Writing great songs takes practice and dedication, but it also takes luck.
When luck strikes, be ready to take advantage.
Building a backlog of song ideas is the best way to take advantage not only of luck but of all the time you spend writing songs.
Let’s look at how a backlog can benefit you as a songwriter, what you should add to that backlog, and how you can use it to write better songs.
Building a song idea backlog
Listening to music, humming ideas on a walk, reading about a band, discussing your favorite songs… the list goes on and on. All of these things help make you a better songwriter.
But I bet you forget a lot of the ideas you come up with in the process. Maybe most of them.
Thoughtfully building a backlog will help you make the most of all of these activities.
So what is a backlog?
By a “backlog”, I just mean a record of your ideas, including recordings, notes, and images. These ideas can range from 3-note melodies to lyrical snippets to full-blown song demos.
Anything you think has potential.
A backlog can live entirely in a folder on Dropbox, or it can span digital records and notes in physical notebooks. That all depends on what’s easiest for you.
And more importantly, what you’re most likely to actually use.
As you build it up, it might become pretty eclectic. That’s a good thing! Creativity can really kick in when you try to combine diverse ideas and resources.
Benefits of a Song Idea Backlog
There are a number of significant benefits to keeping such a backlog.
By capturing so many ideas, you won’t let moments of creative inspiration (or luck!) slip through your fingers. This means you’ll have more great ideas to work with in the future.
In my experience, it also means you’re more likely to come up with creative ideas in the first place.
When you develop the habit of capturing your ideas, it can reinforce the habit of being creative. Maybe that’s because creative moments take on a larger significance in your life (and subconscious) when you treat them as important.
Recording your ideas makes you more aware of your creative process, and the range of opportunities to be creative. It also helps to build a sense that you are a songwriter.
In my opinion, all it takes to be a songwriter is to start writing songs. But that’s one of those things people can get hung up on. By capturing even ephemeral ideas, you send yourself the message that this is part of who you are and what you value.
Finally, building a backlog will help you notice new ways to grow from your songwriting practice. Not only does it provide a record of your development over time, but it gets you in the habit of looking for multiple benefits from a single activity (like experimenting with chords, or humming melodic ideas on a walk).
How to Capture Your Song Ideas
There are a number of ways to capture your ideas, but you need a way both to record audio and take notes.
For audio, the easiest thing is probably an app on your phone. The Dropbox app gives you the option to record clips that will then be available across your devices. You’ll need a Dropbox account for this. But there are a lot of other options.
Years ago, I used dictaphones for the purpose (first with little cassettes(!) and later the digital kind). This can still be a nice approach if you find that looking at your phone comes with too many risks of distraction.
Taking notes is also valuable, whether that’s in a physical notebook or note-taking app. Again, the most important thing is to determine which you will actually use!
What Should You Add to Your Backlog?
Develop a habit of capturing ideas wherever you are and your backlog will quickly start to grow.
Capture initial musical ideas
When you’re working out ideas for a song, record something as soon as it sounds interesting to you. Don’t wait until you’ve developed it!
I find that great ideas will often slip from my memory as soon as I try to build on them. This is particularly true if I try out ideas for the next section. So now I regularly record the first idea in its raw, imperfect (and short) form, and only then start developing it.
You can then easily go back to that first idea as you work out possibilities (and, of course, any time in the future).
Capture ideas wherever you are
What’s great about portable recording devices is that you can capture these ideas wherever you are. If you feel self-conscious about recording yourself singing or humming when other people are nearby, you can pretend you’re talking on your phone and just sing very quietly.
I’ve done this many times and no one ever seems to notice!
Definitely don’t reach for your phone while driving, but if you come up with ideas in the car, record them once you’re at your destination. Or if you like singing for the entire drive, you could always start your device recording from the beginning of your trip (though you’ll probably have to wade through a lot of uninteresting stuff later on!).
Capture the results of your practice
A particularly important time to record your ideas is when you’re practicing writing songs. It’s best not to continuously stop your flow by reaching for a device, but when you hit on something you really like, try to record it as soon as you can.
If you follow my advice and use your practice time to challenge yourself and explore new ideas and techniques, then this will be a rich source of creative ideas you can use down the line.
Capture more than just audio
You don’t need to limit your backlog to audio recordings. There are many ideas that can be useful to capture beyond just sounds. These include rhymed words, lyrics, song themes, mini-narratives, and ideas for exercises or experiments.
You can also take notes when you listen to or learn other music, describing your favorite parts, noting the instrumentation, or diagramming the song’s structure (to give a few examples). You can then use these as inspiration for your own work.
Capture your drafts
Last, and definitely not least, you should add your more finished ideas and recordings to your backlog. One of the most powerful shifts in thinking for many songwriters is to start treating even fully-written songs as drafts. That’s because it’s easy to be emotionally invested in whatever you happen to write first, which can cut you off from great possibilities.
You can start shifting this thinking by consciously adding your more finished ideas and recordings to the same backlog as ideas you came up with off of the top of your head.
For starters, if you work out your songs in a DAW, make sure to render drafts to mp3s so that you have something to listen to in other contexts.
How to Use Your Backlog
There are many ways to use a backlog, and your approach can range from dead simple to deep and complex.
You can keep everything in a Dropbox folder with very little organization.
Or you can create a deep folder structure and cross-reference your ideas in a physical notebook. Or whatever. Choose what works for you.
Simple is often best, particularly when starting out.
However you approach it, remember that regularly using your backlog will signal to yourself (and your subconscious) that it matters. And this will increase the chances you keep adding to it, which will make it more likely you’ll actually use it.
It’s a virtuous cycle!
As you add more and more ideas to your backlog, it will grow into an amazing resource for you. Think about it. This is a record of the ideas you’ve found interesting. And you’re free to use them however you want.
Use your backlog as a resource
Let’s a consider a few specific ways to use this great resource.
First, you can treat your backlog as a tool for writing new songs. You can take ideas from your recordings and your notes as songwriting prompts. Or you can try combining a couple different ideas together. There are many exercises you can invent that makes use of them.
Second, your backlog can really help when you feel you’re stuck on a new song. For example, maybe you have a verse you like but you can’t come up with a chorus.
Just go through your backlog and look for anything that could possibly fit. Even if you don’t find something, the attempt can break whatever rut you’re in, leading you to approach your song in a new way (getting stuck is often just a matter of being in a rut).
Third, just going through your backlog can help you improve as a songwriter. It will help you hear your progress, and it will also help you think through how you want to develop as a songwriter.
Which ideas really stand out to you? Take note of them!
Where do you hear weaknesses? Those are great areas to intentionally practice.
A Backlog Can Be Your Most Important Output
It may seem that fully-fledged songs are the goal of songwriting. But this way of thinking can lead to frustration and perfectionism.
The most important thing is that you write regularly and continuously challenge yourself.
A backlog can be viewed as a work of art in its own right. It’s a manifestation of your whole songwriting practice, and a record of your development over time.
If you go a month without finishing a song but add a lot of interesting ideas to your backlog, that’s a form of success.
Of course, I’m guessing that you also want to finish songs! But the point is that it’s not either/or.
A habit of building your backlog will make it easier to grow as a songwriter and write complete songs you actually like.