The NJ-based songwriting teacher explains how to stock up on musical and lyrical ideas that can naturally inspire new songs
You wouldn’t start cooking a meal with an empty fridge, right? Now think of the meals that you’d be excited to make if you had some fresh veggies from the farmer’s market or a choice cut of steak! Writing can work the same way. Here are some ways to “fill your fridge” with musical and lyrical ideas that can naturally inspire new songs.
1. LISTEN TO MUSIC YOU LOVE AND WISH YOU WROTE
I know this sounds obvious, but I’m talking about really listening constructively. Notice what you love about it. Is there a rhythm that really hooks you in? Is there a certain chord progression that wakes up your ears? Grab your guitar and figure out what that cool chord is. Don’t be limited by what you can play. You can find chord progressions online or ask a friend or teacher. Maybe it’s the lyrical structure that you love. In that case: write out the words, circle the rhymes, underline the metaphors, count the syllables and notice which ones are stressed. Any part of a song can be distilled into the main element that you love. So first be a scientist to figure it out, then take what you’ve learned and play with it. See how it sounds in your voice. Use that as an assignment for your next song.
2. TAKE A WALK
Object writing is the classic way of getting in touch with your senses through writing, but it’s usually done by sitting still and making no noise. If you take that idea and combine it with movement, describing what you hear, see, smell, and feel, it becomes way more powerful. Walking has its own inherent rhythm. Feeling that rhythm through your body will help you think in meter, while also serving to circulate blood to your brain to help you think. It’s even better if you’re able to say your ideas out loud and have everything come directly through your voice. Roll the words around in your mouth to feel how they would be to sing, where the stress might land and what phrases might naturally rhyme. I love this exercise because it allows words to get out of my head and into my body.
3. LISTEN TO YOUR OWN SONGS
Break them down to see what chord progressions you favor, what tempos and rhythms you tend to use. Do you write melodies that always go up? Do you write mostly slow songs? Have you never written a song in a minor key? This is one of the simplest ways to change up your writing. All you have to do is challenge yourself to do the opposite of whatever habits you find.
4. NOBODY IS GOING TO WRITE YOUR STORY FOR YOU
Set a timer and write about your earliest memory for five minutes. If that feels too hard, see how many memories you can list in that five minutes. Keep it simple and don’t edit yourself as you go. This is just to see what stories you have to choose from. Something like, “The time I fell off my bike in 3rd grade,” “Making bread with Grandma,” “The first time my heart was broken,” etc. Then you can look back and choose one story from the list. Do a longer free-write on that story or go back to tip #2 above and talk it out while walking. Using a timer for this (or any) exercise will keep you focused.
5. DON’T FORGET THE MAGIC OF MELODY
Just as we found ways to narrow our focus with lyrics, you can do the same with notes. One of my favorite things to do is to pick between three and five notes and see if I can make a melody out of them. For a totally random selection, you can roll some dice and use the numbers as scale degrees. What about your phone number or your ATM pin? If it’s a number, it can translate to a note in any scale. It’s up to you how long to hold each note and which ones to repeat or omit. When faced with a limitation like this, your brain feels more free to find creative solutions. It’s a lot like the creativity you feel when you take random leftovers in the fridge and make a meal from them.
I hope these ideas inspire you! Just like cooking, don’t try to use every spice in one meal. Narrow in on a few ingredients that make your mouth water and play around with them until you get something you like.
Best known as a founding member of Americana harmony trio Red Molly, Abbie Gardner is a joyful dobro player and singer/songwriter based in Jersey City. Her album, DobroSinger, is out now. For all the latest music, news and show info, head to abbiegardner.com