Top 5 Exercises for Coming Up With Great Song Lyric Ideas—#1: Sense Writing.

In this series, I’ll go through my all-time Top 5 Exercises for generating lyric ideas, whether I’ve got a song idea going already or not. 

These exercises don’t require inspiration. They mostly require 10 minutes and a pen. Just like anything in life, you can get better at writing great lyrics with practice. I hope these exercises give you something to practice with. 

  1. Sense Writing

Sense Writing is a timed, 10-minute prose-writing exercise that I learned from Pat Pattison, and is beloved by a cavalry of incredible songwriters, including Gillian Welch, John Mayer, and Liz Longley.

Here’s How it Works.

  1. Find a random prompt. At the beginning, using an ‘object’ prompt is best (something tangible you can see/feel/hold/touch). You can find random prompts on any day in these spots:

You can also collect prompts yourself, by simply coming up with a long list of objects (ie things) that you can draw on whenever you sit down to write. The key here—at the beginning of your Sense Writing journey—is randomness. The prompt must be something unexpected.


  1. Set a timer for 10 minutes, and write continuously. Don’t edit yourself or censor your writing. You’ve got to let the rusty water run to get to the clear stuff. This exercise isn’t lyric writing per se; it’s exploration. It’s a walk in the woods. Don’t worry about how good your shoes look. Look around and see what’s on the path instead, without judgment.

A few tips.

Do not try to write lyrics in this phase. No rhyming. No rhythmic meter. It will slow you, and put handcuffs on your ability to truly explore what arises.

Don’t write for longer than 10 minutes. It’s really easy (and common at the beginning) to get into ‘flow’ around minute 8, to hear the timer go off, and to think, “Oh I’m in it now; I’ll just keep going”. Don’t. You won’t get stronger unless you keep that 10-minute wall to push against. What you will find, if you stick to 10 minutes, is that you get faster at hitting flow. 

You will also find the exercise more sustainable over the long term. If you let it spiral out to 20 minutes, it becomes a ‘20-minute exercise,’ which is infinitely harder to convince yourself to do on a regular basis than a 10-minute exercise!


  1. Stay Sense-bound. This is the most crucial part of Sense Writing—this is what we’re really here for. 

The most important limitation on this type of writing is that you are deliberately trying to use all of your senses to paint a vivid picture of whatever scene, situation, event, or memory arises. Sometimes your writing will start out as a series of fleeting associations with the prompt—this is you pushing the jenga pieces of your mind, until you find one that moves a little more easily, then going deeper into that one. 

When you find one that moves, your aim to is be descriptive with all of the senses:

SIGHT SOUND SMELL TASTE TOUCH

Make sure you move around the senses, touching on all of them through your writing.

A few tips.

Try starting a few Sense Writes in the week with a sense other than sight or sound. Those are our dominant senses, and starting with the other senses pushes our mind and memories into different places.

Turn the dial up on the level of detail you go into. Instead of ‘the kitchen smelled like dinner cooking’, keep going. Fill it with the specifics: “the kitchen smelled of dinner cooking: rosemary, thyme, and a pinch of chilli.”

There are two other ‘senses’ that we can tap into as well: the ‘inside body’ sense (which is the physical sensations happening inside our body), and the ‘movement’ sense (where describe the way people and objects move in space). For more detail on these senses, check out this video

Sense Writing works best if you do it every day for at least 2 weeks (and then, at least 3 times a week for…ever 🙂 ). 


Examples of Sense Writing

Here’s one I did recently, with notations on the different senses:

Prompt: WHISTLE

I was 8 years old – beach holiday in the australian summer – sleeping with sand in my toes, crusting in my hair, and behind ears (touch). The salt of the sea, warm and moist in the air (touch and smell). The evening buzzing and alive with the rhythmic pulse of cicadas, together creating a screeching high pitched whistle that filled the air…(sound)

That afternoon, I learned to wolf whistle. Two fingers of each hand shoved into my mouth (visual, touch, inside body) – the tongue has to be curled back like Elvis’ hair (visual), then blow. At first, spit dribbling down my chin, and hot air just wheezing out (touch, sound). And then a short sharp sound. My heart racing, thumping against the cage of my ribs (inside body) – some kind of possibility opening up. I could taste the seaweed of the beach on my fingers and the spit glossing my lips (taste), as the sound sharpened, until finally shooting out as the loudest most ear rattling sound – a wolf whistle! (sound)

