I don’t know about you, but I often come up with my best song ideas at the most inopportune times.

Back in college, great song topics always came to me on the days I had 20 pages of Russian reading, a ridiculously hard number theory problem set, and a huge paper on semiotics all due the next day. Something about all that intellectual stimulation really inspired me to create. But being the dedicated, high-achieving, (nerd) student that I was, I postponed my songwriting and put schoolwork first.

And inevitably, by the time I finished everything, I had forgotten all of my amazing song ideas. This happened over and over, and caused countless sadfaces.

Fortunately, I came up with a super simple solution: a topic list!


Topic List

(Here’s an example. I had to cut off the bottom because there were some really embarrassing lyrics underneath the list that thankfully, never made it into a song.)


It sounds obvious, (and you may be smarter than me and already keeping one yourself), but I wrote for years without a topic list. When I finally started using one, my song output increased a huge amount, I stopped losing track of my ideas, and I greatly reduced the amount of time I spent with writer’s block. If you’ve also been writing for too long without this easy, productivity-boosting practice,  this this post is for you.

Here’s how to use your topic list:

1. Reserve 2 -3 pages in the front of your songwriting notebook for your list. Or, if you prefer, make a document on your computer. But personally, I’m a big  fan of doing all my songwriting by hand.

2. Whenever you think of an idea, immediately add it to your list. If you don’t have your list with you, write down your idea on something (napkins, old receipts, and junk mail work well), and transfer it onto your official list later.

Don’t worry about how you express your idea – write one word, a few key words, or a full-on song title. Anything goes, as long as it reminds you of what you were thinking. Here are some examples from the topic list pictured above:

  • “Frank” became the “Frank of the A. H.,” a song about the nastiest cat in Vladimir, Russia. As I mentioned in a previous post, the song is too inappropriate to post online, so you’ll have to see me play live at a super seedy venue to hear it.
  • “Russia morning” became “Dobroselsky Park.”
  • “No hate for my hometown” became a line featured in the song “Hometown.”

I also number my list, because seeing my number of ideas increase gives me a (perhaps false) sense of productivity.  But it’s not required, so do whatever works for you.

3. Read over your list anytime you get stuck while songwriting. I can’t count the number of times I’ve started writing with absolutely no plan and no ideas, and my topic list saved me. Sometimes, a list entry spoke to me and I wrote about that, but other times, just reading the list triggered new ideas, and I wrote something completely unexpected.

If you finish a song about your chosen topic, either cross out the entry on your list, or put a check mark next to it. (I prefer check marks, because sometimes I write multiple songs about the same topic. When I do that, I get to check the topic twice!)

And bonus: topic lists can help not just with songwriting, but with any creative pursuit. When I taught English as a second language, for example, I often struggled to come up with new activities to practice the same old, boring grammar points. A topic list certainly would have helped me capture all the ideas I came up with at bad times – like the middle of class, two in the morning, or weeks after we had moved on from the target grammar point – so I could save them for future lesson plans.

What about you? What techniques do you use to remember your best song ideas? Let me know in the comments!


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