Every songwriter struggles from time to time trying to get a song finished. It’s unavoidable because it’s the nature of the human brain’s ability to be creative. There are days when things flow easily, and other days when it seems all but impossible.
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There are three levels of intensity when it comes to writer’s block:
- Mild. This is common to everyone in the creative arts like songwriting: you try but just can’t get your musical imagination working for you. So you put it aside, and try again in the next day or so. At that point, you usually feel the creative spark returning, and everything’s fine again.
- Moderate. After a few days of diverting your attention with other musical activities such as playing your instrument, talking to other musicians, listening to music, etc., you still can’t get back in the groove. A moderate case of writer’s block might mean a few weeks, even a month, before you feel your old creative self coming back to form.
- Severe. It happens: writer’s block can take hold and make you feel uncreative, and you can’t seem to find your way back. You probably then start to doubt if you were ever a songwriter in the first place. With a severe case of writer’s block, the problem may seem insurmountable. And it sometimes is.
In most cases, writer’s block as described above can be reversed and solved if it’s dealt with quickly, as soon as you see the symptoms and feel the frustration beginning to build. Severe writer’s block is avoidable.
Here are four quick tips if you find yourself in the midst of dealing with writer’s block. The sooner you try solutions, the sooner you’ll be back writing songs with a bit more ease than you’re experiencing now:
- Schedule breaks away from songwriting. Songwriting, like most creative activities, should be an almost-daily activity. But the negativity and frustration that comes from a creative block is quickly cumulative. So take a look at your calendar and, like scheduling a family vacation, choose a couple of weeks where you preemptively decide you aren’t going to write.
- Break songwriting down into smaller tasks. If your aim is to sit down and write a song, that goal may simply be too big — too daunting. If your songwriting session is going to be for an hour on a given day, decide beforehand that you’re going to use that hour to solve smaller songwriting problems. For example, determine that you’re only going to write a hook, or write one verse of lyric, or a page of potential song titles… that sort of thing. Setting goals that are smaller means setting goals that are much more easily attainable.
- Edit older songs. It can be very therapeutic and satisfying to look back at older songs you’ve written, from the standpoint of making small changes to make them even better. It still requires you to be creative, but the tasks are easier because the basic song is already there. This is a great way to use your time if your brain seems stuck in vacation mode.
- Help other songwriters. So many songwriters go online to ask for help with their songs. Many of these people are songwriting newbies, and if you’ve got some years as a songwriter behind you, your kind of experienced advice might be just what they need. This kind of help that you might offer still allows you to be creative, and takes your mind off your own temporary difficulties.
The great thing about these tips is that you can (and should) be doing them all the time, whether you’re feeling the creative juices flowing or not. By constantly diverting your attention away from what you’ve always thought a songwriting session should be, you make it less likely that a creative block will take hold in the first place.
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Most songs use several distinct melodies. If your song has a pre-chorus and bridge, that means that you might need to come up with at least four different melodies. Each one of those melodies will likely use a different chord progression, and they might also use very different rhythms.
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What most listeners don’t notice is that chords aren’t the only part of a song that progresses. The melody you find in a verse doesn’t just differ from the chorus melody; there is a sense of progression as it moves from one section to the next:
- A verse melody might wander considerably up and down as it seeks to describe the person, circumstances and/or basic story of the song. The rhythms of this melody, though locked into whatever the feel or groove of the song is, often make good use of rhythmic devices such as syncopation, and can tend to be the most complicated of the entire song.
- A pre-chorus melody typically moves upward as a way to build musical energy to set the song up for the arrival of the chorus.
- A chorus melody simplifies, along with the vocal rhythms and chords, to present a strong hook to the audience.
- A bridge melody, along with the chords and rhythms, will either build energy to give the final chorus repeats some added punch, or (if the song is very energetic in the first place) might try to provide contrast by calming things down a bit before the final chorus.
You’d think, since the chorus is often the loudest and most energetic part of a song, that the melody, chords and especially the rhythms might be busiest and most complex in that section. But the opposite is generally true.
If you listen to Kelly Clarkson’s 2012 hit “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” (Jörgen Elofsson, Ali Tamposi, David Gamson, Greg Kurstin), you hear this demonstrated very well. The verse melody is low in pitch, the rhythms work to make the words sound natural and conversational.
In the chorus, everything simplifies. The rhythms become a basic eighth-note patter, and the melodic range gives us some of the highest notes of the song. The bridge tries to build on that energy, with a small pause in that energetic level to make the final choruses pop.
The reason for the simplification of the melody and rhythm has to do with the duty of a chorus hook. You want something that the average listener can remember and sing. Simplification is key to audience recall.
If you find that your own song choruses typically lack the kind of punch they need, it’s time to go back and compare your verse and chorus sections. There should be a noticeable difference in the range of the melody (chorus should be higher), the rhythms (chorus rhythms should be simpler) and the chord progressions (chorus chords should simplify and lock into the tonic chord.)
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It’s not unusual to have times when the music just seems to flow out of your creative mind, and then times when you can’t seem to come up with anything that sounds good at all. It’s the up and down of what it means to be a songwriter, and it’s normal.
But if, after a few good successes, you find your songwriting process grinding to a halt within the first few moments of each attempt to write something new, it’s time to press pause and take a look at your process to see what’s happening.
Not surprisingly, there are many reasons why you might find that your creative mind going blank just when you need it most. The most common reasons are:
- You don’t have a compelling topic. (You don’t know what to write about.)
- Your lyrics have no sense of organization. (You mix narrative, descriptive lyrics with emotional, reaction-based lyrics.)
