Iconic songs come in all shapes and flavors: from Kermit the Frog’s plaintive rendition of “The Rainbow Connection” to AC/DC raging with “Back In Black,” from Thelonious Monk’s wistful meanderings on “’Round Midnight” to John Lennon’s utopian dreaming with “Imagine.” Obviously, the list goes on an on – and wonderfully enough, on a regular basis, inspired songwriters add new entries to the pantheon of timeless compositions.
Creating a memorable song is rarely as easy as just humming a pretty melody and writing down some lyrics, though. And just like writers of prose or non-fiction, even the most successful songwriters hit creative walls.
So where do you turn when you can’t seem to remember how to write a song? What do you do if you’ve got an explosive first verse but can’t come up with a chorus? What if you’re stuck with a blank page in front of you and don’t know where to start? Here are some tips from a range of experienced songwriters to help you overcome your own writer’s block.
1. Start with a title
“Find an interesting title and most of the song will often write itself,” says songwriter, guitarist, and producer Tommy Marolda, who has written tunes with Richie Sambora and Rod Stewart. “That’s something I’ve used in a lot of my songwriting.” Successful song-crafters like Bon Jovi and Diane Warren have used this strategy, and songs like “Living’ On A Prayer,” “Bed Of Roses,” and “Dead Or Alive” were written this way. “With most songs, the title tells the whole story,” he continues.
But where can you get an intriguing song title if the ideas just aren’t flowing? “Try looking at magazines,” says Marolda. “You can flip through the table of contents and sometimes they use interesting hyperbole or plays on words that can spark something in you. Or go to a poetry section in a book store and look at the titles of poems.”
Marolda strongly recommends adapting phrases to make them your own before using them as your song title. “Sometimes you can just substitute one word for another,” he says. “If you substitute words inside the framework of an already clever title, you can often come up with something original.”
2. Look and listen everywhere
“Whether you’re on a train, walking around, or just having a conversation, you never know what you’re going to hear,” says independent singer/songwriter Natalie Gelman. “When I’m really in the moment and paying attention to what’s happening around me, sometimes I’ll hear someone say something random and think, ‘That’s a great line! I should use that.’”
For Marolda, “listening everywhere” includes checking out pre-fabricated drum grooves from music production libraries for musical inspiration. Guitarist, producer, and composer Chris Munger, who has worked with bands like Public Enemy and networks such as Comedy Central, uses his native surroundings to spark inspiration. “Since I live in New York City, I love to go out and people watch and make up stories about the people I see,” he says.
3. Carry a notebook, voice recorder, or both
This may seem basic, but since you never know when inspiration will strike, it’s important to have a way to document a great musical idea whenever it comes along.
If you’re comfortable with traditional musical notation, a small notebook with staff lines can be all you need. If you prefer to sing your melodies, a voice recorder on a smart phone or another small recording device can do the trick.
Gelman recalls one time when she came up with a great musical idea, but had neither pen and paper nor any sort of recording device nearby to document it. Her solution? Borrowing a friend’s phone, calling her own voicemail, and singing the fresh lick to her own voice mail.
4. Keep unfinished ideas
Even if you’re only able to come up with a verse here and a chorus there, save everything you write, recommends Marolda. “A lot of famous songwriters have a suitcase full of ideas that they pull for different songs when they get stuck,” he says. “Go back into your own catalog of unfinished work and see what’s hanging out. You’d be surprised that a bridge you wrote years ago might fit perfectly with a song you’re working on now.”
Marolda’s trove of songwriting bits and pieces includes writing pads with lyrics and melodies, some finished, some unfinished. He also saves pages filled with unused song titles. “When I was writing for Richie Sambora’s solo records, all he would ask for were titles and ideas,” says Marolda. “There are hundreds of things that he didn’t use and I still have them here. I’ve turned them into songs for Rod Stewart and other people.”
5. Write a lot
For Gelman, more hours spent writing music means an easier overall creative process. “Writing constantly helps you become comfortable with the act of crafting songs — and with yourself as a songwriter,” she says. “As songwriters, we have to accept the good, the bad, and the ugly that comes out when we write. It’s important not to reject anything that you write, and to keep writing.”
Part and parcel of writing a lot is working on whatever inspires you at any given moment, regardless of whether or not it fits into your genre of choice. Are you a shred-metal guitarist who suddenly comes up with a great Zydeco accordion line? Write it down. Even if it’s totally unusable for your current band or project, you never know when such a creative tidbit might come in handy down the road.
6. Identify your own clichés
“When there’s a block, it’s not because you hear nothing,” says keyboardist Danny Louis, who plays and writes for groundbreaking blues-rock band Gov’t Mule. “It’s that you’re hearing your old clichés. You’re just getting that same old bridge and pre-chorus that you’ve written a million times.” In moments of creative frustration, it can be easy to fall back on those comfortable licks, melodies, and chord progressions you’ve been using for years. But being able to smell your own clichés can also give you the awareness you need to do something truly unique.
7. Keep your inner critic at bay
Self-criticism can be a crippling force when you’re trying to write a song, and anything you can do to turn down the volume while penning words or melodies will be well worth it. “Good writing, just like acting or singing, is a marriage of heart, talent, and skill,” says Aurora Barnes, who writes music for Dramatico Entertainment. “If it’s meaningful to you, it will be to someone else as well.”
“The biggest problem songwriters face is fear,” asserts Gelman. “You can get scared of any number of things — but the most common one is, will my stuff be any good? You really just have to be present when you’re writing, honor whatever comes out, and make sure to capture or record it. Judging yourself in the moment won’t get you anywhere.”
8. Ask for help
“I usually have a three-to-seven day window in which I find I can finish a song myself,” says Gelman. “If I don’t finish something by then, I usually bring in someone to help me.”
Rather than seeing a co-writer as a crutch, Gelman sees it as an opportunity to push herself as a songwriter. “My friend Brad Yoder once described co-writing as looking at someone else’s crossword puzzle and filling in the gaps,” she says. “I love co-writing. As a songwriter, it can help you go where you’re scared to go by yourself.”
Choosing the right co-writer can be as challenging as choosing the right band mate or producer, so proceed with caution. Ask trusted colleagues for referrals and try to pick collaborators who you think will give your work the respect and attention it deserves.
9. Write on a secondary instrument
For Louis, creating fresh musical ideas often means writing songs on more unfamiliar instruments; in fact, much of his writing for Gov’t Mule happens on guitar, even though he plays keys for the band. “One thing I try that totally throws me for a loop is to pick up a bass guitar, improvise melodies on the bass, and sing a bass line at the same time,” he says. “The less familiar you are with the instrument you’re playing, the better. It really helps you break out of your own clichés.”
Louis also recommends spending a few hours with a drum kit, especially if you’re not a drummer. “A lot of times, the pitches of the drums, and cymbals, can be inspiring,” he says. “You can fart around on the drums to create melodic ideas that you could never pick out on a guitar or keyboard. If you just play the drums as notes, you can come up with both rhythms and note patterns that can be really inspiring.”
10. Take a break
“Sometimes you just need to eat,” says Barnes. “You need to be re-inspired. Sometimes I listen to music, read a book, go for a walk, or maybe even turn on the TV for a bit.”
For Munger, physical exercise often does the trick. “I feel like that’s a great way to clear your head and inspire you,” he says, also pointing towards watching a good movie as a useful mental reprise. “You have to walk away from your instrument when you’re having a writing block,” he continues. “Songwriting is like anything in life. Time away makes coming back that much better.”
11. Use your favorite artists for inspiration
“Sit down with recordings of some of your favorite songs and jam along with them, regardless of what instrument you play,” recommends Marolda. “Doing so may spark ideas for you instrumentally, relating to chord structure or chord progression, or may give something that will then turn into a full song of your own.”
Marolda is not advocating ripping off your idols. “You’d think that you’re just copying someone else’s work, but your interpretation is going to be completely different,” he promises. “Just stop the original piece of music and record the chords that you were playing, or the piano part that you came up with, and use that as a seed for something new. Ask yourself, ‘What if I went here instead of using this chord that they used?’”
Michael Gallant writes, produces, sings, and plays keyboards for the indie rock band Aurical. He is also the founder of Gallant Music, a custom content and music creation firm based out of New York City. For more, visit auricalmusic.com and gallantmusic.com.