The Songwriter’s Sandbox

Here are a few fun ideas, quick exercises, and songwriting games to kickstart your creativity and suggest new approaches to crafting your songs.

SING ALONG AND MAKE UP A SONG

Sing along with the chorus of any hit song and make up new lyrics. Sing anything you want! It’s a game. Have fun! Play it by yourself or with friends and family. Turn it into a contest and give a “prize” for the best lyric, silliest lyric, etc.

As simple as this game seems, it’s a great way to get turn on your “creativity” switch. When you play this game, your brain isn’t busy judging how good or poor your lyric is; it’s just coming up with ideas. Putting new words to a hit song also helps you start embedding the elements of strong, commercial melodies without even thinking about it!

PICK A STORY

Look for song ideas in TV shows and movies. Daytime dramas are often emotionally over-the-top and a fun place to find song ideas! Classic movies are another wonderful resource for ideas.

When you find a scene that sums up an interesting emotional situation, write down all the details. What did the characters say? What did they do? How did they relate to each other? Are there any physical details in the scene that could help you convey the story? (Remember, your listeners didn’t see the scene, so give them enough images to allow them to imagine it for themselves.)

Give yourself 30 minutes to write a song (or just a lyric) that conveys the scene from the point of view of one of the characters in the scene. It doesn’t have to be a good song, just one that captures what happened!

WATCH A SONGWRITING VIDEO

Watch one of these videos and do the “DO IT NOW!” exercise at the end. Watch the whole series and learn some great song craft secrets!

Write a Great Title

Answer the Questions

THREE SHORT ONES…

=> 1. Listen to a song you like. What’s your favorite lyric line? Write it down. What is it about the line you like? Write a line that does that!

=> 2.  In Beyonce’s “If I Were a Boy” the same melody is used for the chorus and the verse. The chorus is sung one octave higher. Try writing a song melody using that technique. Be sure the highest note of your verse isn’t too high or you’ll have to really reach on the chorus!

=> 3.  Go to JamStudio. Whip up a chord progression & track. Then write a song in one hour!

ADAPT A PUBLIC DOMAIN SONG

Songs written prior to 1920 are in the public domain, meaning they are not protected by copyright. You can use the melody, chords, or lyrics in a song of your own. Personally, I like to reach back even further, into the folk songs of the 18th and 19th centuries. There are some beautiful melodies you can use as the basis for a song of your own.

Get a book or recording of folk songs from the library or buy one online. Look for a song you like and write a new lyric or adapt the existing lyric. Feel free to change the melody. If you like what you end up with, you can dress it up with a modern arrangement and chords, or just keep it simple.

MELODY MADNESS

Pick a hit song you like and learn to sing the chorus. Now start changing the melody!

1) Change the note pitches: If the hit song melody goes up, you go down, if the hit song melody stays on the same note, try jumping up or down a few notes and moving your melody around.

2) Change the note lengths. Try holding some notes longer than the hit song does, then shorten the following notes to catch up. If there’s a series of short notes, turn them into one long note or break up a long note into several short ones. This is a great way to start getting used to shaping and rewriting your own melodies!

FOUR SHORT ONES…

 => 1. Find a phrase to use as a song title and look for the questions it raises. Write a verse and chorus that answer at least two of the questions.

 => 2. Choose a short word phrase. Say it with with emotion. Now MORE emotion! Listen for the melody in the words. Exaggerate it. Sing it!

 => 3. Write a bad song. (I dare you!) Throw it out. THEN write a new song.

 => 4. Download the free demo of Band in a Box. Have it create a chord progression and melody. Then, write your own lyrics!

MIX AND MATCH

Just for fun, rough out two lyric and melody ideas. Don’t spend much time; just get a couple ideas going. Use the same tempo for both. If you’re writing chords with the melody, use the same chords for both sections. You can change the order of the chords, if you like. Don’t worry about rhyming. If a rhyme happens – great, but if it doesn’t, don’t stop your creative process to look for one.

1. Write one section of four to six lines in a low note range. Make it conversational. Describe something you did or thought recently. Really tell us about it. Record your song idea so you won’t forget it.

2. Write a song section of four to six lines in a mid to high note range. Make the melody lines smooth, hold out the notes and words. Describe an emotion you have felt. What was it like? What did it make you feel like doing? When you’ve roughed out the section, record it.

Now, record both sections together; sing Section 1 then go right into Section 2. It might take a little practice but you should be able to do it.

When you’ve finished that, stop working! Walk away! Go do something else. Come back in a half hour or so and listen to what you recorded. Notice how the two sections seem connected. Section 2 suggests an emotion that might be connected and underlie Section 1. It could be funny or it could be serious. What’s interesting, though, is that our brains tend to connect the two sections even if they weren’t connected when you wrote them.

If you like what you’ve done or you think there’s potential for a song development, treat Section 1 as your verse and Section 2 as the chorus. Then try some of these ideas…

  • -Add a pre-chorus, a couple of lines to smooth the transition from the verse to the chorus.
  • -Choose a line in the chorus section and make it the central theme of your lyric. Rework the rest of the lyric to support it.
  • -Write another verse that offers insight into what the chorus means. You might use this as Verse 1 and save your original verse to use as Verse 2.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

The opening line of your song has to draw people in quickly! Like an effective line in a singles bar, you want the other person (your listener) to be attracted and curious to know more right away. “Hi, How are you?” isn’t a particularly strong opening line, right? Sure, it’s a conversational, natural sounding line but it doesn’t make listeners curious to know more. A line like “Lean on me when you can’t carry the weight any more,” starts a whole chain of questions in the listener’s mind: What weight? Why can’t this person carry it any longer? Why is the singer offering to help?

Create a list of 10 opening lines that you feel would make listeners want to know what’s going on in your song.

SLIP THE STARTING BEAT

Today’s melodies are unpredictable! One of the ways hit songwriters achieve that fresh sound is by starting their melodic phrases on variety of beats. Play this game and learn how to use this exciting shortcut in your own songs.

Clap your hands in a steady rhythm at a medium pace that feels comfortable. Count to 4 aloud in time to the clapping of your hands. Each time you come to Beat 1, emphasize it. After you do that a few times, change the emphasis to Beat 2, then Beat 3, and Beat 4.

Add the word “and” between the beats. Try emphasizing the “and” after Beat 1. When you’re comfortable doing that, then emphsize the “and” after Beat 2. Change to the “and” after Beat 3 when you feel ready. Finally, emphasize the “and” after Beat 4.

Go back trhough this exercise, emphasizing a variety of different beats. When you feel confident emphasizing various beats, start making up melodic phrases that begin on the various emphasized beats. Don’t worry about the notes you are singing, just make sure the phrases begin on various beats.

MORE SHORT ONES…

=> Write about something that happened to you as if you are telling a stranger. Now turn that into a song lyric and keep ALL the information!

=> Songwriting has an “UNDO” button. Go ahead and make a change in one of your songs, then undo it!

=> Choose a short word phrase. Say with with emotion. Now MORE emotion! Listen for the melody in the words. Exaggerate it. Sing it!

This post is based on my songwriting books: Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting, Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV, Study the Hits, and The 30-Minute Songwriter. Find out more about all of my print and eBooks on my Author page at Amazon. In each book you’ll find dozens of useful, real-world shortcuts that will show you how to craft songs that work for today’s music market, plus dozens of hands-on exercises to get your creative ideas flowing.