It’s frustrating when you can’t come up with any good songwriting ideas. When that happens on random days, we call that normal.
Creativity is not a tap you turn on with an endless supply of ideas at your disposal. It’s normal to have days when ideas just don’t seem to happen. Most of the time, you might call it a lack of inspiration.
When you feel uninspired, the proper response is not necessarily to stop writing. Often, the best response is to sit down and try writing anyway.
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That’s not because you can force creativity out of an otherwise locked-up musical brain. It’s because one of the best sources of inspiration is your own work.
As you compose, you create fragments of ideas. You may not know yet what’s going to happen with those ideas, but it’s common to feel a little jolt of musical excitement. That excitement leads you down a path where you start to imagine other ideas that could work with it.
You then find something that clicks, and you get another jolt of excitement. And on it goes.
That’s on a good day.
So what about the days when that’s not happening?
Not every day will be a good one. There will be plenty of days when you can generate ideas, but they either don’t seem like good ones, or you can’t find other ideas to partner up with the first ones.
That’s normal. If it were easy, there would be a lot more songwriters in the world. And most of the time, the proper response is to try writing anyway, to try to take advantage of the self-generated inspiration that comes from your own success.
When It’s Best To Stop
But then there are the days when it might make most sense to stop and turn your musical attentions elsewhere for a day or two, or even a week or more.
How you know that it’s time to step back is when you feel that frustration is creating intensely negative emotions in your creative brain. If you feel that everything you do is lousy, and you fully expect everything else you try is going to be similarly lousy, you experience writer’s block as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
That’s when it’s best to stop and turn your attentions to playing your instrument, producing someone else’s music, or perhaps just listening to good music.
You need to get your musical emotions sorted out and back on track, and if writing is preventing that from happening, you need to give it up for a short time.
And at those times, it’s best to remind yourself that all songwriters go through this. Only you will know the best response to it.
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One great way to improve your songwriting is to improve your singing and your playing.
The reasons are simple: by improving your playing, you make it possible to come up with more intricate and creative song ideas that can serve you well in your next song. You also avoid the situation where your fingers keep moving to the same notes and chords, because you’re increasing your repertoire of ideas.
By improving your singing, you develop some vocal versatility that makes it possible for you to sing more varieties of musical styles. Just take any good singer, and make note of how many different vocal styles they display from one song to the next:
Paul McCartney: “Blackbird” – “Helter Skelter” – “I Will” – “Back In the U.S.S.R.”
So becoming a better pianist/guitarist/singer doesn’t just make you a better band member — it has the potential of increasing your songwriting versatility.
Finding a teacher isn’t that difficult. If you’re not sure you can afford the lessons, your lessons don’t have to be weekly. Talk to a teacher about taking lessons once a month or so, and then work hard between lessons.
There’s another good reason why instrumental/vocal lessons are great for songwriters. From time to time, you’ll find that songwriting ideas dry up, and frustration increases. At those times, taking a break from writing can be the best solution.
And replacing your writing time with practicing your singing or playing is a great way to continue to feel creative and musical. You may find that instrumental improvisation has a way of getting songwriting ideas to flow once more.
So in the bid to make yourself a better songwriter, becoming a better performer might be your best way forward.
There’s nothing quite like the warm feeling you get when your audience loves your latest song. And naturally, you want to be able to copy your success; who wouldn’t?
Replicating your own success is important in the sense that in songwriting, consistency is everything. The industry isn’t much interested in songwriters who write one good song, but then can’t seem to come up with anything great after that. Or if they have to wait for years.
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To keep your success from being random, you take a look at what you’ve written that audiences like, and then try to do something similar again. But the danger is that your songs develop a kind of sameness about them, to the extent that with each new song you’ve written, your fan base feels that they’ve heard it all before.
Then they get bored, feeling that you may have nothing new to offer, and your fan base fizzles.
How to Copy Success
The key to copying your own success is to look deeper into the various elements of your great songs and to figure out what songwriting principle you got right. So it’s not so much about copying the melody you wrote, let’s say, as much as it is about figuring out what it is about the melody that connects so well with your audience.
This is where a bit of objective listening will help. When you know that a song you’ve written is really a hit with your fans, do the following:
- Listen to a recording of the song as if it’s someone else’s. Try to put aside the fact that you wrote it, and think of it as simply a song that you’ve heard somewhere online or on the radio. (This kind of listening is a skill that all songwriters need to develop.)
- Put into words what you like about the song. You can do this any number of ways: writing a short essay, speaking your thoughts into your smartphone memo app, etc. Be as specific as you can. Don’t just say, “Well, I really love the lyrics…” Try to identify why you love the words. Is it the kind of words you used? The phrasing? The topic?
- Move from song element to song element. Talk about the way the various elements interact and relate to each other.
- Identify the songwriting principle that you got right. This is crucial. In other words, in order to learn from a great melody, you need to know why, on a deeper level, the melody you wrote makes such a good impact on your audience.
