Here are 25 ways you can spend 5 productive minutes songwriting!
Pick one and try it out several days in a row
- Don’t try to do everything at once
- Try each several times over a week, not just once…
- Like everything else, they take some practice to get the maximum benefits
- Practice writing quickly, don’t agonize over your choices…
- Write now, edit later.
Choose one, set a timer for 5 minutes and get started…
Songwriting Exercise #1. Free Write – write about anything
Free writing is writing as fast as you can think.
Don’t edit or judge anything, just write it… words, phrases, point form or prose, whatever flows out of you.
The goal is to get your ideas on paper without hesitating.
Think it then write it… regardless of it’s quality.
Don’t stop to correct spelling or try to find the “best” word, write what first comes to mind.
Don’t try to rhyme
Think of it as a terrible first draft that don’t have to make any sense. Once you remove the pressure to create brilliance, your ideas flow more easily and your speed increases.
When you finish the free write, read it through and circle any great ideas you can use for a song. I rewrite (and edit) the best ideas on a songwriting worksheet or in a different notebook so I can use it later.
An advanced variation: Don’t stop writing, even if you have to repeat “I don’t know what to write” after a few repetitions you will think of something new to write.
Songwriting Exercise #2. Free Write vs. Brainstorm
Brainstorming is a free write with a deliberate intention.
If you are trying to write a song title, choose a topic and brainstorm a dozen or more titles. Once your ideas are on paper, choose the best one(s).
Some songwriters refer to “writing from the heart” where the lyrics flow easily. This is the same process, except there are still several edits and drafts before the ideas you have brainstormed become a finished song.
Songwriting Exercise #3. Title Idea Brainstorm
Start writing words or phrases that could become song titles.
Start with a topic / theme or freestyle it. The ideas don’t have to be related to each other.
I check my lists of possible song titles whenever I’m starting a new song,
Songwriting Exercise #4. Song Sketch – Outline a Song
Start with a title, decide what do you want to sing about in the
- Pre-chorus and
Planning the “topic” of each section will help you decide where to put ideas as you assemble your song. I plan the ideas for the pre-chorus and bridge even if I don’t use them later.
Songwriting Exercise #5. Brainstorm Chorus Ideas
Starting with a title, come up with a page of ideas that could work in a chorus. Don’t try for complete lines or rhymes yet. Rhyming should wait until you are almost finished a rough draft or the second draft. Once you have several workable phrases, it’s easier to find possible rhyming words then assemble them in an order that flows. Play with different combinations with your title once you have several useful ideas.
Songwriting Exercise #6. Brainstorm Verse Ideas
Starting with a title or big idea, write out a page of phrases that could become part of a verse. They don’t have to fit together as is. Don’t try to rhyme, that will usually block you up or make you try too hard… rhyming is easier if you wait until you have some solid ideas to play with first.
I sometimes save rhyming until the second draft, focusing on the ideas instead of the details.
Songwriting Exercise #7. Object Writing
This is a popular songwriting exercise. Pick an object and write about it… the idea is to get beyond surface details, exploring as deep as you can by reaching into imagery, metaphor and your imagination.
The theory is if you can learn to write interesting things about mundane things like a pen or a chair, you can transfer these writing skills to other more “songable” ideas and situations.
Object writing is an interesting exercise, but I get more songwriting inspiration from these variations:
Bonus tip: type an idea / object / title into your favourite search engine and look at the images for inspiration. Write about what you see in the images you find most interesting.
Songwriting Exercise #8. Write about an Emotion
Pick an emotion or an emotional situation, write about it… you can try prose or point form. Dig into the emotion, imagine yourself experiencing the emotion or being in the emotional situation. Write about how it feels and how it affects you. Get into the details and capture the internal and external scene.
Songwriting Exercise #9. Write about a Situation
Imagine yourself in a situation (or observing someone else in it). It can be a place, an interaction between people, or an actual experience. What’s going on, where is it, what’s happening… who, what, where, when, how, and use imagery for all your senses.
Songwriting Exercise #10. Create a Character – Character Sketch
This is common practice for fiction writers. Invent a character, describing first in point form: Who is it, where do they come from, where are they going, what are their goals and motivations, what do they look like, what are they feeling, how do they make you feel?
These activities are excellent for a song you are planning or already working on…
Songwriting Exercise #11. Keywords on a Topic
Brainstorm a list around a theme or topic. Expand your vocabulary. Use alternate words to create different shades of meaning. Collect nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, metaphors, imagery.
These examples are intentionally short, I will fill a page before calling it done….
Travel: Car, train, plane, boat, luggage, baggage, carry on bag, passport, airport, security check, departure, arrival….
Road: highway, byway, street, path, trail, vehicle, car, truck, motorcycle, bike, destination, arrival, journey, hitch hiking….
Songwriting Exercise #12. Synonyms List
Choose important words from a song you’re working on or around a theme. Write as many synonyms for each. Freestyle it then consult your favourite thesaurus.
