Capturing Ideas Before They Get Away

Read Chapter 1 from 101 Songwriting Wrongs and How to Right Them: The Ones That Got Away.
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You’re having dinner at a crowded restaurant and the couple at the next table is experiencing a challenge in their relationship. You can tell by the way they’re discreetly yelling at each other, not loud enough to get thrown out but with sufficient volume for you to hear every word.

As a songwriter, you know it’s in your job description to eavesdrop on conversations. The basic, real-life emotions people express in their everyday relationships are the building blocks of songs that tap into the lives of your listeners. So you listen, and sure enough, one of the combatant lovers comes up with a great title in the middle of a heated sentence. You smile as you slice your next bite of food. Great title, you think; I’m going to remember that.

But by the time you’re ordering the dessert course, you’re asking yourself, What was that she said? It’s too late to ask that question. The phrase has escaped your mind completely. You feel empty in spite of your meal; maybe you let a great song get away.

The solution to this problem is simple. Never let the possibility of a great idea get past you. Scribble it on a napkin if you must, but put it in writing or record it in some way when it first sparks your enthusiasm. Later, you may look at it and wonder what you saw in it. Then you can deliver your paper napkin to the local recycling center with a clear conscience, knowing you gave the idea a chance to be seriously considered.

Song titles and ideas are in the air. You’ll hear them in phone conversations, see them in the newspaper, find them popping out of the depths of your mind as you’re driving down the highway. As a songwriter, it’s your job to be ready to catch these fleeting thoughts as they fly by. Ideally, you should be prepared in an organized way (see the next chapter). But if Boy or Girl Scouting is not in your history, it’s up to you to improvise when a song title appears in a restaurant and finds you without a pencil or scrap of paper. Many great songs have been written on paper napkins with borrowed pens.

Plenty of songwriting goes on in moving vehicles. Since it’s not easy to find someone to borrow a pencil or paper from at fifty-five or even twenty-five miles per hour, you should equip your car with these items. Some writers pull over to the side of the road when inspiration hits; others speed on and scribble. Billy Steinberg, the lyricist in the Tom Kelly/Billy Steinberg collaborations of “Like a Virgin,” “True Colors,” and co-writer on “Eternal Flame” and “I Touch Myself,” admitted to us that he’s been known to swerve a bit when a hit has hit him on the road.

Technology can be your friend if you’re writing on the run. When a bolt of inspiration strikes, many writers break out cassette tape recorders or tiny digital recorders to catch the spark.

This system was the favorite of Steve Allen who, with thousands of songs to his credit, has been cited in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s most prolific songwriter. He was never without one or two mini-cassette recorders, and he filled up tapes rapidly because he was constantly open and receptive to the nonstop flow of ideas. He told us he couldn’t tell whether he was creating them or remembering someone else’s creations!

Use of a recorder, however, requires another step—you have to transcribe the recordings to have access to the ideas you’ve captured. Mr. Allen had that one licked, since his creativity paid off in the form of a pool of secretaries to do that job for him. He proved the value of catching ideas as they come to you.

In a dream, Mr. Allen wrote the tune most closely associated with him, “This Could Be the Start of Something Big.” He woke up with the song still playing in his mind and quickly recorded it on tape. The moral of that story is: When you open up the channel, be ready to receive. Keep your notebook or your tape or digital recorder next to your bed. And may you dream a hit tonight!

Some people use their cell phones to call their home answering machines and leave a message. They can decide when they get home whether the message is inspirational. Laptop computers are now capable of recording fully produced demos, so catching that idea you just had is a snap for them. Pretty soon, we’ll just push a button on our necks and what we say will be saved to our hard drives at home! In the meantime, pencil and paper still work, and always having those with you is the least you can do to honor your creative inspirations.

As in every songwriting rule, the exception has validity. Case in point: Willie Nelson told us that he never writes anything down in his writing process. He feels that if it can be forgotten, it wasn’t strong enough. He wrote “Crazy” in his car. He was on his way home to Texas, retreating from Nashville where he had met with resounding rejection, and his house had just burned down. It was a rough ride home, but Willie used it to write one of our favorite songs in the world. If you haven’t heard the Patsy Cline version of “Crazy,” do yourself a favor. It’s up there with one of the best recordings of all time.

Most songwriters, however, must catch the first inspiration, the seed of the song idea, to have the chance to see what it could grow into with some cultivation. A commitment to getting the idea into some tangible form for later consideration is a basic commitment to yourself as a songwriter.

Find out more about 101 Songwriting Wrongs and How to Right Them.

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