handwritten lyrics on faded ruled paper

Deaf School lyrics. Image © Steve Allen

Inspiration refers to the moment when an idea for a song germinates in the songwriter's mind and results in the creative process taking a specific direction. Musicians and songwriters take inspiration from a variety of sources and the ways in which they can begin working on new material are numerous.

Inspiration in the songwriting process is often represented as a rather romantic process in which the artist is seen to channel creativity in spontaneous, irrational bursts. In many of the world's cultures artistic inspiration has been believed to be either unconscious or bestowed upon the artist from a higher power. This is a perception of creativity that has operated throughout Western musical history and has remained largely pervasive within popular music culture. Many songwriters describe the moment of inspiration as somewhat mystical. For instance, the hit 1960s songwriter PF Sloan has described the songwriting process as;

"pure witnessing. I was allowed to be present at times. The excitement was so great that I wouldn't even bear to witness it... sometimes I'd see a whole chorus that was written." (Zollo quoted in Strachan and Leonard, 2003: 200)

This rather oblique perception of inspiration has often meant that the issues surrounding inspiration within songwriting have been blurred, with many musicians even suggesting that to think too much about inspiration might in some way 'spoil the magic'. For instance, in a guide to careers in pop and country songwriting the songwriting team Boudleaux and Felice Bryant wrote:

"There are few, if any, specifics to define the nature of creativity... for songwriting. In fact, dwelling on the techniques of creativity seems to actually inhibit one's flow of imagination, which, after all, is where the 'doing' is being done. The elusive butterfly of inspiration is hard to catch with the heavy grappling hooks of cold analysis." (Bryant and Bryant, 1977:95)

In reality it is perhaps clearer to see inspiration as the point where the creative process is kick-started by something that the songwriter feels (in terms of emotion), witnesses or observes from the world around them - something that suggests the possibility of an artistic work. For the songwriter, creativity is in effect a dialogue with external elements, both musical and non-musical, and inspiration is usually triggered by contact with such external stimuli. As the songwriter John Braheny suggests;

"creative people... have the ability to absorb, digest and organize external stimuli, reshape them into something original and re-communicate them in an art form." (Braheny, 2006: 15).

The nature of this external stimuli is almost infinite but it is possible to identify a number of common starting points that have historically inspired songwriters.

For example, lyrical inspiration can come from elements such as personal experience, overheard conversations, reactions to politics or social issues. Lyricists may also take general inspiration from other art forms such as films and novels whilst musicians can also take conceptual inspiration from visual or literary art forms. Perhaps the most common point of inspiration for musicians and songwriters is other music. Hearing something new or particularly evocative can inspire songwriters into creative action. Technology and instrumentation can also help. New pieces of equipment (offering new sounds or playing styles) often facilitate intense periods of creativity for musicians as they explore and experiment.

In many genres of popular music though, it is also still relevant to think in terms of a songwriter as having a job to do, probably somewhat detached from their own private emotions or creative desires. It is reported, for instance, that the highly successful 1980s team of Stock, Aitken, and Waterman composed the smash hit 'Especially for You' in only one evening in a rush to meet a deadline for recording with Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan. It is hard to think that the lyrics of the song would be intentionally directly related to the personal experiences of any of the composers. Rather, the lyrics are generic expressions of love designed for a hit pop song with broad appeal.

In all of these cases initial ideas and starting points have to be placed into an existing creative framework. Whether they choose to articulate it or not, all songwriters work within particular frameworks and processes (both formally and informally learned). Songwriters pay very close attention to how their favourite composers or songwriters organised their works and incorporate key features of specific types of music they enjoy into their own work. They will work hard (usually through a process of trial and error) until what they write begins to take on a style and identity of its own.