Songwriter’s block: where does it come from?

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Creativity comes from divergent thinking, and the stresses of work and family life can cause it to disappear and leave you with the dreaded songwriter’s block.

Adapted and excerpted from Beating Songwriter’s Block: Jump-start Your Words and Music (Backbeat Books). Reprinted with permission.
Beating Songwriter's Block
When did you know you were a songwriter? You may have come to it as an adult, but more than likely the seeds were sown when you were a young teenager, maybe even younger. Perhaps it was while learning those first few chords on your new guitar. Or maybe you started conjuring up musical ideas while trying to stave off boredom, practicing for your piano lessons.

Whenever it was, at some point you came to a realization that the ability to create music was within you. And you realized something else: writing music gave you a pleasure that simply playing it could not. You experienced a deep sense of satisfaction and pride every time you completed a song.

As this young musician, you suddenly found a new and exciting way to express yourself, and it was satisfying. Your developing musical mind allowed you to realize that certain sounds, chords and melodic shapes held meaning for you. As your songwriting abilities matured and improved, you found courage to express your musical abilities to others. You started feeling confident to allow others to listen to your songs at high school variety shows, local cafés, and songwriters circles. And this exposed you to the work of other songwriters, which led to changes and a further maturing of your writing style. You found yourself able to take chances, and to express yourself in new and innovative ways.

Divergent thinking

In psychology, the ability to think creatively is a product of “divergent thinking.” That’s a term that refers to one’s knack for exploring several possible ideas or answers in the processing of information. As we know, thinking creatively often means thinking, saying, doing, and writing things that are unexpected. Certainly to be a songwriter requires it.

Research shows that creative thinking can be significantly damaged by many aspects of what it means to live in today’s busy world: physical and mental exhaustion, the lack of structure in daily scheduling, and excessive drug and/or alcohol use.

The inability to compose songs should not be automatically interpreted as songwriter’s block. Being distracted by family duties, having an oppressive work or school schedule, or worrying about aspects of one’s health are all issues that can keep musicians from being creative.

When we cannot compose because of those types of problems, the dilemma should not be seen as a kind of songwriter’s block, but rather as the direct result of a mental distraction. One could say that once all distractions are resolved, writer’s block is what remains if you cannot write.

It’s normal for anyone involved in the creative arts to have moments during the writing process when they feel stuck, unable to create new ideas. When these moments keep them struggling for a few hours, even a day or two, we would simply say that it’s a normal struggle that happens anytime someone tries to be creative. Most people know this, but when it happens it can be immediately worrisome.

To use an analogy, a day without rain does not mean drought. If, however, that day or two becomes several, or stretches into weeks or months, it is most certainly a drought, and – as with songwriter’s block – it is an issue of severity. Here is a list of feelings and experiences that people with writer’s block suffer, many or all of which you are probably encountering right now:

  • You feel almost totally uninspired.
  • You can’t seem to generate musical ideas that could lead to a finished song.
  • Negative comments from others about your music have caused you to fear writing.
  • Positive comments from others about your music make you worry that you’ll let your audience and supporters down.
  • Rather than stimulating your creative mind and generating excitement, the success of other songwriters saps your confidence.
  • Your own songs sound boring to you.
  • Your last few songs all sound the same.

As you can see, writer’s block is a sapping of a songwriter’s creative abilities and inspiration, made worse by an overwhelming sense of fear.

You’re not alone

The term “writer’s block” is, of course, not exclusive to the world of musical composition. All those who create for a living – novelists, columnists, choreographers, playwrights, even visual artists – are painfully familiar with the dreaded term. Almost anyone who must create a work of art, who must generate something original from their brain, knows the sinking feeling of staring at a blank piece of paper with their mind going similarly blank.

If you’re like most songwriters, there will be times when giving the bathroom a good scrub feels more appealing than sitting down to write. So when creative ideas evaporate, and your musical imagination has all but disappeared, what’s going on?

For authors, writer’s block is a well-studied, highly scrutinized phenomenon in the fields of medical research and psychology; in short, very much written about by people with lots of letters after their names. Not so much in the music world, however.

Though research in the specific field of songwriter’s block is a bit thin, research on the concept of creativity is, thankfully, more abundant. Understanding writer’s block, whether talking about an author attempting to finish a novel or a composer trying to finish a song, requires an understanding of the concept of creativity.

Researchers know that the ability to think creatively is part of being human, and has little to do with background or personality. Perhaps one of the best descriptions of what it means to be creative comes from Teresa Amabile, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and a researcher in the field of creativity, who depicts it with three intersecting circles representing three different elements: expertise (knowledge), motivation, and creative-thinking skills.

As a songwriter, the “expertise” part of that formula is easy to grasp: it is the understanding of the basic mechanics of how music works. Motivation is the enthusiasm you feel for songwriting as a personal activity. But it’s that third component, the “creative-thinking skills,” that is the trickiest one to delineate.

Keep in mind that Amabile is writing with her business school hat on, addressing managers of businesses and organizations, not songwriters. Nonetheless, her definition, “Creative-thinking skills determine how flexibly and imaginatively people approach problems,” makes one thing clear: creative-thinking skills will not be something that can be easily quantified. And if we cannot quantify them, that makes an accurate understanding of what it means to be creative a bit sticky as well.

Home-remedies – these “here’s-what-I-tried” kind of solutions, might not satisfy you. Perhaps you need better solutions, ones supported by research, and ones that can, if possible, represent a more permanent cure. If you really want songwriting to return you to that feeling of joy you once experienced, a solution needs to accomplish two things:
1) cure the block you’re experiencing today; and
2) teach you strategies that will make the more debilitating forms of writer’s block a thing of the past – permanently. It’s no good curing songwriter’s block if you sense that it could return again at any time.

