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Should You Write Songs from Personal Experience or Your Imagination?

Much like the age-old songwriting soup-versus-salad debate, there’s a lot of disagreement between camps over whether a song should be deliberately written from your hard-fought experiences in life or from stories made up in your head.

The Argument for Imagination

Some feel as though it isn’t fair for you to write about something about which you know nothing or haven’t personally experienced. After all, so many lived experiences (both positive and negative) are unique to you and have impacted your perspective, and those should be shared. If you lived through difficult times and lived to tell about them, sing about it!

While this is noble and inspiring, however, I don’t believe songs must be written only from lived experience. There are only so many experiences one person can have in life, and younger people are at an even greater disadvantage. At some point in time, you will run out of ideas to write about if you’re solely drawing from your own life. And, let’s be honest, not everything that happens in life is interesting enough to write a song about. That time you rode your first roller coaster and cried might have been hilarious to your friends, but think twice about whether the rest of the world will find it as funny.

The imagination is a deeply powerful thing. Intuition, channeled through stream-of-consciousness songwriting, can be a mind-opening experience and lead to incredibly creative lyrical places that might be inaccessible otherwise.

Humans are also pretty darn capable of empathy, personally and emotionally feeling and experiencing something others are going through. That means we don’t necessarily have to go through an experience ourselves to understand what it’s like. Workshop your ideas, and try to get feedback wherever possible when writing new material. It will help you understand what resonates with other people’s life experiences.

+ Learn more on Soundfly: If you’re stuck in a songwriting rut, we can help! Preview our popular mentor-driven course, The New Songwriter’s Workshop, and open yourself up to the immense possibilities of song craft! Here’s singer-songwriter Joe Marson in an exclusive interview with Soundfly on the songwriting process. 

The Argument for Lived Experience

Obviously, writing from personal experience is very powerful and can help you craft an incredible song. You should try it before you knock it.

Once, I had a personal experience with one of my co-writers where he went through a transformation. We had been writing together since we were teenagers and had plenty of songs about love and heartbreak. After he experienced his first actual, devastating breakup, it changed his perspective forever. Not long after, we wrote one of our best songs about that special someone walking away from your life forever.

Working with collaborators whenever possible not only offers new perspectives on frequently written-about topics and experiences but, more importantly, it opens up a whole new set of life experiences for your songs. Talk to people, friends, family, even strangers, and listen to their stories. Understand what they’ve gone through, and use it to build stories in your songs, with or without a collaborator.

Compelling ideas and narratives can come from wherever — if they resonate with you, they might have the same effect on your audience.

Various occurrences and events in our lives affect most of what we’re capable of imagining and putting to paper. So, our imagined experiences really aren’t far from the reality. It’s almost like those movies that are “based on a true story.” While not every detail is exactly spot on, the core concept really happened, much like how even great “made up” songs usually turn out.

One informs the other.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “How to Overcome Musical Boredom? Make ‘Incorrect’ Music Instead”

Try experimenting with both lived and imagined experiences and a combination of the two to see how your songs change. For a great example of merging real life with your imagination, take a listen to some of Frank Ocean’s lyrics.

Using your imagination gives you the freedom to play around with both old stories and new ideas and potentially create something nobody’s ever heard!

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Seth Caldwell
Seth Caldwell

Seth Caldwell is the creative director of songlaboratory.com. He is a songwriter and producer that has written and recorded with #1 billboard hit songwriters. If you're ready to take your music and songwriting to the next level contact Song Laboratory to get your project started.