You know those times when you want to get going on a new song or, more frequently, when you’ve got a verse for a song but nothing else and you’d like to finish it off? Isn’t it annoying when inspiration just doesn’t seem to be available? Where is the muse when you need her? This is precisely the time when you can prove your skill as a songwriter. If you only ever write songs when you’re inspired, chances are, you’re going to end up with a lot of half-written songs and a very short setlist for your next gig.
Here’s how to avoid that problem in 5 easy songwriter’s block-eradicating ways:
1) Improvise, improvise, improvise
The first rule of songwriting, in my opinion, is to have the musical equivalent of a wide vocabulary that you can express yourself with. There are two ways to develop this. Either you learn scales and chords and arpeggios that form the framework of any piece of music, or you try to become the best musician/singer that you can be by improvising to your favourite genre of music ceaselessly. (Perhaps a combination of the two would be ideal..?) Some people really don’t want to put in the work to learn scales and all of that ‘boring stuff’ but if you find you can’t naturally come up with lines of improvised music effortlessly then you may be avoiding the very thing that would help you most. Once you have the musical skill to improvise new and continuously evolving musical ideas, you can ‘play around with’ a small bit of music you like and gradually ‘find’ the next verse pattern and then a chorus pattern that you need to complete a song. If all else fails for coming up with new ideas, sing the lyrics of a song you like but make up a new tune or vice-versa as a way of gradually building up a song of your own.
2) Gather together all your half-written songs
If you’ve got lots of ‘bits’ of songs but can’t seem to finish any of them, try this 8-step method:
1) Write out the lyrics of all the ‘bits of songs’ you have and put each one in an envelope with a provisional title written on them. (As you can see, this works just as well for manifesting some money and generating ideas to build a website – yes, that’s what those files and debit cards in the middle there are all about…)
2) Gather together a handful of things you love (a favourite book, an old journal, a soft toy your ex-boyfriend bought you, or whatever has great meaning or sentimental value for you) and put them in a circle around you. (Spot the Cookie Monster…)
3) Put the envelopes of songs in the middle.
4) Sit in the middle of the circle and look at all the objects you love and think about their significance while sifting through your pile of envelopes.
5) Gradually decide on 2-3 songs to focus on.
6) Aim to add at least two new lines of lyrics to each one by playing/singing through them or contemplating the lyrics for a while but set yourself a time limit of about 30-45 minutes to do this.
7) Play/sing through these songs again with the new lyrics added (improvise a melody if necessary)
8) See if one song emerges as wanting more time spent on it and work on that one more.
This should at least take you forward or give you new ideas you can explore until the music you want to fit to the new parts of the song develops. If all else fails, try the next tip.
3) Distract yourself with another creative medium for a limited time
If nothing seems to be working, try to distract your brain from the mechanics of getting a song written by doing something else creative instead. That could be making a cake,
(I find chocolate cake helps in so many situations…)
drawing a picture, writing a poem, taking some photos or dancing to a song you love. Anything that feels creatively engaging and freeing could help at this point. Set yourself a limit of 90 minutes for this. Then come back to the songwriting and see if something develops.
4) Jump to the beat
If nothing else is working and you’re feeling tired and fed up, stop and do some exercise. Have a quick dance break, go for a run or do a full workout. Then come back to the song and play around with the rhythm. If the song doesn’t have a set tempo yet, try playing/singing along with a metronome. Alternatively, programme a beat to set your song idea to and see if this changes how it sounds and inspires you to add another section to it. Sometimes just a change in energy level and tempo changes can make all the difference.
5) Try a different perspective
If your song seems to be going over the same old ideas of previous songs, or you can’t even get started with more than a vague idea of what you want to write about, why not brainstorm a range of perspectives on a topic for 5 minutes? For example, if you want to write a song about the lack of affordable housing in London or New York. (Yeah, dry topic eh? But a source of genuine frustration perhaps?) Why not jot down all the different kinds of people’s perspectives on it that you can think of. What would a child, a politician, a traveller, an Occupy movement protester think? What if the building itself wrote the song about how annoyed it is to have so many people living in it? What about the opinion of a Roman soldier buried under that street, or a ghost that haunts the hallways? Get creative about what perspective the song is written from. Maybe it doesn’t always have to be about you..?