A quick and permanent solution should be the aim and desire of every songwriter.

Pro tip

Discouraged, and can’t seem to get back in a good place, psychologically? Research has shown that the simple act of remembering the good times can have a positive effect on your mood, and may be all you need to return you to a positive frame of mind. Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps, Ph.D, suggests something unique for doing this: when you’re feeling great, write a letter to your discouraged self as if you’re a supportive friend helping someone through a tough time.

Tell yourself that you know what it’s like to feel discouraged with your songwriting. And most importantly, remind yourself that the current songwriting drought has been solvable before, and will be solvable again. Then seal the letter and put it away. When the time comes that you feel the grip of songwriter’s block, take the letter out and read it. It will feel like a vote of confidence and encouragement that will quite possibly get you back on the right track.

Read more in Gary Ewer’s book, Beating Songwriter’s Block. Visit beatingsongwritersblock.halleonardbooks.com and enter the discount code AP2 at checkout to receive 20% off the list price and free domestic shipping (least expensive method)!

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10 thoughts on “Songwriter’s block: where does it come from?

  1. My block comes from the limited access black writers have in this industry, that suggests only rap or smooth jazz is all black people can be recognized for. I have all these wonderful POP songs that have seemingly no avenue to be heard. To write more seems pointless, when there is no outlet. Or is there? Until I get something signed, there is no reason to continue something that is as natural to me as breathing………….Dismayed!!!

    1. Terry, I am into Christian praise and worship songs. I started writing from 1988, and I have not stopped. Recently I try to get friends and relations who can sing and take them to the studio. I am trying to record as many as I can because I believe it is a talent that I have to give an account to my maker. I take inspiration from the writers of the Church hymnals. They got nothing in return for their works but today we bless their souls for what they have left for us. Just encourage yourself and keep on writing, and DIY. God bless you

    1. Create space between all those never ending thoughts in your head. Thoughts such as, ” do I have writers block”?, will I ever write another good song”? “If I read this article about writers block will it help me or just give me an excuse for why I’m not writing?” ” What do the Phd”s think about it”, Or any of the thousands of thoughts saying why you can’t do it anymore and the reasons why”. Don’t concern yourself about what researchers have found out about it as they could be part of the problem. Why? Overthinking without space, of course ! Just find ways to create space between all those brilliant thoughts you have. That is when you will create. But don’t look for it as if you were looking for something. You can’t pin it down and say, ” Now I have it”, or grasp it mentally and define it in some way. It is like the cloudless sky, It has no form. It is space. And it’s definitely more than the words I just wrote which are only pointers. Most people, in their restless search for something significant to happen to them, continuously miss the insignificant, which may not be insignificant at all.
      A couple of ways to help create space =
      1. Conscious Breathing. When you breathe consciously, those normal brilliant thoughts disappear and you create space. Maybe write a great song? Those brilliant thoughts will gladly take a back seat.
      2. Say ” I am” and add nothing to it. Be aware of the stillness that follows the ” I am”. Sense your presence , the naked, unveiled, unclothed beingness. It is untouched by young or old, rich or poor, good or bad, Researchers or Phd’s, and any other attributes. It is the spacious womb of all creation. So go ahead and write that song, it’s in you right now, but don’t think you have it written before it’s written.

  2. Not much for the mechanics of getting creative. If you are already thinking about not being creative you have already invited writers block to entrench itself. Divergent thinking is part of the clue as well as expertise and therein lies the answer. The simple answer is learn a dufferent instrument, learn another genre and write a new song in it, read a book on how the Beatles and the people behind them produced their wonderful music, spend some time studying music theory, or buy a different keyboard, guitar or pick up the bass if you haven’t. You will be surprised at how suddenly there is this creative energy spinning out from this new direction in you music approach.

    For example, new amp, new lead technique, can suddenly open up a whole new world. I am going back to do an album using and electric 12 string and will be filling my days learning the chords and riffs of Roger McGuqinn, George Harrison and Tom Petty, as I learn the riffs or variations I will record anything that may later be used to generate a song.

  3. I started writing songs in the early 1960s. Luckily, I got a deal when I was pretty young. It all went fine for a while, then we got into contractual disputes. That was like having my oxygen supply cut off.

    Even more luckily, I got picked up by an ambitious pair of songwriters a few years later. One of them worked for a publishing house and he managed to swing a deal so that the publisher paid upfront for modest recording costs. In my experience, nothing like the possibility that someone might actually LISTEN to your song to get the creative juices flowing.

  4. Good eye-opening article.
    One person that should read this is Billy Joel……seems like he’s had writer’s block for the last 15 years, at least….

    1. HA! i would LOVE to hear some new stuff from him!
      it ticks off alotta folks when i say what comes next, but i have to say it-
      the Holy Spirit is one of the best muses on this planet, and when i get to a place where i can just focus on Him,He drops a new song in my ear or onto my strings to the ‘tune of” prob’ly 80-90% of the time!
      it doesn’t ALWAYS result in a flood of creativity, sometimes it’s just enuf to finish that last verse, or a riff that doesn’t really get birthed into a SONG for months or even years in some cases, but He inhabits the praises of His people and He certainly knows how to make cool sounds come out of us!
      i also agree with remembering good times, doing so can really help lift me up out of a slump when it’s not something real horrid that’s got me down or stumped.
      hope that’s encouraging!

      1. Mozart prayed for ideas. Brahms said that the musical idea presented itself to him as a gift from God. I’d say you are in good company.

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