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Simple Song Development System

Sep 04, 2021

If you told me a few years ago that I could ensure that I never run out of song ideas, I would never have believed you.

I knew the pain of staring at a blank page and thinking: 

  • “What do I have to say?” 
  • “What can I possibly say that will sound fresh and new?” 
  • “What can I say that’s different than the last 10 songs I’ve written?”


But this can be done with something as simple as a song development system.

What on earth is that? Well, it has a 3 basic parts.

  • Idea Generation 
  • Idea Refinement 
  • Song Development 

The first step is simply to have a document for all your ideas- your idea document


Idea Generation

The first section of your idea document should be your idea generation section

This is where I quickly jot down any idea that comes to mind. I sometimes refer to this as word-vomit. No, not because I like disgusting imagery, but because it captures the non-discriminatory expulsion of ideas onto your waiting idea document. 

When you vomit, you don’t think “Oh man, I’ll let the hot chocolate back up, but that steak needs to stay down!” You just expel everything. 

This is what your idea generation section needs to be. Don’t overthink it, don’t allow yourself to self-censor ideas. Just put all ideas down. Even if 5 seconds later you think it’s dumb, write it down anyway. 

So the idea generation section is basically a judgement free zone for your thoughts. No need to overthink or dig into your idea, just write it down.

There are 2 basic reasons for this section:

  • Your thoughts are written down and now can’t be lost
  • Your thoughts can breathe before you dive more deeply into them


One of the worst feelings as a songwriter is when you get a great thought, tell yourself to work on that thought later, and then forget. 

Sometimes it’s when you’re going to bed and you say “I’ll write it in the morning.” Sometimes it happens during the work day and, by the time you get home, you’re exhausted and forget.

This also takes some of the pressure off as well. Before, you may have felt a pressure to write an entire song in your moment of inspiration. Now, you can just write your ideas down and know you can come back to it when you have time. 

Instead of feeling like you need to utilize this breath of inspiration to spit out a song in the next 20 minutes, you can write your ideas down and let them sit for a while. 

Maybe in a couple hours, days, or weeks, you’ll look at the idea and think “how did I ever think that was a good idea?” Or you can still think it’s great and pick up right where your inspiration left off.

I like to have this as a Google Doc. With a Google Doc, I have access to it from my phone, computer, and anywhere I can get internet or service. If I come up with an idea at work, at home, on a bus, or at Thanksgiving dinner at a family member’s house who’s wifi password I don’t have, it doesn’t matter. I can access the document fast and write down my ideas.

Some people like to use pen and paper, and that’s fine, as long as you always bring your pen and paper with you. The danger of using different methods is losing ideas or forgetting where you put them. 

3 days later you don’t want to spend 30 minutes in frustration looking for where you wrote down that idea. Even worse if you realize in horror that you wrote it on the back of a torn envelope your wife threw out and, to make things worse, the garbage truck came yesterday. 


Idea Refinement

The next section of the idea document is the refinement section. This is where I take some of the ideas from the generation section and start to refine them. 

There are a couple of things I do in this section. 

One is that I “graduate” ideas from the generation section as I determine that I like where they’re going or could go, and want to develop them further. 

Another thing I do is expand on the idea. If the original idea was something like a song title or symbol, I’ll often write down some similar words or phrases. So ,if I have “The Dry River” for instance, I may write a list including “The Dry Ocean”, “The Empty River”, “The Lost Lake”, and “The Dying Ocean”. 

From there, I might decide that I prefer the ocean image over the river one. Or maybe I like empty over dry. This is all part of the refinement process. 

If I had a theme or lyric written down, I may write some symbols or titles that sound like they belong with that theme or lyric. I also could write down what the theme or lyric means to me and where it could go.

If I had written something like “the sadness of homelessness”, I might write down some ideas of where to go with that idea. Maybe a tragic story of how a woman ends up homeless. Or maybe look at it from the other side and tell the story from all those who pass her by. 

I might also write down a very different take on the theme- where homelessness is not literal per se. It could be the story of an orphan who never had a place they felt was home. Maybe the orphan is an adult now and still feels unwanted and without a home. 

It is important to keep your ideas grouped for your idea refinement section. You want to be able to go to a specific area and see the development on a specific idea. 


Song Development

Now you’ve written down your idea and you’ve successfully re-found it without it going into the paper shredder at work. You’ve also started to expand on the idea, whether writing down theoretical titles, symbols to use, or really starting to dig into the theme. 

You still love the idea. Maybe you even love the idea more than before. 

It’s time for the third step- song development.

This is the point at which a song idea gets its own document. 

I would start by transferring the notes you already have into this new document.

When I first create the song document, I love to go find some images that are evocative of the theme and feel of the song

So, let’s say your song is about the excitement of having your first child. Let’s also say that one of the main symbols you’ve come up with was that of a new sun.

You’d do google image search for “new sun”, “sun creation”, or something similar. Then, once you find the right pictures, paste them right into the document.

This is really helpful for coming up with imagery and evocative lyrics that really have a uniform feel. It’s easy to keep the same feel when you’re looking at the same pictures as you go through the writing process! 

If you stick with this process, you will always have access to all the ideas you’ve had in the 3 main stages of the process. 

You’ll have the new ideas you haven’t had much of an opportunity to explore yet. You’ll have the ideas you’ve started to dig into and develop. And you’ll have the songs that you’ve worked on developing. They are the songs that are most ready to start writing. 

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