In a moment I will refer you to an older post called “What to Write About.” I give some excellent suggestions there (if I do say so myself) about how to generate ideas. These will work for anyone, old or young, and I won’t repeat them here, so please do go read them, but first…
There is an extra dimension to your question beyond just what to write about. You really want your songs to help and inspire people. It’s fantastic that you want to use your music to make the world a better place! And it sounds like you have the passion to make it happen. Also I must say, Maggie, that you show unusual maturity to recognize that due to your age, tackling controversial subjects might come across the wrong way, and that you still have a lot of life to live before you may feel you have any deep insights to share. I agree. Just keep writing. As you gain skill and confidence, you’ll know when it’s the right time to tackle some of those issues you feel strongly about.
In the meantime, don’t sell yourself short! Like any dedicated young person, you have a lot to offer. (For some really cool inspiration, check out the book It’s Our World, Too!: Stories of Young People Who Are Making a Difference by Phillip Hoose.) Your youth may mean that you are inexperienced, even naive, but it probably also means you are creative and have a fresh way of looking at things. You certainly have the potential to reach your peers with inspirational and meaningful lyrics.
OK, enough pep talk. Here are two specific ways to write a meaningful song:
- Write a great feel-good song. Think about how energized you feel when you play your favorite happy song! (“Good Day Sunshine” may be a good example, or “Good Vibrations,” or “Walking on Sunshine.”) Next time you feel great, try to write a song that will help someone else capture that same great feeling. Start with some brainstorming. Why do you feel so good? How does your body feel? What thoughts are going through your head? Try to come up with a unique playful phrase to capture how you feel in that moment.
Writing “in the moment” does not require life experience; you just need to be observant and aware and expressive about how you feel right now, and why you feel that way. And a great feel-good song really can touch people, lift their moods, and help them get through troubled times.
- Write about your problems, but don’t try to provide answers. What’s your biggest trouble in life right now? Is it something you could write about? Of course it is! Just like with the feel-good song, write your trouble song “in the moment.” What’s the predicament, how does it make you feel, and why? If you aren’t comfortable putting your problems out there for the world to hear, write in third person, as if the song is about somebody else. Or disguise the situation by changing the details, while staying true to its emotional core.
And don’t worry if you have no solution to offer. That’s OK. In fact your song may resonate better with your audience if it doesn’t try to provide a solution. Listeners like the freedom to come to their own conclusions.
Can a song about your troubles help other people? Absolutely! Think how you feel when you recognize the sad situation in a song. (“It’s like she’s inside my head!”) It’s very comforting to know that whatever your troubles are, you aren’t the only one feeling that way. If you write a great trouble song, your audience will recognize themselves in it and not feel so all alone. (Check out the Beach Boys Pet Sounds CD for some awesome examples.)
Finally, two bits of advice for living your life in a way that will keep you on track for deep meaningful songwriting as you mature:
- Get the very best education you can. It doesn’t matter what you study; a good education will expose you to new ideas, aide you in your search for meaning and wisdom to put into your lyrics, and help you become a clear communicator and a deep thinker. Not to mention giving you something to “fall back on” if you ever get tired of subsisting on bread, cheese, and water. 🙂
- Don’t ever go suffering for your art. There are a lot of people who will tell you that you have to suffer before you can create great art. There’s a certain logic to this idea: “misery gives you new experiences that are the raw material you need to write meaningful lyrics.” Sometimes great art can come from great suffering. But the key here is: it doesn’t have to! Great art can also come from perfectly well-adjusted happy people. We all suffer quite enough in life as it is. That’s just part of the human condition. Extra needless suffering won’t improve your songwriting. In particular, as a musician you’ll likely run into people who abuse drugs and alcohol. Yes these can be great tools for increasing suffering, but they will not make anyone a better songwriter. Nuff said.