Songwriting is a tricky business. Inspiration can be hard to come by – and even then, fitting your thoughts and feelings into words, and squeezing those words into music can be a process akin to pulling teeth. Sometimes, though, all you need are a few simple exercises to sharpen your songwriting skills!
Look no further than these 10 songwriting mini-challenges. Each one focuses on one or two specific skills necessary for any serious songwriting musician. As musicians, we need to challenge ourselves to achieve the next level of musicianship, and this includes sharpening our writing skills.
These fun musical exercises are guaranteed to help you:
- Think outside the box
- Develop skills like writing melodies and lyrics
- Help you come up with new material
- Build your musicality
Make your songwriting challenge extra fun by having a friend, your band, or your online music community join in to share and collaborate!
Many of these challenges are adapted from Composer Boot Camp 101: 50 Exercises for Educators, Students, and Music Professionals, a useful practical guide to songwriting and composition for any level of musical skill.
Song Challenge #1: Superhero Song Challenge
From Superman to Wonder Woman to Daredevil and the Flash, every superhero has his or her own specific abilities, weaknesses, and overall look. Not only that, but many of the superheroes have their own distinct theme song thanks to a plethora of hit films and TV series associated with the character.
In this exercise, you will write a short song based on a random superhero. The song can have lyrics or be purely instrumental. This is a great way to challenge your creativity and really see how you can take any subject and make a fun song out of it.
- Write the names of eight superheroes on notecards.
- Put the notecards in a box.
- Randomly select one card.
- List three main characteristics of this superhero (for example, strong, slow, fast, green, genius).
- Using your instrument or voice, create a short one-minute song based on this character in a day.
For this challenge, you can write a fun pop tune, an epic filmscore, a guitar solo, or whatever else you can imagine:
A Superhero Sample
Inspired by the Flash, I decided to write a very simple bass line that is reminiscent of some of the more popular superhero film scores popular in the theaters. Knowing the story behind the Flash, a teen struck by a particle accelerator leading to abnormally fast running speeds and healing (as well as the ability to jump into parallel universes), I wanted to create a song that had a musical motif that pushes forward like the Flash running to save the city.
After writing the initial bassline, I added in some extra software patches to add a touch of sci-fi and an “epic” feel to the tune. Being a song challenge, this is a rough mix, but it gives you an idea about the possibilities.
Justice League Super Mini-Challenge
For extra fun, have each of your friends select a different superhero and meet again the next day (or week, if that works better). Jam out on your new superhero tunes and chat about the merits of each song.
Song Challenge #2: Let Art Inspire You
For this mini-song challenge, you will let art inspire you. Just like classical composer Modest Mussorgsky wrote “Pictures at an Exhibition” after seeing the art of Viktor Harmann, you will allow what you see with your eyes influence your work.
You can use any type of visual art to inspire you, whether it is a mixed media piece at a gallery, a painting at the local museum, manga art, or even a confusing collage of cute cats from the internet. The point is to truly allow what you see create new inspiration for you.
- Select a piece of art.
- Truly study the work of art for 30 minutes or more.
- Write down feelings, thoughts, and memories that you come to you as you look at the artwork.
- Develop a melody that matches the artwork.
- Jot down the melody.
- Develop the melody into a short one-minute song, with or without lyrics.
You’ll find yourself pleasantly surprised with the music you come up with! Mussorgsky wrote “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” from this sketch of theater costumes:
Song Challenge #3: Melody in 3 Ways
For this challenge, take a short melody from one of your favorite bands or songs (or come up with your own), and rewrite it in a number of styles. For example, you might pull out the hook from Lady Gaga’s “Pokerface” and rewrite it as a love ballad, a country song, or a heavy metal tune. Or maybe you can write it as a polka… the “Pokerface Polka”:
Whatever direction you go with the melody, be sure that you:
- Are true to the melody
- Are true to the musical style
- Have fun creating a new tune using a familiar melody!
For example, you can use a familiar melody like the opening motif to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony:
This is a very familiar musical motif that has been used countless times in a variety of styles, including disco. Using this as an idea, you might mix down something like this:
Song Challenge #4: Superspeed Melodies
For this song challenge, you will need a timer and sheet music or music software program like Finale or Logic. If you don’t know how to notate music, just record your voice using a smartphone or other recording device.
Here’s how to write your superspeed melodies:
- Set the timer for 15 minutes.
- Create as many unique melodies and motifs as you can until the timer buzzes.
The melodies can be as short as three notes or as long as you want, but the key is to try to come up with something different and original in a very short amount of time. After you are done with your superspeed melodies, play through them, circling ones that you might want to keep for later use!
Here are examples of simple melodies that you might come up with in this exercise:
Pro-Tip: Watch out for accidentally “borrowing” from famous tunes in this exercise. This is something that every songwriter has to watch out for when writing a new song. It might be interesting to note how many of your notes might just belong to someone else!
So after you finish your mad dash at melody-making, listen for any familiarity between the tunes you developed and ones that you have heard on the radio, on TV, or even from your kid sister’s punk band!
Song Challenge #5: Random Lyrics
Most of these songs can be adapted to instrumental music or vocal music. But for this exercise, you will challenge your lyrical skills.
- Go to the local library or bookstore.
- Enter the nonfiction aisle and spin around three times.
- With your eyes closed, select a book and open it to a random page.
- The first paragraph is your inspiration for your song.
- Write a short song based on the selection, trying to stay as close as possible to the original text.
