Recognizing and cultivating a song idea
First part is the hardest: Finding an idea. Somewhere. Anywhere. Likely not when you are trying, but rather when you are away from the keyboard. I find that the best ideas, the ones I'm proudest of, come from being the spontaneous soundtrack of my daily life. In other words, I'm living my every day life, doing something I care about (or shit, something I despise), and what do you know: I happen to have a little song playing in my head while I'm doing it. This happens to me all the time.
The trick is recognizing it as something unique, and further, determining whether its worth spending more time on. At this early stage, I really try hard not to interfere. I try to let my mind do all the work while I'm on autopilot. If I try to consciously work it out in my head and make changes this early, I could end up losing part of what made it stick in the first place. I can't tell you how many times I've had a soundtrack playing in my mind, recognized it as a possible idea, and started to get a little too creative with it, thereby trashing the entire concept before it had a chance to shine. It just falls apart.
For example: I'm washing dishes and recognize that a tune is running through my mind. A relatively simply 16 bar chunk of an (as yet) unwritten song. I loop that through my head repeatedly over and over again, and then decide I can add a chorus to it. So, that's what I do. The problem is I've rushed the process, and in doing so, haven't let the 16 bar snippet (or verse, or whatever it would end up being) really sink into my brain enough to the desirable point where even if I got distracted, I'd still remember the initial idea later. So in my mind, I run through this new chorus, like it A LOT, but when I try to return to that snippet that started it all, it's gone... or transformed. Mutilated, and I can almost tell immediately that I've changed the course completely and possibly eliminated that which made it awesome to me in the first place. And if I try to return to that awesome spur of the moment chorus that I also just belted out in my mind? Well, forget it. At this point it's all a jumbled mess and I might as well just stop trying.
And sometimes that's exactly what's needed. If I stop trying and continue living life, and if the idea spoke to me enough to make an imprint on my brain, it will come crawling back out from under that rock and reveal itself again. I consider myself lucky when that happens.
It's subtle, but you really have to learn to take that nugget of an idea and stew on it. Take the core of that idea and loop it. Endlessly. When I say endlessly, I'm talking hours, if not sometimes days. Sometimes I have the same 16/32/64 bar loop stuck in my head for days. And yeah, that can be harrowing.
BUT. It can also be amazing. And exactly what I need. Because when I'm not actively trying to embellish that initial idea, and simply sticking to the initial incarnation, I find that over time, my subconscious does it for me. I might still have that song on loop in my brain two days later but it will have evolved without effort. A few things will likely be apparent by then:
1. It's obviously something that I shouldn't let go of. If it's sticky enough to latch onto my subconscious for two days, then there must be something there. At which time, sometimes, the best way to let go of it is to get it recorded. In whatever way you can. More on that later.
2. If it's been days, usually that 16-32 bar loop has turned into a much fuller song, often with a chorus, sometimes with a bridge. Sometimes, I've envisioned instruments I can't even play (harmonica, string orchestra, violin...) But by keeping myself from actively developing the song, it simply happens over time, organically.
I realize this is very esoteric, and I'm certain that this approach won't work for everybody. But if you happen to catch yourself writing little tunes in your brain, and they become the soundtrack to your life... AND you are capable of playing and recording that idea in some capacity later, then maybe you should listen to your inner self and allow that song to become something tangible. It's incredibly rewarding.
Next, I'll talk about how I write tunes when I'm asleep. Yeah, I know that sounds strange, but I have two specific examples, and I know I'm not the only one that can do this or ever has before (see Keith Richards "I Can't Get No Satisfaction")