How dreams can inspire your songwriting


Illustration: Ellie Suh

Everyone (hopefully) goes to sleep, and sometimes we remember the dreams that we have during that time.

Your dreams, however ridiculous, fanatical, nonsensical, or confusing, are rife with creative material that can be used in the songwriting process. There’s always some character—most likely yourself—and some action taking place, so you already have the main ingredients for a story.

In this post, let’s break down how dream interpretation can be used as a new tool that adds to your creative process.

Define the dream

Start with writing down what happened in your dream. Most of us don’t remember our dreams when we wake up; that’s perfectly normal. I’ve personally been keeping a dream journal since I was a kid, and the years of waking up and jotting down my subconscious adventures trained my brain to remember fragments from my lucid dreams.

That said, you don’t need to remember much – just write what you can. Even an idea like “I was running in the dark in my dream” is more than enough to work with. Keep it pared down to a list of simple statements.

Here’s an example of a dream I had:

  • I was standing in a desert, and someone next to me asked me to marry them.
  • I said yes very quickly. The sun was bright but I wasn’t sweating.
  • We had to cross a highway to get to a chapel.
  • This person kept reaching for my hand, and I kept snatching it away.
  • They kept saying something, but I couldn’t understand it. It sounded like white noise.
  • I felt an overwhelming urge to get away from this person. So I ran away from them across the highway.

Break it down

I’m standing in an empty desert, and there’s only one other person who I remember.

Where are you? What’s your setting / dreamscape? Thinking about the environment can give you ideas on what sounds to start writing with. I can recreate a desert-like environment or vibe with sonic elements like dry snares, foley wind sounds, cinematic effects, dry rattles, and tumbleweeds. I can also start to brainstorm different effects to experiment with – fast decays, short sustains, echo, etc.

You might try to incorporate everything, or just pick one sound as a starting point. Imagine that you’re creating the score for your own made-up movie scene, and don’t hesitate to have some fun with it.

Identify what happens (or doesn’t happen)

I’m standing still for most of the dream, until I run out alone to get away from this person.

This lack of action and the last-minute impulse reminds me of a tarot card, the 8 of swords. The loose interpretation is that one believes they’re trapped in a situation, but their feet are actually free and they can choose to walk away; how they think of the situation is worse than the reality of the situation.

With a setting, action, and character(s) define, you now have a strong foundation to inspire your lyrical content. Here’s an example I wrote from this dream interpretation:

Dehydrated, but I ain’t ever thirsty
Just delusional, that this was ever working

You said we were already headed there
Why make a move?
When I could do all the work
When I could make all the moves?
You don’t have any moves

So, what’s the story?

While I said yes to this person in my dream, my action of running away from them presumes that I didn’t really want to be with this person. I didn’t see who that person was, and it doesn’t matter for this exercise; the single detail that there was some other presence was all that was needed. It’s the idea your dream represents that gives you something to write about.

Your lyrics are conveying a sentiment of some kind, and most of the time a story. What’s the message you’re trying to communicate? I’m realizing in this dream that I’m committing to something I don’t want to do, but still going along with things as if everything were fine. There isn’t anyone else around in that desert to bear witness, so I’m putting the pressure on myself to be with this person. I wrote this example of how I took action—my emotional interpretation of the situation—here:

But you make all the rules
And you tell me to keep my cool
That I can still choose
To walk away
But I don’t every day
I just stay and have it your way

So I just go through the motions
Why don’t I have the right emotions
For this time and place?
I don’t feel a type of way
When I see your face

I’ll go at my own pace
My love isn’t going to waste.

No one knows what dreams mean, and no one can tell you if your interpretation is right or wrong. But, while your ego is asleep and your subconscious is running, you have a unique opportunity to get new ideas and starting points for your songwriting process—and maybe you’ll even learn a lesson or two that your mind is trying to tell you when your guard is down. Happy dreaming, and happy songwriting!

May 1, 2020

Hannah Park Hannah Park is an engineer at Splice and a songwriter based in New York City. In her free time, she's an aspirational amateur baker.