How many words can you use instead of love? night? guitar?
Songwriting Exercise #13. Rhyme Find
Find the keywords in a song or a section of a song. Rhyme family is my term for a group of words that rhyme or nearly rhyme with each other.
Write many rhymes for each of your keywords. Start by freestyling them and then consult a rhyme dictionary or an app. My favourite is b-rhymes.com or the B-Rhyme app.
Red: bed, dead, head, fled, spread, thread, shred, fled, bread, regret, crept, resurrect, cigarette, ebb, wept, inept, accept, leapt, kept, depth
Songwriting Exercise #14. Write a Couplet
Write a line and then another that rhymes. Create multiple answers to give you more to play with when you’re editing. Record your ideas quickly. Practice writing pairs of lines quickly, instead of focusing on them for hours… edit and improve them later if they fit with a song in progress.
Write two lines that rhyme.
Phrase it well, take less time.
Not the best, but could be worse.
Literal lyrics and wobbly verse.
Songwriting Exercise #15. Idea Chain
Instead of a brainstorm with all ideas related to the initial, big idea… create a chain where each word / phrase is related to the previous word / phrase. Play with ideas and write your first idea or impression without editing… practice writing quickly and making connections between ideas.
Song, sing, melody, lyrics, beat, Beats, headphones, headspace, mental clutter, mental gymnastics, mental twist, twisted metal, heavy metal, heavy heart, heartless, heart of gold, golden sunset
Songwriting Exercise #16. Write a Chord Progression
Pick a chord progression from a song you know and adjust it, or write one from scratch
Substitute one or more chords
Change the length of some or all chords
Change the order of some chords….
Write the chords down and
Play and record a phone demo, to remember it and to try singing / writing melodies with it later on….
Songwriting Exercise #17. Write an accompaniment to a chord progression.
Use an existing chord progression or one you have created, find an interesting way to play it on your favourite instrument. Experiment with different accompaniment patterns to find one you like.
Play and record a phone demo, to remember it and to try singing / writing melodies with it later….
Songwriting Exercise #18. Loop a Line
Take a line (or part of a line) of lyrics. Using a metronome, drum loop or chord progression and speak the lyrics. Improvise rhythmic variations to see what you discover. Once you have a rhythm try singing variations with different notes. With an incomplete line, try scatting nonsense syllables until you find words that fit well.
I do this exercise with important phrases for songs and for my title, so I explore the possibilities before deciding on the final version for a song.
Songwriting Exercise #19. Write a Melody for your Lyrics (with a chord progression)
There are a few approaches to melody writing. My favourite is starting with a chord progression on a loop (recorded on my phone or playing it live) while I speak my lyrics. Once I have the rhythms, I start to sing fragments and improvise with it until I have a singable and interesting melody for the lyrics that fits the chord progression.
Songwriting Exercise #20. Write a Melody for your Lyrics (without a chord progression)
Many songwriters prefer to write the melody first and add chords to harmonize it afterwards.
Start with lyrics, sing phrases and lines, improvising until you find melodies you like. If you have trouble finding chords that fit, consider slightly adjusting the melody instead of fighting with chords.
I frequently write a chord progression first and add the melody to it… I write more interesting melodies this way. When I write the melody first, I often end up sticking to a minor pentatonic scale.
Songwriting Exercise #21. Write a Chord Progression for your Melody
Find chords that work for a melody you’ve written. This is easier if you are strong with music theory and already know how to write chord progressions.
If the chords aren’t obvious for you:
- Sing the melody and find a note in each bar (or however often you expect the chords to be changing) that harmonizes with the melody
- Use these notes to create a counter melody
- If chords are still hard to hear / find / figure out…
- Find another note that fits with the melody and counter melody (anywhere you aren’t sure of a chord)
If you are still having trouble, pick a chord that makes sense in the chord progression and listen for alternate ways to sing the melody on that chord… or find someone to help you.
Songwriting Exercise #22. Write the Story Behind your Song
Write the story or an introduction to a song in progress, or one that you have already finished. I have a place on my songwriting template where I describe the song. Writing a prose explanation of the song helps me think the song through and finish it faster. This song introduction saves me time later, it’s prepared before I post it on social media or on my website.
Songwriting Exercise #23. Play One of Your Finished Songs
Perform songs you have already written to keep them fresh. Listen for new ways to perform them.
When you feel awkward, bored or uncomfortable singing your own song, it’s a sign there is something you should improve…
Songwriting Exercise #24. Update / Improve a Finished Song
Find places to improve lyrics, melodies, chord progressions or your playing in a song you’ve finished.
When you sing different lyrics or make a mistake, it’s sometimes your intuitive songwriter finding a better way to perform it… sometimes mistakes are better than your original ideas.
Songwriting Exercise #25. Review your songwriting notebooks
Read through your older ideas, song fragments and forgotten but almost finished songs to find things to work on in your next songwriting session.