The sheer power of being 8 years old and able to create that sound! The sound waves hurtling past my lips and crashing through glass, sweeping out onto the street (movement) and joining those damn cicadas…as the indigo twilight started to wash its ink over the day, turning the street gray, the blanket of the sky sweeping closed (visual), but the sound of those cicadas still droning into the salty night…(sound)


How to Use Sense Writing to Write Lyrics

  1. Keep the best lines for later. Mine your writing for gold nuggets—lines, phrases, or even words that are interesting and evocative. Put them into a list:

sleeping with sand in my toes

The salt of the sea

The evening buzzing and alive

curled back like Elvis’ hair

thumping against the cage of my ribs

hurtling past my lips and crashing through glass

sweeping out onto the street

indigo twilight

wash its ink over the day

turning the street gray

blanket of the sky

Here’s the secret:

I can use any of these lines in any song I like. It doesn’t have to be a song about learning to wolf whistle. Or even a song about childhood (though I like that idea…more on that in a moment). But there are some lovely descriptions here of a summer evening that I could use for any song at all. 

In fact, sometimes keeping this list of lines in a doc without the prompt, then leaving them alone for a few weeks can help detach the lines from their original context, and allows me to use them for absolutely anything. What I find is that a few weeks later, I might read a line like ‘sweeping out onto the street’ and it will attach to an idea that I have been wanting to write about…so I might get something like:

In fading moments of indigo twilight

We are wrapped in the blanket of the sky

And spilling out onto the street

You are I are a bottle of wine


  1. Writing to find out what we are writing about. One of the primary benefits of Sense Writing is that our subconscious comes out to play. We can’t help it. Our brains are meaning-makers. The most seemingly random prompt almost always associates with a memory, scene, or situation that has an emotional imprint on us—and this is the stuff of song. 

In my example above, the line that really stands out to me is: “The sheer power of being 8 years old and able to create that sound!” To me this is a short story about finding a voice as a young kid, which is also a story about feeling powerless. About needing voice. About needing to make a sound loud enough to be heard. There’s something in there worth exploring. 


  1. Use it to write a section idea. I use Sense Writing when I have a song on the go, and specifically when I know what I want a section of lyric to be about (or how I want it to function in the song), but I don’t actually have lyrics for it yet.

Let me give you an example. I was working on an album project for Penguin Random House audio, writing an album of songs about motherhood. With the particular song I was working on at the time, I knew what I wanted the song to be about: the early stages of being mostly confined at home with a tiny infant. 

I also had a title—Cocoon—and a Song Map: an outline of where the song starts, develops, and how it would finish. 

Here’s the outline for Verse 1: 

The outside world has never looked so beautiful. But I can’t go out. I’m stuck inside, wrapped up in this cocoon. 

Here is a part of the Sense Write I did based on that idea (the prompt I gave myself was: “summer day”):

The sky outside so wide and blue, is sparkling, twinkling, glittering, a giant blue ocean whose tide is pulling on us, like a sapphire in the crown of cosmic gods

But the sky and the sun can both go away because we’re not going outside today, we don’t need to go outside today…

Here is the lyric to Verse 1:

The sky outside’s a sapphire sea

Whose tide is pulling me out

But the sun and sky and ocean too

Will all just have to wait

Because I’m not going outside today

I’m happy alone with you

Wrapped up here inside this cocoon

You can hear it set to music here


  1. Clearing the decks. The final way I use Sense Writing as a lyric writer is simply as a daily writing practice. A way to start my day, to put my mind into gear, to power up my songwriter brain, so that I am more primed to notice: notice details, pay attention to senses, become aware of how one thing connects to another. Even if I use nothing from a particular Sense Write in a song’s lyrics, it is always worth it.

Why Sense Writing?

Sense Writing trains you to turn ideas into imagery, and imagery is the most powerful way to connect with the minds and hearts of someone else.

As Leonard Cohen said: “We seem to be able to relate to detail. We seem to have an appetite for it. It seems our days are made of details, and if you can get the sense of another person’s day in details, your own day of details is summoned in your mind in some way rather than just a general line like “the days went by” (from Songwriters on Songwriting, ed. Paul Zollo).


