It is probably not helpful to gleefully tell you “ideas can come from anywhere!”
( “Um, thanks, Blair, that really narrows it down,” I hear you muttering.)
But the thing is, it’s true. In fact, quickly finding a dozen decent lyrical ideas is pretty easy. The hard part is finding one idea that excites you, that compels you. The even harder part is the pursuit of that idea—writing it, re-writing it—and the hardest part, of course, is actually finishing the song based on that idea. That takes work, imagination and–I think–courage.
Try singing a line from a book you’re reading, or from this page. (Here’s where some people need some courage). Just make up—just feel— a melody, based on how the sentence would be said aloud. There is a natural rhythm and melody implied in spoken words, and it’s there just waiting for you to turn it into your verse, chorus or bridge. You may be surprised at how many song phrases and titles start to leap out at you. If they get you excited, if they get your imagination going, if they somehow seem to be connected to stuff you’ve already been wanting to say…well, there’s the magic of songwriting. Enjoy it, but also: honour it, by writing the song!
Some people write from a list of titles that they think are cool, or smart, or funny, or otherwise moving. Some songwriters sit strumming anything on their guitar and make noises with their voices until some gibberish comes out that hints at the presence of the ghost of an idea.
Do you keep a notebook? Or do you maybe make notes in your smartphone? Maybe you use the voice recorder function of your phone? Whichever way, having some method of recording your ideas and thoughts as they arise is essential for a songwriter. Lyric ideas can come from overheard conversations, from advertising billboards, from arguments with your mother, from textbooks, or novels, or poems. They can come from TV or video games, movies or radio shows. Sometimes combing a dictionary or a thesaurus for an interesting word (or better, an interesting-sounding word) can spark a song. They can even come from hearing other people’s songs.
Developing your own aesthetic is important. It will help you decide which ideas to pursue. Knowing what you like in a lyric helps you choose songs to listen to; knowing why you like what you like helps you write your own songs. This requires critical listening to some of your favourite songs, and maybe even songs you don’t like. What is it about that turn of phrase, that use of metaphor, that grabbed you? What didn’t work for you?
Spending time thinking too much about music is, to me, counter-intuitive, and not always enjoyable. Lifting the hood to see how a song works has the potential to spoil your innocent enjoyment of that song. As they say, you may enjoy sausages, but you probably don’t want to see how they’re made. Music is meant to be felt, in my opinion, and looking at it too hard can spoil the magic, temporarily. But if you keep at it, the analysis will probably pay off: if you do enough of it, and really get to know your own taste in songs, you’ll come out the other side a stronger, more imaginative songwriter, brimming with ideas.