Every time you get something right, there is a principle that you got right. So you don’t want to copy that great melody — you want to copy the principle involved.
A principle is simply a guideline. A principle advises us, doesn’t make demands of us. So when you have a great song, you need to look deeply into the structure of your song and discover what you got right.
In my eBooks, I identify eleven different principles that I think are important to the success of any good song. The way a melody from the 1950s sounds won’t be much like the way a melody from 2019 sounds, but the underlying principle is likely the same.
So if you want to repeat your songwriting success (and you do!), it’s all about identifying underlying principles. If you don’t know what they are, that’s where you start.
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At first glance you might think of a song’s refrain as simply being a shorter version of a chorus. But they’re actually quite different. Choruses are usually complete structures that can be repeated over and over easily, as we notice with final chorus repeats of most pop songs.
But a refrain isn’t a complete structure; it’s usually the final closing line of a verse melody.
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All verses, obviously, have a closing line, so what makes a refrain sound like a refrain, and not just the inevitable end of a verse?
Typically, a refrain has at least the following three important characteristics:
- They use the same (or almost the same) line of lyric each time, while the verse they’re attached to will use different lyrics.
- They typically feature a kind of climactic high point (as you hear in “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “The Times They Are A-Changin'”) when compared to the melodic range of the verse.
- They use a final chord progression called a full close or authentic cadence. In most cases this means ending on a I-chord.
In short, then, an effective song refrain needs a catchy lyrical hook, or at least a line that sums up the meaning and focus of the lyric. A refrain may or may not be an actual hook, but you’ll find that effective refrains often exhibit some of the same qualities as a hook:
- a melodic leap, especially upward.
- a rhythmic device such as a syncopation or some other kind of catchy rhythm.
- a somewhat simple chord progression.
You may not give refrains much thought, especially if you think of the refrain as simply the closing line of your verse. In fact, you may only become aware partway through your songwriting process that you’re actually writing a refrain.
But once you become aware that your song is using a refrain, that’s when you’re analytical brain can help you make the most of it. For any song that uses a refrain, especially if you find you’re not generating much musical excitement with it, see if the following characteristics are present:
- The melody has an upward leap.
- The melody has a climactic high point.
- The lyric offers a kind of summing-up of what the song’s all about.
- The chords are relatively simple, but tonally strong.
- The rhythm is strong, and uses some kind of catchy rhythmic pattern like a syncopation or other interesting structure.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter
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When was the last time you put your inner student to work and analyzed a song?
If you’re like most songwriters, the act of writing itself is how you learn. As you work out melodies, lyrics and chords that partner up well with each other, you usually become better, assuming of course that you aren’t simply reinforcing errors in your process.
“Chord Progression Formulas” is an eBook that shows you how you can make dozens of progressions within moments, using very simple formulas. It’s a must for songwriters who focus on chords as a first step in the songwriting process. Get it separately, or as part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle”
But don’t ignore the benefits that come from musical analysis — the act of pulling a song apart, reverse engineering it, and discovering why you think it works.
If you’ve not done musical analysis like this before, here are some tips for getting the most out of putting your guitar and pencil down, and doing a bit of mind-based songwriting:
- Choose a song you’ve known for a long time, and give it a few listens.
- Focus on the lyrics. Compare verse and chorus, and try to figure out what makes them different. If the song uses a bridge, who do bridge lyrics differ from others within the song? Think about imagery, metaphors and other poetic devices.
- Focus on the melodies. How many different melodies does your chosen song use? How are they the same — how are they different? Does one use more leaps than steps, while another use more steps than leaps? Try to identify the parts you enjoy the most, and figure out what makes them so enjoyable.
- Focus on the chords. Does the verse and chorus use the same chords? If different, can you identify what makes one sound good for a verse, while the other is good for a chorus? Is there a difference in how frequently the verse chords change when compared to how frequently they change for the chorus.
And then beyond all this, you can make a list of questions that might pertain to the particular song you’ve chosen to analyze. These questions might concern aspects such as backing vocals, instrumentation, or features of song form/design.
You can do this kind of analysis by writing down your ideas in a kind of essay, or perhaps in point form. You might choose to analyze these songs by speaking your thoughts into a sound file, or by keeping a songwriting blog.
Each time you do this, you will likely learn something about songwriting that you didn’t know before, and you get the benefit of learning from a successful song, not through your own songwriting process.
And it’s a great activity to do at those times when you might be feeling a bit of writer’s block creeping up on you.
So today might be a good day for you to put your guitar down and pick up a pencil, and concentrate on listening.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle includes“Writing a Song From a Chord Progression”. Discover the secrets of making the chords-first songwriting process work for you.
I’m Gary Ewer. This blog has been my labour of love since 2008. You’ll find the five most recent songwriting articles right here on this page, and if you want to browse through the more than 1500 posts in the archive, scroll to the bottom of the page.
Please feel free to leave a comment at the end of any article. I love reading what others are thinking about music.
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