[SONGWRITING TIPS #3] Where Do Great Song Ideas Come From?

QUESTION: What would it feel like to hear thousands of people singing your songs?

ANSWER: Really, really great, believe me.

I remember the first time that it happened for me and the thrill that I felt realizing that God had actually used me to bring something valuable to a lot of people – – that they actually felt closer to Him because of words and melodies I’d written.

That feeling that you’ve actually fulfilled a big piece of why God created you is a feeling unlike any other. It’s like a deep satisfaction and fulfillment that you’ve accomplished your life’s purpose in a big way. It’s nothing prideful, but humbling to realize you’ve pushed through what you had to in order to do what you felt in your heart God wanted you to do.

I had written dozens of songs before that happened for me, maybe hundreds.

I had been trying to fulfill the call I felt, but I didn’t even know what I was doing or how to fulfill it. I was just stabbing blindly in the air hoping to hit something but never really connecting until I realized that the quality of a song will never exceed the quality of the idea I’ve had and it’s hook.

It can’t, right?

That’s like saying you can build a million-dollar mansion with sticks and twigs. You might love those sticks and twigs, but you’ll never make them any more than they are.

It’s the same with songs.

Once I realized that merely writing my inner feelings or simple devotions weren’t going to make anyone love my songs I took a quantum leap into starting with great ideas so I would have a better chance of ending up with a great song.


That simple equation has been the key to me having over 400 songs recorded and one in a hymnal that will probably far outlive me.

I realized that, no matter how sincere or devoted I was or how much I loved my songs, no one else was obligated to do so unless I hooked them in with an amazing idea.

People are attracted to your songs based on what they do for them, not you.

If you fail to start with an idea that satisfies a need in your listener, you’ve failed. Period.

So that means that if you spend more time finding great ideas that impact listeners emotionally, the quality of your songs will dramatically increase and more people will love and engage with you and your songs.

But where do great song ideas come from?

Here are three places you can look immediately to increase your song power and begin to engage listeners today:

Read. If you want to write beautiful words, you must be filled with beautiful words. Reading more will open your mind to different phrases than you’re currently writing. If you find yourself writing the same phrases over and over, you just need some new ones. Reading books expands your song idea options. My biggest song is “O Mighty Cross” co-written with my friend, David Baroni, that is already appearing in hymnals (even though I’m not dead yet). I read it somewhere. I didn’t “create” that idea or hook. But when I read it I immediately knew that it should become a song. Read more. Write better.

Listen. Many of my song ideas have come from listening to other people’s music. Don’t you want to write more when you’re listening to music that inspires you? I’ve found a lot of ideas hidden in the lyrics of other lyrics that I then took and reworked into a new song. A line out of Billy Joel’s “For the Longest Time” became a hit for me with The Gaither Vocal Band when I heard “I don’t care what consequence it brings/I have been a fool for lesser things” and took the second phrase to fashion a whole new song called “Fool for Lesser Things.” It isn’t stealing. I used it as a new hook to build an entirely new song from. Listen more. Write better.

Look. Just like reading and listening for hooks and great ideas increases the chances you’re going to find them, opening your eyes to messages happening all around you every day will result in more great song ideas, too. Ads, billboards, Tweets, Instagrams, Facebook posts and thousands of images with messages attached flash at you every day. Now, you seldom will take them as they are to write a new song but you can use many of them to spark a new idea in your mind. The more common a phrase like Nike’s “Just Do It” the less likely you’ll want to use it for obvious reasons. But Matthew West’s song “Do Something” is a similar message, for example. I have no idea if Matthew was inspired by Nike but it’s not impossible to imagine that it may have and it’s certainly a great suggestion for finding great new ideas for your songs. Look more. Write better.

If you don’t start with a great IDEA you won’t finish with a GREAT SONG.


And, just writing more with the wrong tools won’t make you get better at it, either. Reading, listening, and constantly looking for great ideas you can turn into great hooks happens before you start writing. Spend a lot more time searching for better hooks and the time you spend actually crafting the song will be time much better spent.

Have you enrolled in Kingdom Songwriter’s Academy? If not, you’re already missing out on a wealth of masterclasses with John Chisum and special guests like prominent music publishers, artists, producers, and pro songwriters, along with curated content that will help you achieve your songwriting goals. Check it out here!

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