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Using Wikipedia For Concept Album Ideas

6:00 am Songwriting

Despite the emphasis on individual songs and personal playlists these days, I and other old-timers still like the idea of an album, not just one song but a set of songs, put on a record or CD in a certain order and meant to be heard straight through from beginning to end (Shuffle Mode “off”). But let’s face it. This is not the way most people listen to music nowadays!

Even today, though, there is a place for multi-song suites that illuminate different aspects of a songwriter’s personality or different parts of a story that takes an album to tell. Sure, such a work demands more of the listener, but there are listeners out there who want to be challenged a bit. Right?

I have written before about the enjoyment I get from conceiving, writing and recording sets of songs with a specific theme or story, yes, those long-form works known as “concept albums”. (See, for example, my article Mini-Tip: Write and Record A Concept Album!) I have picked up ideas for concept albums from movies, novels I’ve read, and the lives of historical figures. I use plot points in the movie or story or significant events in the life of my human subject as springboards for songwriting. It makes it MUCH easier for me to write a decent song when I start out with something specific (but not too specific) to build on.

Take Your Stations

Here’s where Wikipedia comes in! I recently finished recording and mixing a 14-song album called Stations. The original impetus was the February Album Writing Month website, which called for participants to write and record a 14-song album during the otherwise dreary month of February. I can do that, I figured. Of course, I wanted to make mine a concept album! So I went to Wikipedia, and I looked up…..”14″.

That’s right, I looked up the number 14! I was looking for something that there were 14 of that I could use to suggest titles and/or subjects for my songs. I learned that there are 14 legs on a woodlouse and that 14 electrons fill up an f sublevel, but mostly I learned that there are 14 Stations Of the Cross. Not being religious myself, I had only vaguely heard of this, but it definitely sounded grand enough to consider!

The entry for the Stations Of the Cross gave a list of 14 sentences describing the Stations, which turn out to pertain to the final events of Jesus’s life. I simply used these 14 sentences one by one as springboards for the songs of the album. It worked perfectly! There was no attempt to have the songs be about Jesus (um, it’s been done). It was just a set of 14 interesting sentences to roll around in my head while writing songs. So, “Jesus is given his cross” (Station 2) became “Don’t Give Me That”. “Jesus is stripped of his garments” (Station 10) became “Take My Shirt”. And so on. (As a side benefit, I now have all of the Stations memorized, which could come in handy if I am ever on Jeopardy!)

Five By Five

Here’s another example to show you just how far you can take this idea. Before I was even finished with Stations, I got the songwriting “bug” again and wanted to put together a few new tunes. This time I decided to write a “concept EP” of five songs. (Fourteen turns out to be a lot of songs!)

I went back to Wikipedia to look up “5″. Did you know there are five Pillars Of Islam? (A lot of numbered things seem to be religious for some reason.) And did you know that some ancient Greeks believed that there were five Basic Elements?

Just as a fun experiment, I created five pairs of words, with each pair having words representing one Pillar and one Element. Then I wrote lyrics inspired by each of the pairs. I was surprised by the results! You would have to try something like this yourself to realize how fun (and easy) it was to come up with some really decent songs this way. It’s as if my creativity was inspired by being given those pairs of ideas to rub against each other.

Here are the pairs I used and the resulting song titles:

1. Creed + Fire = “This Is My Fire”
2. Prayer + Air = “Into the Air”
3. Fasting + Earth = “Down To Earth”

4. Charity + Water = “Water Flow In, Water Flow Out”

5. Pilgrimage + Ether = “The Place Where Nothing Happens”

I’m telling you - this is going to be a great EP!

So, what about you? Are you a songwriter who would enjoy writing a suite of songs based on an underlying theme? Do you find it easier to write a good song when you have a starting point or “assignment”? If so, try my plan: (1) decide how many songs you want in your suite; (2) look up that number on Wikipedia to see if there are that number of something that interests you; (3) fire up your imagination and write the songs!

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