20 Creative Songwriting and Composing Prompts Courtesy of ‘Every Song Ever’

songwriting prompt on paper


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Ben Ratliff’s Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty is my favorite book I’ve read in the past year. In each chapter, Ratliff details a new way to approach listening based on a specific aesthetic characteristic complete with song lists. He goes into ways of listening based on various musical, philosophical, and practical concepts and suggests listeners consider elements of musical performance like speed, repetition, dynamics, improvisation, etc.

It’s an incredible exercise in active, engaged listening practice. At the end of each chapter, Ratliff curates excellent playlists that had me listening to tons of new sounds, as well as considering familiar sounds in new ways. That exercise alone has inevitably made me a better music fan. But how could we use the same type of approach to become better songwriters and more creative composers?

Since reading Every Song Ever, I’ve started creating lists of writing prompts for my students. These tiny writing challenges offer different approaches to composing new material and can help get you out of a creative block or make your practice time a bit more fun! Best of all, they can apply to any level of musicianship.

These prompts are simply a bunch of jumping-off points. This is in no way a comprehensive list, and you’ll probably find plenty more ideas to explore once you dig in. If any of these aren’t working for you, just move on to another one that does. I’ve also listed examples of songs that make use of a handful of these compositional tactics to get you started.

Are you ready? Here’s what to do.

  1. Print this page.
  2. Cut out each creative prompt, and put them all in a giant jar.
  3. Next time you practice or brainstorm, pick one or several prompts from the jar and play!
  4. Try to finish the entire idea and not stop halfway through.

Some examples:

The Carter Family — “Wildwood Flower” and Television — “Friction”

The Velvet Underground — “Heroin”


A contrafact is a new melody composed over another song’s chords. Johnny Smith’s “Walk Don’t Run” is a contrafact of the jazz standard “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise.”


The Boredoms — “Acid Police”


Seu Jorge — “Life on Mars”


The Stooges — “Search and Destroy”


Ocrilim — “Annwn Part I”


David Bowie — “Ashes to Ashes”

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An Albatross — “We Are the Lazer Vikings”


Yes — “Close to the Edge”



(If you want some great examples of this, head to Ian Gordon’s exploratory “What Happens When You Mess with the Keys of Iconic Movie Theme Songs” for a laugh.)







I could keep going, but 20 prompts seems like a good place to stop. And I don’t want to hog all the ideas, so here’s your challenge: Share this article, or print it out just for yourself. Come up with 10 prompts of your own, and put them all in a jar and select one or a couple at random next time you sit down to rehearse with your instrument or write a new song. 

And hey, if you’re feeling confident, post some of these songwriting and composing challenges, or the resulting pieces you create, in the comments below!

giphy good luck

One last thing. I always like to remind my students that you don’t have to like everything you write. But, I strongly encourage you to finish writing it and meet your goal. Then you can decide if you like it or not.

You might come around, or you might find a way to make something more interesting. If not, you can always just write something else.

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Elijah Fox at the piano

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