In this example, the composer had to write a classical ensemble piece based on a passage from an antique physics book about the atomic bomb.
Song Challenge #6: Postcard Song
For this mini song challenge, you are going to write lyrics based on a postcard. If you don’t have a collection of postcards to use, you can print several online or use a site that has a random image generator. The image does not have to be a location. It could be something fun, serious, sci-fi, romantic, horrific, an animal, etc. The point is that it is an image that you might not see on a regular basis.
- Select an image (either a postcard or an online image from a random image generator).
- Write down a few different ideas, feelings, thoughts, and words that come to mind when looking at the image.
- Write down a short stanza for a song based on the image.
- If you feel really inspired, write out the lyrics for an entire song.
- Share your lyrics with the world via social media, an open mic night at a coffee house, or with your bandmates.
The lyrics below were inspired by this interesting random image of a smiling shaving cream face:
“Ode to a Shaving Cream Face”
(With a Jazz Swing)
My smiling shaving cream face
Soft and gushy, full of grace
A little bizarre and out of place
But still, what can I say?
You bring sunshine to a room
Wash away all that gloom
With your smuggy funny muggy
Oh, I how love you, Honey
So keep on smiling
Don’t get down
Cuz when you are around
You are my smiling shaving cream face!
Song Challenge #7: Film Music Challenge
So far, the mini song challenges that we have done have focused on skills like writing melodies and lyrics. This next mini-challenge develops your harmonic skills. To complete this mini songwriting challenge, it will be helpful to have an instrument like a piano or guitar for chord progressions. You will select five short film clips and quickly improvise your own original score using chords.
Here’s a helpful guide for the genres that certain chords and scales are best suited to:
- Minor chords: sadness, mystery, suspense, horror
- Major chords: comedy, happiness, happy endings, children’s movies
- Jazz chords: Film Noir, mystery, historical films, romantic
- Whole tone scale: outer space, science fiction, weird, suspense
This is just a short list of harmonic ideas. There are literally thousands of harmonic and melodic ideas that you can use for this mini song challenge!
For example, this short piano sample is based entirely on C minor. You can hear how “scary” and full of suspense it sounds:
Here’s how to compose your own original movie score:
- Select five short one-minute film clips from different film genres such as comedy, mystery, or sci-fi.
- Mute the volume.
- Underneath the scene, improvise different harmonies that fit with the clip.
- Try to have the harmonic choices match the scene.
- Record your improvisation and sync to the film clip.
- Share with your friends!
If you don’t have access to a guitar or a piano, you can always use your voice, percussion, or even virtual instruments on your smartphone for this mini-challenge. The key is not the instruments used, but the way that you can develop musical ideas to fit a film.
The piano example below was created as a song challenge for this short horror clip. Taking the musical ideas based on C Minor, I then fully orchestrated the short tune with a full string orchestra patch, pizzicato strings, and a bell synth. Because this is just a challenge, this is a rough mix, but you can hear how you can take a simple piano idea above and develop it into a full cinematic track:
Song Challenge #8: Musical Food Challenge
Many favorite song challenges like the 50/90 Song Challenge, where you write fifty new songs in ninety days, have a specific time limit and challenges based on topics. For this fun mini-challenge, you are going to write a song each day based on what you eat for lunch for seven days straight. It might sound a little zany, but it will force you to really come up with some original ideas (and maybe some original lunches).
Get a little inspiration for this musical food challenge from song challenge guru Jonathan Mann, who has written a song a day for years, leading to worldwide infamy for his quirky and fun songs:
He even managed to sneak in a full recipe into a song, ensuring that you’ll never forget how to cook this wholesome breakfast:
Song Challenge #9: 10 Songs About a Girl (or Guy)
We all love the love song, right? Okay, well, maybe not, but even if you don’t have a favorite guy or gal to write about, you might have a pet, best friend, or even grandmother that you care about a lot and want to immortalize forever through song. Ten songs, that is.
While this challenge works best with lyrics, you can opt for instrumentals if that is more your forte (pun intended):
- Choose a person (or pet) that you cherish.
- Every three days for a month, write a song dedicated to this person, for a grand total of 10 original tunes.
- Record the songs, and if possible, share your undying musical devotion with them (and let us know how it goes!).
Song Challenge #10: Happy/Sad/Crazy/Mad
This is a pretty easy mini-challenge based on emotions. You will need to write each of these emotions on a different notecard:
- In love
These are a good bunch to start with, but you might find that once you start writing you will end up with dozens of more emotions for this mini-challenge.
For this challenge, you need to write seven songs in seven days based on emotions. You can opt to use only one emotion for the tune or choose two cards to really challenge yourself. For example, you could end up with a tune that has a “lonely” lyrics but has a very “excited!!!!!” chorus.
- Randomly select one or two cards (for example, happy and surprised).
- Think about what words come to mind when you think about these emotions.
- Write out a title first.
- Write a short tune based on the card(s).
BONUS: Death Metal Mini-Challenge
For this fun challenge, you will write a song based on a death metal title.
- Go to the Death Metal Title generator.
- Click the “another album!” button.
- Select one of the song titles to create a new tune.
Seeing Musical Inspiration Everywhere
These songwriting challenges all aimed to help you see inspiration in everyday objects and experiences. Take this idea and run with it even after you complete these mini-challenges! You never know when another brilliant song idea may hit you: maybe while you’re stuck in traffic? Cooking a family meal? Walking your neighbor’s dog?…
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