Pair this article with:

120 Sense Writing Prompts

Examples of Sense Writing

The Best Method for Writing a Good Song


Writing better lyrics with metaphor magic

In this video, I show you how to write songs—and specifically lyrics—like Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars, and John Mayer. There is a particular type of song and songwriting that these three songwriters have in common—it’s a way to write songs that lots of songwriters use: metaphor songs. I start by defining metaphor, and share the principles and methods for creating original ideas, and furnishing them with great lyrics, just like these songwriters.

Want to write your own original lyrics? AUGUST 25/26 2022 – LIVE ONLINE METAPHOR WRITING WORKSHOP. Join in here!

6 Songs That Taught Us How to Write Songs

One of the best ways to learn how to write great songs is to learn from great songs and songwriters. In this video, songwriter Ben Romalis and I take 6 songs that each taught us a crucial principle or technique about writing great songs.

Drawing from a range of inspirations from Radiohead, Tom Waits, to Gillian Welch and John Mayer, Benny and I talk about the specific musical or lyrical technique that we learned from these 6 great songs.

Of course, these 6 songs are just a beginning! We picked these for this video because they showcase a range of different principles and techniques: we talk here about chromaticism in chord progressions, about borrowing chords outside the key, about balancing types of language in your verses, about narrative and non-conventional song forms, about verse development and great chorus writing, and how a great intro can set your song apart.

More will come out of this series, as we explore how to listen to music so that you can extract ideas, and put them to practice in your own songwriting.

The 3 Things I Did This Year to Write Over 20 Songs

In this video, I share the three pillars of my creative practice that ensure I write even when not inspired, and have given me the structure to write over 20 songs this year.

Producing lots of creative work is more often about the habits, practices, and environments that we build, rather than about inspiration alone. These three practices give me the structures to stay connected to my ideas and projects, to know EXACTLY what I need to do if I am stuck on an idea or need to generate new ideas, and to ensure I have some accountability to get the work done.

More videos on my YouTube Channel, here.

The Best Method for Writing a Good Song

From a recent interview with John Mayer:

“Whenever I want to write a big song, I can’t. And by “big” I mean spatially…the glacially large space inside the heart, that’s when I get writers block…trying to write a song to fill the entire galaxy. But if I write a song about the size of a glass of water, and I do it right, I notice a week later that it’s got the universe in it. I’d rather have the universe inside a glass of water, rather than try to make a glass of water fit in the universe.”

You can see the whole interview here (I’ve tagged it at the point where Mayer is talking about detail in songwriting.

This idea radiates into other forms of storytelling, which are really all connected—all trying to convey something that is simultaneously personal, drawn from the details of one’s own life, but also with a universal connection that creates communication, not just catharsis.

This idea was reiterated to me when I went poking around Matthew Dicks’ YouTube channel. Matt is a master storyteller—52-time Moth StorySLAM winner, and 7-time GrandSLAM champion. He made a lo-fi (and highly excellent) video outlining a storytelling game he plays in workshops and classrooms, called “3-2-1”. When explaining why he uses random concrete nouns as prompts, rather than something massive and emotional like “struggle” (or we could sub that for equally glacial concepts, like “loneliness” or “climate change”), Dicks says:

“It’s hard to tell a story if someone asks you, ‘Could you tell a story about a time when you struggled’. That is hard for a lot of people, including me, because ‘a time when you struggled’ is a very broad concept. There’s many, many times in our lives when we struggle. And so pick out the right story—to pick out any story—is really challenging. The odd thing is, the more specific the lens that you’re forced to look at your life through, the more likely you are to find a story.”

(My emphasis added)

You can see Matt’s whole video on his storytelling exercise here:

Matt was also kind enough to share with me the website he uses to generate the random nouns in this video, which is HERE (and on perusing it for a minute, it has other amazing filters that will generate other random lists for you, like cliches, emotions, ‘speech-verb’).

For a songwriter-specific writing exercise that will help you forever tap into the details, check out Object Writing in this video (I’ve tagged it right at Object Writing):

Pair this with 120 Sense Writing Prompts.

Lyric Writing Masterclass March 16 2020

Can songwriting actually be taught? Can your lyrics actually improve, or are you just born Bob Dylan?

