What do you do when you hit a wall when you’re writing a song? Here are tips from experienced songwriters to help you overcome writer’s block.
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
In “How to start writing songs,” Scott McCormick states that, “All you need to write a song is your imagination and your own sense of what sounds good to you.” Sounds great, but what happens when your creativity and imagination’s wheels are spinning and gaining no traction? What do you do to pull yourself out of a creative rut? Here are 11 ideas and songwriting tips to help you get back to your creative best.
1. Start with a title
Famous songwriter, guitarist, and music producer Tommy Marolda, who has written tunes with Richie Sambora and Rod Stewart, tells me one trick is to “find an interesting title and most of the song will often write itself. That’s something I’ve used in a lot of my songwriting. With most songs, the title tells the whole story.”
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 library 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,” independent singer/professional songwriter Natalie Gelman tells me. “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.’”
3. Carry a notebook, voice recorder, or both
This may seem basic, but since you never know when inspiration will strike, it’s an important tip 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 smartphone 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? She borrowed a friend’s phone, called her own number, and sang the lick to her voicemail.
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. 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 good 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 great 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 and working on music production means an easier overall creative songwriting process. “Writing constantly helps you become comfortable with the act of crafting songs — and with yourself as a great songwriter. 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. Even if it’s 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 has played and written with blues-rock band Gov’t Mule since 2003. “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, lyrics, 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 hit song, and anything you can do to turn down the volume while penning words or melodies will be well worth it.
“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 an experienced 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.”
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 to be re-inspired. Listen to another genre of music, read a book, or go for a walk.
Taking some time away gives your brain a chance to reset, or at least move past the rut or cliché it was banging against. It’s amazing how, sometimes, the line you need or song idea you’ve been chasing will manifest in songwriting success when you’re doing something completely unrelated to songwriting or music production.
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.” This isn’t advice to go lift someone else’s material, but a springboard to a new idea. As Marolda puts it, “Ask yourself, ‘What if I went in this direction instead of using this chord that they used?’ and see where that takes you.”
Michael Gallant is a musician, writer, and entrepreneur living in New York City. His debut album for the Steinway & Sons label, Rock Rewind, features solo piano reinventions of Pearl Jam, U2, Halestorm, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Radiohead, and more. Read his recent article for the National Endowment for the Arts and follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant and Facebook.com/GallantMusic.
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