songwriting on a schedule

Songwriting on a schedule: A tight timeline can give you great ideas

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Limiting your songwriting time may seem counter-intuitive, but it can help fuel your creativity in interesting and unexpected ways.

In 2011, the Disc Makers Blog published “Songwriting and writer’s block: 11 tips to help the songwriter get unstuck” — and when it comes to getting a much-needed creative jumpstart, the techniques included in that piece are just the beginning. Partly inspired by working on my most recent article, “The power of a simple musical arrangement“, here is another strategy that has helped me – and quite a few songwriters and composers I know – get over songwriting hurdles.

The idea is simple: write or compose on a deadline, whether it comes from a producer or artist who needs your new work by 3 pm the next day, a recording session or gig that’s coming up fast, or any other source.

Limiting your songwriting time may seem counter-intuitive, but it can help fuel your creativity in interesting and unexpected ways.

Songwriting challenges, scheduling solutions

The pitfalls of songwriting are ones that many of you are familiar with. It can be easy to spin endlessly on which particular synonym for the word “beauty” you’re going to use in your second verse or which guitar chord voicing best expresses the song’s intent at the height of the chorus. Melodies can be endlessly rewritten, as can chord structures, grooves, and everything else in your composition. In short, when you sit down to write a song, the possibilities surrounding nearly every aspect of what you’re trying to create are enormous. That freedom can be wonderful and liberating, or overwhelming and paralyzing, or all of the above – all at the same time.

Working with a deadline helps you make creative choices, commit to them, and move forward with the process of finishing a song. If you only have three hours to get from the seed of an idea to something that can entertain and engage an audience for four minutes, for example, there’s only so much time during which you can obsess over any single element.

Working quickly can also free you up to take more risks. You simply don’t have time to second-guess yourself when time is extremely tight. You have to go where your gut, heart, and fingers take you instead.

Making deadlines work for you

One way to use deadlines to your advantage is to commit to performing new songs regularly at gigs, even if they’re tunes that you write only hours before you get on stage; here’s a great Keyboard magazine interview with Amanda Palmer where she talks about writing and performing new songs, all in the same day.

Palmer’s example may not be ideal for every single artist out there, but it’s sure worth a try. There can be something magical about presenting something completely fresh and raw to a live crowd. Gauging your own feelings about a new song when presented in performance, and the audience’s reactions as well, can help you figure out where to take your creation next.

Another way to use limited time to your creative advantage is to set a countdown timer, grab a pad of paper, and get writing — no audience involved. Give yourself the goal of, say, writing three songs in three hours, lock the door and turn off your phone, and see what happens before the timer runs out. My Aurical bandmate Rachel Rossos did this exercise a few years ago and came up with some great ideas; we continue to regularly performs two of the songs that she penned during that focused writing session.

A warning

As you experiment with deadlines and songwriting, bear in mind that working quickly does not mean being lazy. Whether you have three weeks or three hours to work on a song, give your work the attention and creative commitment it deserves during whatever period of time you have.

Whether you want to share something powerful or meaningful, uplifting or exhilarating, raging or cathartic, try to express yourself as effectively as possible — even if you only have minutes of writing time in which to do it.

Do you have interesting experiences writing songs on deadline? Share them in the comments below.

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Disc Makers’ regular contributor Michael Gallant’s debut trio album Completely received a four-star review from DownBeat magazine and a five-star review from Critical Jazz, which stated: “This, my friends, is the future of jazz. Fresh, invigorating, progressive – there are simply not enough positive adjectives to list here.” Learn more, download through iTunes, jam along with the new JamBandit app, or purchase through CD Baby. Follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant or on Facebook.

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4 thoughts on “Songwriting on a schedule: A tight timeline can give you great ideas

  1. This was awesome…I thought it is being in a hurry. but this helped me refocus on song writing , make it fun short and have a dead line. I struggle with deadlines.

  2. Well, I don’t know about this “songwriting on a deadline” kind of thing unless you work for a company that has hired you to crank out songs, To me it seems totally antithetical to the creative process. If inspiration is a large part of your creative process in songwriting, how can you harness that to the clock? Haven’t you gone a little overboard on the commercial side here? I have found I can go back to songs I have not been able to complete and do so very well after a certain amount of time, in some cases a very substantial amount of time, and if I had been on a deadline that probably wouldn’t have happened. However, I am not saying this would not work for some, and might even work for me in some cases. But again I question the impact on the creative process of inspiration.
    Regarding the power of a simple musical arrangement, I couldn’t agree more. As a case in point, check out Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain” in open D tuning. Such a simplistic arrangement, such a massively powerful song.

  3. Sometimes it’s easier to write an entire song from beginning to end in one sitting than it is to complete a song that’s been lingering around for awhile. I’m working on a self-imposed deadline right now: before I begin recording with collaborators, I need to send in a batch of 15-17 songs for copyright. I just polished off one song that had me stuck for years, and another looms before I’m done. The copyright process has to get done first, as one of my collaborators is a notorious ( & unconscious ) song-stealer.

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