of Bernadette.

Chris Smither: Origin of Species etc etc.

Paul Kelly: Stolen Apples Taste the Sweetest – this has everything – starts off with the Bible story, and then applies this story to a series of characters and situations about how we deal with temptation and how you are tempted by your own desires, or how we are seduced into temptation by others.

Paul Kelly: The Lion and the Lamb uses the Biblical story/image for a song that is really about how he doesn’t buy into all the us vs them view of the world, and he does his own thing and won’t ‘fit’ into the stereotypes and expectations of others. Actually a ‘happy song’.

Crowded House: Into Temptation - one of my favourites, especially that beautiful falling melody line as the singer ‘falls’ Into Temptation.

Bruce Cockburn: Dialogue with the Devil.

A Story from the Newspaper

Either as a spring-board for your own song "I read the news today, oh boy" etc or just taking the whole story and re-writing it as a song. If you can tie it into a personal emotion or experience as well, that adds extra kick and twist to the lyrics – perhaps trying to get across to the listener the emotion or interest that made it stand out for you enough to write a song about it in the first place.


Loudon Wainwright's The Human Cannonball which he read about in the newspaper and felt compelled to write a song about it.

Loudon Wainwright has written stacks of songs about himself and his dysfunctional family, and he knows how to put lyrics and melody together to make a good song. His most famous song Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road, I think is his worst song, which just shows that not everyone agrees with me (nothing new there then :laughingg: )

These are a few of the more straight-forward Character, Event, or Object ideas/themes behind many lyrics. The examples are either from what I remember, or from what I listened to recently, but there are examples everywhere in popular music, you just have to notice them.

Maybe next I will try to put down some of the more emotional based type themes and subjects that are commonly used.

If you've read this far you deserve a medal. smile.gif

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Wow, great idea Carol...Good information. I know myself, I tend to write about things that have happened to me or songs with very strong emotions liked to it like "I Believe in Love". Hopefully, I can branch out a little sometime soon!


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Excellent post Carol, haven't checked out all those songs, so I'll check them all out, there are so many sources of inspiration, writing is also good for the soul, gets all those thoughts out of our heads and on paper, kind of gets a bit crowded if we keep all our experiences and feelings locked away, writing them all down is a liberating experience:winkthumb:

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Thanks Carol, this will definitely help in those dry spells we all have at one time or another.

I always keep a pen and pad of paper close by to jot down anything that may have possibilities as a subject for a tune or even just a line.

When I do start out to write something during a dry spell, I usually start with any subject then just jot down words that would fall under the subject and after getting a few of these together, see where a story could be started from where it could go and then try to incorporate something from myself to reach the emotional side, be it humorous, serious or what-ever mood strikes. Oh btw...never throw away your scratch pads or un-happy with attempts, you won't believe how much you can borrow from them again down the road.

Just my thoughts to go along with some great starters you've offered Carol, {Bookmarked this page :winkthumb: }

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Great post, Carol. And great examples too.

As Kenny says, it's a good idea to keep a note pad handy.

I'm sure that serious song writers are ALWAYS on the lookout for a hook for a song.

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