If you're ever in need of a new way to kick-start a new song idea, the ghost song may be just the ticket. The term 'ghost song' refers to the use of another song as a template.
Choose Your Template
First you need to choose a song you would like to use. I would encourage you to pick a hit song, because you can be sure a lot of time and effort went into writing it. It might be helpful to choose a song in the same genre as the song you intend to write. But it's not necessary. I have used R&B songs as templates, and I never write R&B songs!
Now before I go any further, let me make it clear you are not stealing anything. Your finished song should not resemble the ghost song at all. It should end up being completely your own.
Write Your Own Story
Once you've chosen your song, begin by replacing the existing lyrics with your own. The idea is not to copy the storyline, but to borrow the rhythmic feel of the lyric. Use the rhythm and melody as a guide for writing lyrics. As you progress further into your new song, begin changing the melody here and there.
If you play guitar or piano it will help to start playing different chords than the ones in the original song. Also loosen your grip on the rhythm. Allow your song room to grow, and pretty soon your song will begin to take on a life of its own.
I'll give you an example of how I used this method during one of my own songwriting sessions.
At the time I had Avril Lavigne's song "Keep Holding On" stuck in my head, as it was in heavy rotation. So I decided to use it one night and began writing lyrics to it.
I had a couple of pages of 'missing you' type lines, the result of a freewriting session. Several of those lines jumped out at me as being pretty good, so I circled them. I replaced the original opening lines of the Avril Lavigne song with some of these. I began writing the song in the form of a letter. I even wrote the words "I hope this letter will find you okay."
I began asking myself questions such as "Who and where is this person?" and "Why am I praying for his or her safe return?" I decided the song would be about a loved one who was away at war. That song became an example of some of the best lyrics I've written. And apart from tempo, I'm happy to say it bears no resemblance to "Keep Holding On".
Write Your Own Melody
Once you have a handle on where your song is headed, concentrate on the melody. This is very important. Your melody must be your own. Be sure to spend a lot of time on your melody. I believe it to be the most important part of a song.
This is where you drop any remaining shred of the ghost song. It's like learning to ride a bicycle. The training wheels are there to help you for a while. Eventually you take them off and ride by yourself.
Try out the ghost song technique for yourself. I think you may be pleasantly surprised!