Jeff Tweedy has an exercise he talks about in How to Write One Song he calls the Word Ladder. The idea is to choose a noun, (an object, or maybe a profession) and write down ten verbs that are associated with it. Then you make a list of ten nouns, he suggests things in your field of vision. Then you mix and match between the two lists.
Pat Pattison suggests a similar game for creating metaphors in “Writing Better Lyrics,” which he calls writing in the key of something. Anyway, the gist here is that one of the secrets of creating unique ideas and imagery in writing is to combine things that aren’t normally connected. Sort of like the person who connected horses and narwhals in their mind, creating the beloved and magical horsewhal.
This week, I posed a question asking folks on my Patreon what songwriter they would love to learn from. My friend Jim said he’d love to learn from Yusuf/Cat Stevens. So I looked at Cat Stevens song I love “Peace Train.” I was floored when I found it combined the three elements we’ve been talking about here the last few weeks.
Peace Train uses:
Cat Stevens created a musical horsewhal. Actually, he created a unicorn. Peace Train is magical.
Did he do it consciously, or through an exercise?
I don’t have the answer to that. I’d like to believe it just bloomed out of him after those elements mulched in him for a season or two. But even if he was just sewing things together like a musical Frankenstein, it’s still a magical song.
The problem with Frankenstein’s Monster is you can see where he sewed things together. That, and it killed people. The good news is music has yet to kill anybody. (Even really, really bad music).
For listeners, bad music is at worst an inconvenience. For songwriters, bad music and bad words are essential. Writing bad music and bad words, experimenting like Frankenstein is what gets us to the good stuff. Seth Godin likes to say to people who say they don’t have any good ideas; “Show me your bad ones.” Often, they have nothing to show him. The point it’s hard to have good ideas without having bad ones first.
So go and make some horsewhals. Do it enough, and you’ll eventually find a unicorn.
The Musical Idea:
Here’s a downloadable pdf of the worksheet above: