Songwriting and writer’s block: 11 tips to help the songwriter get unstuck

by Michael Gallant on August 25, 2011 · 44 comments

in Fast Forward,Uncategorized

What do you do when you can’t remember how to write a song? Here are tips from experienced songwriters to help you overcome writer’s block.

11 tips to overcome writer's block

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 and stifling writer’s block.

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.

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{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike Dubose August 26, 2011 at 6:21 pm

Good article!! I’m not the world’s most steadily-prolific songwriter, haha! I definitely use 1-7 and 9 (I’m the opposite of Danny Louis, my primary instrument is guitar but I do work with piano, keyboards and mandolin for song ideas)

The issue with me is lyrics. I’ve always written on acoustic guitar and I play every day with a notebook within arm’s reach. Music has always come first, even as I write this I have several complete songs (verse, chorus, bridge, coda) written. With lyrics, however, it’s always feast or famine. Usually, the feast part comes when I’m on the road. Playing every night and watching either my support act or the act I’m supporting really helps get the juices flowing. Add to that the fact that I’m sitting in a bus, RV or van for 8-16 hours a day with nothing to do BUT play guitar and you have the perfect storm. I wrote all the songs on both my upcoming releases (a solo acoustic EP and a CD with my band Mike Dubose and The Dissidents) in a 9 month period, they just poured out of me like blood from a wound and I was creatively and emotionally satiated. However, once those floodgates closed, the reservoir was dry…hence the famine part. I’ve written one song in the past 3 years!

However, I feel pressure at the dam and with the records’ release growing near, I know that once I and we hit the road, new songs will come as fast as I can write them! I have a backed up word file that serves as my “suitcase”, I think it’s 15 pages long now!

Thanks for a great article, I just thought that my “method” of using road work as another inspiration for songwriting might help somebody.

Cheers-
Mike Dubose

http://www.mikedubosemusic.com/listen
http://www.reverbnation.com/mikeduboseandthedissidents
https://www.facebook.com/mikeduboseandthedissidents

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Alan O'Day August 26, 2011 at 7:18 pm

This is good stuff, & helpful for songwriters at any level.
Thanks, Alan O’Day (http://alanoday.com)

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Angel B August 30, 2011 at 6:20 pm

Great article! Thanks for sharing these tips!

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KarmaRadio August 30, 2011 at 8:01 pm

Okay yes this is a good article for the folks who drink too much alcohol and really desire yet do not have the talent developed and are always seeking a reason to explain their lack and laziness.

a Sweet Sativa or Smooth Indica cures this ASAP and the artists finds themselves in a creative reality.

In the end the listener and observer will like or dislike.

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Badboy69cancer August 30, 2011 at 11:00 pm

Your an idiot!!! How can you knock one substance and herald one? Whatever puts you in your zone puts you in your zone. I dont think any one substance that a writer prefers hinders or helps near as much as just not living life. How can you write period if you are not out here in the world living and experiencing. To me, that makes for the best inspiration.

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Etpbass August 31, 2011 at 12:19 am

I could not agree with you more. Creativity should come from within you. My bass instructor once told me that way you live your LIFE is reflected in your music.

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Kentavious August 31, 2011 at 11:25 pm

If it weren’t for drugs and alchohol your musical collection would be almost non-existant…………..I’m just saying,,,,,,,,,,,,,

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CarmenanthonySacco October 9, 2011 at 7:47 pm

I agree with the sativa or Indica sure makes it nice But It is the way you live and whats in the heart your music comes from the soul

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Jacqueline A. Grimes November 11, 2011 at 11:11 pm

For real?  Where did you get that line of reasoning!?

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Ewo March 14, 2012 at 7:56 am

Yeah, I dont even write and can see your either a 17 yr mama’s boy or just plainly, an idiot.

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terry palmer August 30, 2011 at 10:32 pm

ITS GREAT INFO IM ON POINT

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Cathy Jones August 30, 2011 at 11:32 pm

Sometimes, taking a break can also mean a day or two doing something entirely unrelated to song writing. Asking for help is another great idea. Sometimes at a tunesmithing meeting, someone can ask a question or offer a suggestion that might be no more than a couple of words, and the entire block breaks free. It just takes different eyes and ears to have a clearer perspective. I have trouble with the writing on a secondary instrument. I’m not proficient enough on any other instrument to do that. I wrote a couple of songs on a guitar once, but when you only have 3 chords, it is limiting. It is admittedly something for me to work on. Mean time, keep the great suggestions coming! Everything helps!

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L.U.C.H August 31, 2011 at 3:19 am

this couldnt have been written an better thank you

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Rod Dodd August 31, 2011 at 6:21 am

This is a great article. However, if you really want to become a better songwriter, or anything for that matter, then the best thing to do is just do it. Life happens when you make it happen. A song happens when you make it happen and practice makes perfect. The more you do it, the better you will get.

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David Weinstone August 31, 2011 at 3:15 pm

Sometimes when I get stuck in the middle of writing a song I just stop and ask myself this: How do I actually feel about what I am writing about? What is it I really believe to be true in what I am writing?
David Weinstone
Music for Aardvarks and Other Mammals

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Bdominguez2001 August 31, 2011 at 6:21 pm

Great ideas here, I always enjoy the articles. I sometimes ask friends and fellow songwriters or performers for help and they have always come through. Most times I give them recognition by including them as co writers and I am asked at times to help with a piece that someone is stuck with; it’s a matter of brainstorming and helping each other out.
Keep up the good works.

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Sentral911 August 31, 2011 at 7:53 pm

For inspiration I like to watch youtubes of the Beatles.  This is real quality and gives me something to reach for. 

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Donnlyj August 31, 2011 at 7:57 pm

Believe me I have used erb and alcohol and I know it degrades daily practice and progress.

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Kentavious August 31, 2011 at 11:20 pm

Sometimes I just put my hand over a flame and whatever I scream out becomes a song. It worked for my last three songs “Oh Jeezzuss Christ!!”, “Please God stop the pain” and “Take me to the burn ward”.

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Kentavious August 31, 2011 at 11:30 pm

If you wanna write a sad song, go to a funeral.
If you wanna write a happy song, go to a funeral of someone you didn’t like.

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Dtd1217 August 31, 2011 at 11:38 pm

I write my best songs about people,who piss me or admire

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Kevin Ellis August 31, 2011 at 11:43 pm

This is the most accurate and helpful comment that I’ve seen posted. It seems to me that most of the comments are responding to concerns about writing songs. But I compose music, which may, or may not have lyrics. I write and perform jazz and it’s about chord progressions and melodies (notes and tones). And with that said, I still suffer from writer’s block from time to time.
You just have to continue to listen to other music. LISTEN, all the time, and just write as much as you can.

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John J Brennan September 3, 2011 at 11:38 pm

I have found that songwriters, whose music I have produced, have benefited from being in an isolated setting. I have also found that it is very economical renting a home in a beach town during the off season. I left it up to the writers themselves to set the schedules according to their specific needs. Just because the house is available for an entire month doesn’t mean that it has to be used everyday.That way there is less pressure to produce music on a timetable, and the lower rent also makes it more palatable to me when the place is not being used.

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iloveexclamations September 9, 2011 at 8:35 am

YEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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Jacqueline A. Grimes November 11, 2011 at 11:16 pm

For sure you do!!!! Now what are your thoughts on the above article?!!?

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StrongWriterDean October 10, 2011 at 5:48 pm

This is a really good list of very practical tips to shake the songwriter out of that paralysis that grips us every now and then!  I wrote a very similar article in one of my special reports, so this is an “Amen, Brother” to you.  You’re good!  I’ll be sharing your article, for sure.  

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Jacqueline A. Grimes November 11, 2011 at 11:03 pm

I’ve a bad habit of starting a song on tape, sometimes with and without a title, but not finishing it. (I’ve done #s 1,2, 4,10, and 11.)  I even struggle with the “bridge” part.  So this advice is quite useful to me.  Thanks. -Jacquel G.

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Sleepwalker1865 January 16, 2012 at 2:05 pm

when i have a block sometimes i read some of my old stuff, or i listen to some songs by some1 who i know that im better than. that is if some of the other stuff doesnt work…

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The Porcupine Tree January 16, 2012 at 2:11 pm

Good article. For myself I usually the biggest thing is to actually sit down and start doing something, and not forgetting that a good song is often a process. Of course you get a great thing instantly from time to time but often, at least for me, it’s a process where the key is just to sit down and start doing something…

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Matt Blick March 14, 2012 at 5:33 am

Great article – no 8 put a fresh spin on it for me

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em.flo<3 September 18, 2012 at 6:32 pm

a good tip that has helped me a lot, sing or write down everything that you think of, even if its something stupid like theres a train outside i cant eeven hear myself think, it could turn into something deep about not being ablle to hear yourself..you never know what might come to mind!

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who has used fat loss factor April 9, 2013 at 11:03 pm

Hola! I was interested to know if setting up a web site such your own:
http://blog.discmakers.com/2011/08/songwriting-and-writers-block-11-tips-to-help-the-songwriter-get-unstuck/ is hard to do for inexperienced people?
I have been wanting to create my own blog for
a while now but have been turned off mainly because I’ve always believed it demanded tons of work. What do you think? Kudos

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Anonymous February 17, 2014 at 10:54 pm

I think it’s a great idea! I am trying to get one going on my site http://www.newschoolofmusic.com. Any advice is appreciated.

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Isabella July 25, 2013 at 10:19 pm

Said your sorry and ageles and butterfly’s are around you can’t you see that the future is going pass I guess this is a end .so put your boots and leave from the door find a girl tonight can’t you see that we’re not meant to be together can’t you see.walk away find a taki and go and I’ll miss you.So put on your boots and leave from the door find a guy and sleep tonight or play and sing all night can’t you see we’re not ment together… Together forever and I miss you come back come bake my darling come back.run and sing like a race and together …forever

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Manuel November 28, 2013 at 3:45 pm

I was struggling to think of many ideas for songwriting for years. Recently I found a great a href=”http://songwritinglessonsonline.com/howtoovercomewritersblock.html”>songwriting ideas audio course that has really helped me beat writer’s block. There are so many strategies to writing a song improvising, mapping out thoughts/emotions and so on.. I never realized there were so many. I totally recommend it!

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Songwriting ideas course November 28, 2013 at 3:49 pm

I was struggling to think of many ideas for songwriting for years. Recently I found a great songwriting ideas audio course: http://songwritinglessonsonline.com/howtoovercomewritersblock.html

It has helped me a lot. There are so many strategies to writing a song improvising, mapping out thoughts/emotions and so on.. I never realized there were so many. I totally recommend it!

Reply

Robert February 17, 2014 at 10:58 pm

I am trying to inspire my music teachers to blog about their experiences both professionally and with the growth of their students. How should we go about getting started?

Reply

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