Songwriting Tips For Overcoming Writer’s Block
How many times have you wanted desperately to write a killer tune, but the moment you sit down to work on something you don’t know where to begin? Maybe you began creating a song and halfway through got completely stuck, or everything you came up with sounded super sucky.
Writer’s Block. It’s very real, causing utter chaos whenever it strikes.
Believe me when I tell you that I’ve been through all the above scenarios more times than I care to remember. Thankfully over the years I’ve come up with a variety of simple techniques to break through this invisible barrier and get the job done.
Here are a few:
1. Ditch Your Instrument
If you usually write music with an instrument, try writing without any at all and let your imagination do all the work.
I clearly remember the first time someone suggested this to me. I thought it was utterly ridiculous. Then one day I got really stuck on a TV tune with a time sensitive deadline, so I thought what the heck and tried it.
Once I started working this way, I realised that I was completely free to move around without any limitations whatsoever. My imagination enabled me to come up with melody lines much quicker and the melody lines I did come up with didn’t gravitate towards the chords I was playing, something I used to do ALL the time!
If this idea seems uncomfortable to you try writing on an instrument such as bass. I find working with single notes provides me with the foundation of a chord without the full voicing, leaving plenty of room for my imagination to still do its thing.
2. What Would (insert name of favourite songwriter / artist) Do?
I originally started using this idea when I was hired for studio sessions. If I got stuck with an instrumental part, I’d think of one of my favourite musicians and imagine the notes, melodies and phrases that they might play if they were in my shoes. Recently I started doing this with writing too. If I need to write a vocal part that takes the listener on a beautiful melodic journey, I’ll image Joni Mitchell and all of those incredible and emotive lines she’d write and sing so effortlessly. If I want to write something with a catchy, pop vibe, I think of Ingrid Michaelson.
Who are some of the artists and writers you admire?
Try analysing a song you love. Get to a point where you fully understand what makes it so awesome. You’d be amazed what you can learn when you take the time to sit down and really listen to what’s going on. Print out the lyrics, figure out the chords, look at the melody line and understand how it relates to the lyrics and rest of the instrumentation – are there any elements you can learn from and incorporate into your own songs?
A really important note on this; don’t be put off by genre! I personally always gravitate towards acoustic music, it’s my jam. But even though I adore all things acoustic, it certainly doesn’t mean I don’t have a deep appreciation for commercial pop songs by Miley Cyrus or Classical concertos by Beethoven. You’ll find extremely well-crafted songs in a multitude of places. Always be open to learning something new.
3. Find someone to Co-write with
Working with a writing partner can help on so many levels. Co-writers are especially useful when you get stuck on a song and need outside help from someone you trust. It’s also fun to pair- up with someone who is the total opposite of you in terms of both genre and style of working.
It took me a long old time to come around to the idea that co-writing is a good idea. I’m introverted and always preferred to work on my own. It takes a huge amount of courage and trust when bringing someone else into your creative process. My biggest fear used to be coming up with ideas that my co-writing partner would think were utterly lame and, in turn, think I was incompetent. That all changed about 4 years ago when I started working on film & TV music with Isha Erskine, a Grammy award winning engineer (also available to hire on Airgigs). He helped me break out of my ego-lead cycle. I realised that it’s totally fine and completely acceptable to suck, especially when you start working on a brand-new song. It’s all part of the process and a great co-writer will understand this and be on your team. These days I’m lucky enough to work with many artists and bands in a huge variety of genres and along with my writing skills, I now know I can bring kindness, patience and reassurance, because everyone (and I mean everyone!) feels the same way I did. Don’t be scared. Try it. You’ll be great.
4. Document Every Single Idea
My laptop is full of clips I’ve recorded into my phone at some time or another. They are usually only a line or two, mostly out of tune and recorded in the most random of places, but they are more than enough to get my creative juices flowing when I’m stuck on writing something new. I ALWAYS keep a notebook and pencil with me so I can jot down any lyric ideas that spring to mind.
5. Go For a Walk (With or Without a Dog)
Whenever my head would get totally cluttered, I’d go out for a walk with my dog. The focus of the doggie walk coupled with being close to trees and nature would clear up my head no end. There have been times when I’ve returned with a completed song in my head. Meditation also helps to re-set my brain, along with simple Yoga poses, which leads me nicely into:
6. Eliminate All Distractions
For the longest time I’d write with utter chaos going on all around me and wonder why I couldn’t focus on getting work done. Creative work needs your full and undivided attention. Fortunately for me my studio doesn’t have any internet service and I’ve intentionally kept it that way. There are a few writing tools you can use if you prefer writing digitally (such as the Freewrite range of distraction free laptops). I’m still very much ‘old school’ in my approach and always write with paper and pencil. In the early stages I do a LOT of crossing out, re-writing and scribbling down ideas. I want complete freedom to be able to do that. Experiment with different techniques and see what works for you.
7. Create a Pool of Words
This is a technique I use a lot when writing songs for film and TV. Those type of songs lean heavily on a strong theme which I write at the top of the page. I then jot down as many words associated with the main theme as possible.
For example; a theme such as HOME – I would write words like, belonging, familiar, love, peace, family…. you get the idea.
8. Use Chords from Other Songs
Another exercise I like to do from time to time is using a sequence of chords that are in a song I like and putting them in a completely different context. Speed up the pattern, slow it down, try playing it on an acoustic with a capo in a different location, or maybe add in an extra chord to the sequence – just make sure it doesn’t sound like the song you took the original chord sequence from! Inspiration is one thing, stealing is another 😉
If you want to find some inspiration for chord sequences, try digging through an old Hymn book – there are so many wonderfully compelling chord patterns that work beautifully together.
9. Most Importantly; Don’t Be Afraid to Screw Up!
Give yourself permission to suck. Don’t let the fear of failure prevent you from wanting to write anything at all. Start with something, anything – but most importantly – START. Don’t worry about whether your work is good enough or not, focus on doing your best and getting the job done. Remember: this is a journey, not a destination. You’ll get something out of each song you write.
Learn from experience, be kind to yourself and work on making your writing better and better!
Those are a few of my ideas, but how about you? Do you have any techniques that you use to break free from the writer’s block? I’d love to hear from you – feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below!