Author Ann Patchett beautifully writes: “Why is it that we understand playing the cello will require work, but we attribute writing to the magic of inspiration?” Great writers know that while we must always “leave room for the acts of the spirit” (as Ursula K. Le Guin puts it), that there are a set of tools, techniques, strategies, methods and ways of understanding language that can systematically improve how we express whatever we want to express.

Screen Shot 2020-03-11 at 9.45.43 amIn my lyric-writing life, there are a handful of very simply and incredibly effective techniques, that once learned, made my songwriting drastically improve. Within a few years of using them, I could count John Mayer and Pat Pattison as two of my mentors, and was on the Songwriting faculty at the Berklee College of Music. It has been my life mission since learning these to pass them on to others. I hope you’ll join me on Monday as I go deeply into the first of these transformative principles of great lyric writing.

Lyric Writing Masterclass—Monday March 16 6pm (Sydney AEDT)

Sign up here.

More info here.

Creativity as a physical act

At the beginning of this year, I joined the gym. Again. I was more optimistic about it this time, since both of my kids were now in daycare a few days a week, so I had a bit more time.

At the same time, I was actively working on songwriting projects with and for other artists and bands. Most are in genres that are not my natural comfort zone, so I decided to listen to playlists of music in those genres while working out.

And I had the most astounding experience:

All of my best and most creative ideas came to me while working out at the gym. There is a magical alchemy in the combination of listening to music, thinking about songwriting, and having oxygen pumping through my brain. There is also something going on with doing bilateral physical action that seems to connect and synthesize cognitive processes in a way that I don’t ever experience when I sit down at my desk, trying very diligently to “be creative.”

BonjourThis ‘surprise’ really shouldn’t have been a surprise at all. Tom Waits is often visited by ideas while driving—or rolling around near the garbage (listen at 40:00); the shower is good too. John Mayer once told a group of us at Berklee that he would get up and take a walk at the moment when he felt a surge of a great idea coming to him.

So the idea of it isn’t a surprise, but the very real experience of it is. And it has made all the difference for me in keeping me motivated to exercise. As a time-poor person (aren’t we all…), I have not been great at making time for exercise. But now, when I go to the gym, I’m not constantly trying to dissuade myself due to lack of time; but (usually) keen to go and get my best creative work done for the day.

photo credit: Fresh on the Net

Metaphor in songwriting is alive and well, thanks.

Screen Shot 2019-09-02 at 9.37.54 am

Many years ago, while living in LA, I heard a Big Shot Industry Dude (cue Beethoven’s 5th…) say:

“Songs shouldn’t have metaphors in them. I can’t think of a good song that has a metaphor.”

To my great relief, and with a giddy sort of rebellious delight, all of us songwriters gathered afterward, as if we all had sticky, sweet metaphors stashed in our pockets the whole time, and murmured things like “What was he talking about?”, or more generously, “Maybe he doesn’t know what a metaphor is…?”

I have come to think that it’s probably the latter. Metaphor, I am happy to report, is alive an well in songwriting, whether we’re talking about popular contemporary writing, or just beautiful writing in any era, any genre. Metaphor can be gently weaved into the fabric of a song, giving it glimmers of certain colors and textures as the song turns in the sun; or a song can be entirely based on one central metaphor, whose imagery completely defines the entire song.

For brainstorming metaphor ideas, I know no better resource than Pat Pattison’s ‘Writing Better Lyrics’ as an introduction, followed up by ‘Songwriting Without Boundaries,’ which contains a few months’ worth of writing exercises to help you generate interesting, fresh, and unique metaphor ideas.

But once you have an interesting metaphor idea, how do you flesh it out into a song lyric?

I’ve been looking at metaphor-based songs for a while now, and it seems to me that there are 3 distinct ways to use metaphors as the basis for a whole song:

  1. Direct Metaphor
  2. Symbolism
  3. Allegory

DIRECT METAPHOR

Right now, I’m going to focus on Direct Metaphor. So what do I mean by Direct Metaphor? A Direct Metaphor is when you clearly say that ‘X is Y’. ‘Love is Rocket Science’, (Rocket Science, Lori McKenna), ‘Love is still a magic act’, (Smoke and Mirrors, Sweet Talk Radio), ‘Belief is a beautiful armor’, (Belief, John Mayer).

