Are you looking for some fresh insights and inspiration for your songwriting? Do you get bored playing the same three chords on your acoustic and long for something fresh? Here are three ways I’ve been inspired to write fresh new songs while listening to music!
Actually, I get a lot of ideas for songs from listening to music. I get as many song “seeds” from other people’s songs as I do from reading or any other source. But how is it possible be inspired by others but not copy them? How can I claim to be original in my writing, but get my ideas from other people’s work? As it turns out, there are many ways to be inspired by other artists and writers’ work while not copying them in any way at all.
1) Develop a lyric fragment into an entirely new song.
I once wrote a song with the late Bill George called “Fool for Lesser Things” that was a fragment I lifted right out of a Billy Joel song called “The Longest Time” that was recorded by The Gaither Vocal Band. Joel’s phrase was, “I have been a fool for lesser things,” but I turned it into the hook, “Don’t be a fool for lesser things.” There’s nothing illegal, immoral, or unethical about letting a lyric or musical fragment inspire a whole new song. It happens all the time. Mark Simos (Berklee School of Music) reports that the Beatles hit “Come Together” was inspired by a certain chord move from Smokey Robinson’s song “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”
2) React to a song and write something antithetical.
There’ve been many times that I’ve heard songs that broke my heart, angered me, or set off a flood of desire to see God’s reality made more real in the earth. This happens when I come across a hate-filled, evil song, or a song that totally misrepresents the unconditional love of God in Christ. It must be the Holy Spirit in me, but I so long to respond to the darkness with God’s light that I HAVE to write something that carries the truth. This can feel like an intercessory prayer, a lament, or a worship song that offers the truth in praise to who God is. My reactionary song is actually inspired by its opposite, the wholesale rejection of the goodness of God. Yes, I know it’s a little weird. But sometimes inspiration comes from weird places.
3) Letting a musical style or phrase ignite inspiration.
A couple of years back I was getting into indie artist Andrew Ripp’s music. His southern roots, R&B/Gospel, country vibe matched with a terrific voice intrigued me. I had come across him on iTunes and have since bought all he’s recorded. He probably thinks I’m a stalker because I’ve commented on his Facebook page how much I love his music. I wanted to write something in his genre but waited till just the right thing came along.
I had written a lyric called “Beauty Will Save the World” (available on iTunes) off a book title by Pastor Brian Zahnd (who got the phrase from Dostoevsky, the Russian novelist), but I’d not written a melody. One day I was cruising through some of Andrew’s music and the feel of his song “Let Love Win” suddenly grabbed me and I knew it was the right feel and vibe for my lyric. Within an hour or so I had the basic structure and chord progression for my song. If you put the two side by side, you’d never say they are alike, other than the tempo and maybe a little of the attitude, but my progression and melody are very different from his. His music inspired mine. I didn’t copy his. That’s how it can work.
So, next time you’re feeling stuck in your writing, just go listen to some music and chill. While you’re listening though, tune into specific lyrics and musical phrases and fragments to see if something doesn’t spark a fresh idea in you. Whether you turn a phrase, react to someone’s philosophy, or let a certain style set off something new in you, time listening to music is always time well spent.
[This post is an excerpt from Six Weeks to Successful Christian Songwriting, an online coaching experience available at nashvillechristiansongwriters.com. Reprinted with permission.]
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ABOUT JOHN CHISUM
John Chisum is a pioneer in the Christian music industry and currently Managing Partner of Nashville Christian Songwriters, a company that exists “to empower Christian songwriters worldwide. As a songwriter, arranger, producer, music publisher, and recording artist, he has served alongside some of the world’s greatest and best-loved artists such as Bill & Gloria Gaither, Don Moen, Twila Paris, Paul Baloche, and many more. John is an internationally appreciated worship leader and speaker in his own right, known for his passion for Jesus, his creativity, and his sense of humor. He has recorded over ten music albums and has over 400 songs professionally published. John lives in Brentwood, TN, with his wife, Donna.