20 ways to start a track

If you're short on ideas, we can help

Every songwriting journey begins with a first step, but taking that first step isn't always easy. In fact, many people find that starting a track is the most difficult part of the creative process.

Fortunately, MusicRadar is here to help – below are 20 things you can try if the well of inspiration has temporarily run dry.

1. Fake a soundtrack
Scoring the soundtrack to a non-existent film can give rise to loads of much-needed new sounds. Having trouble thinking of a scenario? Take a five-minute section from a silent film.

2. It's just a phrase
Sometimes all it takes is a handful of words to bring on an idea, and there are plenty of ways to find phrases. For example, put on a favourite DVD, turn the subtitles on, skip to a random chapter and write down the first few words you see. There you go – an instant theme with which to experiment lyrically, conceptually or any-other-way-you-like-ly.

3. This song is dedicated to…
Whether it be your soul mate, your annoying neighbour or your boss, make a track that's directly inspired by or aimed at someone else. Your best friend may never know that your grime epic was about them, but it doesn't matter.

4. It's a secret
Use something that only you know as the starting point for a new track. You don't have to spill the beans on your hidden knowledge, but a secret can be fertile ground for expression. If you don't have any secrets, use the concept of secrecy – a hidden message in your track, frequencies inaudible to humans, or the clandestine use of equipment, for example.

5. Rescue a sound
Hate that song that's currently getting radio airplay every 20 minutes, even though you have to admit the middle eight's pretty good? Take the chords, rhythm or any other element and save it from the torture it's undergoing. Or better yet, do a cover version to put the original to shame and show them how it should have been done.

6. Wantonly rip off your heroes
Although we all want to make music that's original and – even better – unique, deliberately copying the sound of someone whose output you really admire can be inspiring, fun and educational. And even if you're really blatant in replicating someone else's work, your own sound could eventually emerge from within it.

7. Protest
Even if you don't usually allow politics to interfere with your music-making, the desire to change the world can be a great springboard for an entire track or an element of it – an ultra-distorted drum loop or a relentlessly aggressive bassline, for example. Inspiration could be anything from anti-war protesting to stopping all those TV talent shows.

"Sometimes all it takes is a handful of words to bring on an idea, and there are plenty of ways to find phrases."

8. Ordinary world
Musicians through the ages have taken their seemingly ordinary surroundings and turned them into something extraordinary. Why not document the movements of your neighbours or all those customers in your local cafe? And that handful of receipts in your wallet contains all sorts of numbers ripe for interpretation.

9. Make something your heroes would hate
Try making a piece of music that your favourite artist would find utterly abhorrent. The chances are you'll dislike it just as much as they would, but by flying in the face of your own tastes, you could create something truly original.

10. Record yourself
Using a field recorder, document everything you do and see for ten or 20 minutes during an average day. As well as using the results as a lyrical launchpad, process your voice with reckless abandon. You'll get lots of new ideas, observations and a wealth of crazy vocal samples.

11. Hit the books
Go to your local library – it is, of course, a fantastic source of creative inspiration. There are endless books and magazines to plunder for lyrics, and to satiate your musical side, today's libraries also house plenty of audio material for sampling. And best of all, it's all free.

12. Dreamtime
Dreams have been inspiring artists of all kinds since the dawn of man, so don't ignore yours. And don't stop at merely relaying your own dreams sonically or lyrically – try writing down a dream and just taking the last few words as your theme, or creating a 'negative', nightmarish version of the whole thing.

13. Spam, spam, spam, spam…
Since we all get so many of them, why not get something useful out of spam emails? What does the 'usherx commune' sound like? Could there be some sort of encoded MIDI sequence hidden in 'hunderstand dmy smooch'? A wealth of titles, circumstances and characters are coming at you for free on a very, very frequent basis.

14. Be provocative
Bold or provocative statements can be loaded with lyrical and musical potential. Many artists have used their more controversial outpourings to bring something new to the socio-artistic table, NWA and the Sex Pistols being two of the most notable. Write down some direct, in-your-face phrases and use one as your theme. Don't be afraid to push some buttons (of both the literal and metaphorical variety).

"Dreams have been inspiring artists of all kinds since the dawn of man, so don't ignore yours."

15. A new identity
You've established a name for yourself on the dubcore scene but just aren't feeling inspired by that today. How about coming up with a new identity? Many artists work under multiple aliases, so why not you? Creating an alternative persona frees you from your own preconceptions of yourself. Already done that? Then have your two artists remix one another or become embroiled in a musical feud.

16. Quite contrary
Alternatively, take the opposite approach. There are loads of online dictionaries and encyclopedias that feature a word or topic of the day. Check in on one and create something inspired by its direct opposite – whatever that might mean.

17. Change languages
Try a little international inspiration. If your linguistic skills are rusty, use the net to translate words into another language. 'The tropics in winter' may not grab you, but how about 'tropici nell'inverno' or 'Les tropiques en hiver'?

18. Science and maths
Don't be afraid – such academia can provide you with many days' worth of new ideas. Mathematical formulae, the periodic table, the speed of light and the values of Phi and Pi can all be interpreted musically in countless ways. Or how about a micro-house tribute to the fathers of Boron?

19. Along came a spider…
With so many bits of software being titled after animals, insects, forces of nature and other real-world things, even names can be inspirational. Note down a few such devices and select some at random. Now you just need a self-referential story to tell with those instruments. You could use the Virus PowerCore to write a 'killer' DnB lead or a track expressing how you feel about that Trojan horse that messed up your computer last week.

20. Make a code
Inventing and working from codes can be an abstract but entertaining way to generate musical structures or note sequences. For example, giving every letter of the alphabet a musical assignment and 'decoding' a poem or advert will give totally unpredictable results that could take you anywhere.


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