Let’s take the first example here, ‘Rocket Science’, by Lori McKenna (and I could honestly talk for hours about the songwriting craft of Lori McKenna—she is amazing. If you want to know an album to ‘study’ the craft of songwriting, listen to ‘Numbered Doors’. Holy moly.) Here are the lyrics to the chorus:

Love is rocket science
What comes up it must come down
In burning pieces on the ground
We watch it fall
Maybe love is rocket science after all

The chorus itself starts out with the most direct statement of the central and primary metaphor of the whole song: love is rocket science. The first thing to note is that all the language in the chorus is related to rockets and science; every line here is an extension of that central metaphor. Once we’ve noticed that, we end up seeing it woven through the entire lyric. Here are the first two verses:

They say it ain’t complicated
Any fool can understand
Until the fuse is lit and
It blows up in your hand
 
It all looks good on paper
Step by step, you follow the plan
In the sky watch the desperate vapor
Til it blows up in your hand
The language in bold here is what Pat Pattison would call language ‘in the key’ of the metaphor. And the rest of the song has the same quality; the verses and bridge all contain language drawn from the palette of rockets, space, and science gone wrong.
 
But the far more important thing to notice is the very first line of the song, because it is the connection point between the metaphor and what the song is really about: “They say it ain’t complicated”. The point of the song is that love IS complicated, just like rocket science. This is where all the magic of metaphor happens: in the overlapping area between rocket science and love: IT IS COMPLICATED. IT CAN GO TERRIBLY WRONG. And finally…it’s still worth it in the end.
 
 
The reason this metaphor song works is because there is enough material in the overlap between the metaphor (rocket science) and the topic (love), and that is the key to a metaphor idea that has enough DNA to be the basis for an entire lyric. Some metaphors do not; they are interesting, descriptive and colorful—”her haircut was a church; she became sombre and restrained under its angles and spires”; “the conversation was a river; it flowed on the surface, but I was drowning in the undercurrent of tension”—but not expansive enough to describe a theme or topic for a whole song.
 

DESIGNING YOUR OWN DIRECT METAPHOR SONG

1. Pick one of the following themes or topics (or choose one of your own):

 
LOVE, WAR, LOSING A PARENT, AMBITION, GROWING UP, CLIMATE CHANGE, NOT GETTING WHAT YOU WANT, GETTING OLDER.

2. From the following list of nouns, try a number of ‘X is Y’ combinations.

 
SATELLITE, GARDEN, LANGUAGE, OCEAN, SEIGE, ARMY, MASTERPIECE, CIRCUS, CHURCH, POET, PRISON CELL, TYRANT, KNEE, SPAGHETTI WESTERN, CANYON, FARMER, VIRUS, VACCINE, TRAFFIC JAM, INSTRUCTION MANUAL.
 
For example:
 
Love is a traffic jam. Growing up is a spaghetti western. Climate change is a language.
 
Already your metaphor brain is buzzing with possibilities and ideas.

3. Taking your one metaphor, spend 5 minutes generating at least 5 different ‘connection points’, or ‘linking qualities’. That is: what are 5 different ways that your metaphor connects to your topic?

For example: Growing old is a church.
 
1. It is dark, empty, moldy, lonely…
2. It is bright, full of friends, and sacred…
3. It forces you to examine the life you have lived…
4. It becomes a mere recitation of habit…
5. It has a complex architecture…
 
 
A good metaphor song will have ONE MAIN connection point. There may be other related ways that you explore the connection, but they should be related to each other. So I wouldn’t be trying, in the same song, to say that growing old is both ‘dark and lonely’ as well as ‘bright and sacred’. I would pick one—the positive or the negative—and focus on that for this one song.
 
And then write another song that does the other one (!).

4. Create a word palette for the metaphor.

Pro tip: you can use the ‘related words’ filter in Rhymezone.com. Or even better, get yourself a Roget’s International Thesaurus (it is one of my go-to reference books!).
 
