Songwriting Tool #1 – Universalizing

Harvesting the mundane to produce a wealth of song ideas

Welcome to my new series on Songwriting Tools. I very much hope this will be helpful for you in taking your writing to the next level.

OK, we are starting with a word I made up – “universalizing“! This is a general lyric tool, inspired by the wonderful book “The Craft of Lyric Writing” by Sheila Davis. What I mean by universalizing is turning our experiences into things that somehow resonate with our listeners in a far more powerful way than if we articulate every detail.

One of my co-writers put it very well when he said,

The songwriter’s challenge is to turn the specifics of their lives into something everyone can hang their stuff on.

This might at first seem to be a bit of an idea crusher – having to make every idea ‘big enough’ to write a song about. But, while I do think ideas need to be substantial enough to write, I think that’s looking at universalizing the wrong way round. I believe universalizing opens up a whole new world of potential song ideas because it’s about harvesting elements of what may seem to us as sometimes negative, mundane detail to produce wonderful principles that can unlock, inspire, empower and ignite our listeners’ lives through our lyrics.

Examples

  • Instead of writing a song about the fear of going to see the dentist to fix a long-standing toothache, write a song about how taking charge of our lives empowers us to live life to the full.
  • Perhaps, from our experience of deep frustration or even failure, write a song about how we will persevere. Or maybe, how we draw strength from our faith in dark times or how, with a bit of belief from a loved one, we become empowered to achieve more than we ever thought possible.

How to universalize

I suggest the following three-step method:

  1. Recollection: Think of several recent struggles or challenges you have had, no matter how mundane they might feel to you. (Hey, be kind to yourself here – this isn’t supposed to drive you to your therapist!).
  2. Extraction: What life lessons can you derive from those experiences, replacing your specifics with generalities?
  3. Mapping: Using an appropriate Song Map (Tension/Response for example), turn one of these life lessons into a Writable Idea.

Question

What recent experience, struggle or meaningful moment could you universalize into a great song idea?