Songwriting and writers block

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

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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.”


rock rewindMichael 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.

Professional songwriters offer advice on how to write a great song

Michael Gallant

About Michael Gallant

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.

37 thoughts on “Songwriting and writer’s block: 11 tips to help the songwriter get unstuck

  1. Pingback: PPC Manager
  2. 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!

  3. 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…

  4. 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…

  5. 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.

  6. 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.  

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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”.

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

    1. yep same here. SOMETIMES I LIKE TO WATCH JACKIE WILSON OR GET REAL INSPIRED BY BANDS SUCH AS ALICE IN CHAINS, TEMPLE OF THE DOG, AND PEARLJAM. AND ON THE RAPSIDE, LORD INFAMOUS, AND BONE THUGS N HARMONY.

  12. 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.

  13. 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

  14. 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.

  15. 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!

  16. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

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

        2. 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

        3. very true you know how many artist are very influenced when they are under their choice of substance(s)

  17. 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
    http://www.facebook.com/mikeduboseandthedissidents

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