 
For example:
 
Church: heaven, gates, communion, waifer, church, cathedral, spires, gothic, priest, nun, god, gods, myth, prayer, bible, sabbath, holy, chapel, parish, worship, monk, confession, pews, vows, evangelize, preach, baptize, condemn, ordain, reform, convert, revelation…
 
 
Pro tip: What you decide your ‘connection point’ is can help you to filter the language of the metaphor. For example, if I were using ‘ocean’ as a metaphor, with the connection point of it being ‘open, wide, adventurous’, then I might end up with words like:
 
 
Horizon, tides, sailing, swimming, treading, lapping, splashing, breeze, open sea, navigate…
 
 
But if my connection point is the idea of it being ‘terrifying and unpredictable’, then I might prefer language that paints with that color:
 

crashing, rips, undercurrent, tidal wave, dumped, drowning, thrashing….

5. Spend 10 minutes exploring your topic (growing up) using language in the key of the metaphor.

Try to explore the nooks and crannies of your topic by being specific, situational and personal. You are on the lookout for unusual and unexpected ways that connect your metaphor and your topic, so go exploring!
 
 
For example:
 
 
Growing old is a church—as my grandmother grew into her last years, her body became a complex architecture of illness; its sharp edges thrusting through her veins and cells; her mind became a dusty hallway that echoed with ghosts…etc. But the building is not the belief. Her body was sick, but she was more than just the creaking doors and echoing halls. The knowledge, wisdom, and experience of her life had been transmitted out to us, her family, and I can still recite the lessons learned, like passages from a sacred text…etc

6. Build a Chorus idea, using an ‘X is Y’ statement. 

It may turn out that your ‘X is Y’ metaphor statement is not your first, primary metaphor that you started with, but something more interesting that emerged in Step 5. For example, my chorus might be built on this ‘X is Y’ idea (or in this case ‘X is NOT Y’):
 
 
She is more than creaking doors
Her life is louder than these empty halls…
 
 
A great example of this is Belief, by John Mayer. The primary metaphor of the song is something like “belief is a war,” but we never hear that statement. What we do hear are the secondary, or related, metaphors that use language ‘in the key’ of war:
 
 
Is there anyone who really recalls
Ever breaking rank at all
For something someone yelled real loud one time?
 
 
and…
 
 
Belief is a beautiful armor
But makes for the heaviest sword
Like punching underwater
You never can hit who you’re trying for
 
 
and…
 
 
[belief is] the chemical weapon
For the war that’s raging on inside

Note that these are mostly verse lyrics, but the idea can be applied to verses or choruses.

I will also write another post soon that gives a lot more detail about writing great Choruses, as well as what makes chorus lyrics and ideas different to verses. Speaking of verses…

7. Build Verse ideas.

Use your favorite ideas and imagery to construct your verses. Just remember: The key to great Direct Metaphor songs is that the metaphor is clear. We know what the metaphor is, and we know what the topic is too. Metaphor isn’t an excuse to be vague. It’s a way to be even more specific and clear about how you want to explain how something feels. So make sure that you are still being clear about what the situation is, what you’re actually talking about, and how you feel about it.
 
Enjoy 🙂
 
 
 

Listen to What People are Listening to

In 2008, I had a extraordinary experience of spending a week with John Mayer, working on tunes and at the end of the week taking a song into the studio and having Mayer produce it. I made a point of absorbing as much as I could during that week. It was visceral and obvious that Mayer has certain habits that contribute to his success.
The first habit I noticed is most likely one shared by many successful people: being prepared, doing your research, and knowing your audience – whatever it is. It was obvious that this permeates Mayer’s whole mode of existing. He has an incredibly broad vocabulary on popular music over the past 40 years. He referenced artists, bands and songs, could play most of what he was referencing, and was obviously literate in it, not in an academic way, but in the way of someone who has a ‘sticky curiosity’ – a genuine interest that is aggressive and passionate. He makes it his business to know EVERYDAY what is in the Top 20 – not to imitate by any means, but to know what the trends are. To know what people are listening to, no matter what you think of it. Ultimately you’ll have your tastes and preferences, whatever they are, but a good exercise as a musician and songwriter is to listen to everything (especially the popular stuff) and think to yourself: ‘What is one thing that is good about this? What’s one thing I would do differently? Why do people like this?’

No one is ever going to force you to write ‘Top 40’ music, but having an active curiosity about what people like and why they like it can help bridge the gap between your own authentic voice, and effectively communicating what you have to say to a listening audience.