- You don’t yet have a clear sense of the form of the song. (You have no idea where the song is going or what the final version is going to look like.)
The solution to any problem requires you to stop, at least for a moment, and get a handle on what you should be doing about it. Every songwriter has their strengths and weaknesses, and the best ones have a clear understanding of where their problems are so that they can target them and solve them.
If any of those three problems listed above sound sadly familiar to you, here are some solutions to try:
1. Searching For a Song Topic
You should be able to condense any good song down to a one- or two-sentence summary. If you can’t get to the heart of what you’re writing about in one or two sentences, then your lyrics are going to aimlessly wander, and it will be difficult or impossible for audiences to connect.
You can certainly “borrow” song topic ideas from other songs; topics are not protected by copyright. (Don’t borrow anything too specific, though. A song about building a city on rock and roll, for example…)
So here’s a solution to try: start keeping a journal of song topics, and include the general topics of your favourite songs. Make a one- or two- sentence summary of as many songs as you can.
Once you see those topics, you’ll find it likely that you’ll start to imagine your own take. That’s when the song topic becomes your own. You’ll find that as you read through your list of topics, your creative mind will compel you to expand and invent an angle that will take you in a more imaginative direction.
2. Organizing Your Lyrics
With those first few attempts to come up with a song lyric, you’re going to find yourself scrambling if you don’t already have a pretty good idea where in the song those lyrics will live.
If you’re working on a verse lyric, you’ll want to minimize the emotion of what you’re writing, and focus instead on observational, narrative-style lines. The verse is where the audience gets to hear what the song is about; the chorus is where they get to emote along with you.
Just getting this one thing working can help you through a logjam, because it’s such a common problem.
3. Dealing With Form Early in the Process
You may be thinking, “What relevance does form have when I’m just starting the writing process?” Having a sense of what form your song might take doesn’t necessarily mean having a blueprint, where you just start adding notes and words. But knowing at least that you’re working on the verse, in a song that’s likely going to have a chorus following it, tells you a few things that can keep you going:
- You should keep the melody relatively low in pitch.
- You should allow the lyric to tell a bit of a story, even if only by implication.
- You should keep your accompaniment light and transparent.
- You should allow the musical energy to slowly build to eventually connect to the chorus (whatever that chorus is going to be).
Of all those potential process-related problems, having a good grasp of what your song is about — the actual topic — is going to be an important part of getting the process moving, and keeping it moving.
So keeping a journal of song topic ideas is one of the most important things a songwriter can do. Also, keep a list of song titles, even if you haven’t yet worked out what the title is referring to.
Think of those lists as a powerful tool for developing a direction for your song. Once you have a direction, other things will more easily fall into place.
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If you’re looking to become a better songwriter, don’t forget about improving your ear. Being able to identify chords, rhythms and melodies by ear is helpful in two major ways:
- It speeds up the songwriting process. You may have a certain chord or melody note in your mind but may not have the ability to identify it. A weak ear means you have to experiment at your keyboard or guitar until you stumble on what you’re hearing, and that can take time.
- It gives you a larger collection of chords and other musical structures. When you hear interesting things happen in someone else’s song — things that you think you might be able to adapt to your own songs — you can identify them and they become part of your own personal musical vocabulary.
And of course, don’t forget how important a good ear is if you’re playing in a band. It allows you to pick up more easily on what your bandmates are playing, and then you’re set to contribute your own ideas.
If you like starting songs by working with a chord progression, you need to read “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression.” It will give you the pros and cons of this songwriting method, and help you create songs that really work!
There are ear training programs out there, and all you have to do is Google them. Be careful though — some cost a lot of money, and though you may see amazing claims from the various creators of these programs with regard to how much they’ll help, everyone is different.
There is no magic pill to having a better ear. Some have a good ear that came about because of early childhood exposure to music and excellent early teaching. Others (even some excellent professionals out there) have an ear that needs constant work.
In any case, there is no getting around this important point: improving your ear takes time. Like songwriting itself, be prepared to work at it daily.
Sometimes the Best Ear Training is Free
One of the best exercises you can do — an exercise that makes the quickest advancement — is to transcribe melodies from recordings available online. If you have even just a rudimentary ability to write musical notation down on staff paper, listening to melodies and then slowly getting them down on paper is a powerful ear training exercise.
The process is simple. If you’re trying to improve your ability to transcribe melodies, try this:
- Use an instrument you feel comfortable with, either a keyboard or guitar. If you’re using your guitar, tune it before starting; for most recordings the players will be at a standard A440 concert pitch. If the recording you’re transcribing is slightly sharp or flat, tune to the recording before starting.
- Choose a simple recording. Something slow with relatively simple harmonies is best.
- Play the first few seconds of the song, and sing the melody notes you’re trying to identify.
- Write down the notes. If you know the rhythm, try to be as accurate as you can. If you’re not sure how to notate the rhythm, don’t worry about that yet. Just get the notes down.
- Move on to the next few melody notes.
- Once you’ve got an entire verse or chorus notated in this way, go back to the beginning of the song. Sing and play along with the recording.
Try to make this an almost-daily exercise. In fact, if you’re really serious about developing your musical ear, you should make this kind of musical transcription exercise part of your daily songwriting.
You can do the same process to identify chords, of course.
You don’t need anything more than a low, rudimentary level of music theory in order to be able to write notes on a musical staff. If you feel that you need some kind of help with that, my online store has a video-based music theory course that will help you, and so you may want to check that out.
Having a good musical ear and being able to identify musical elements by ear is not just some kind of party trick. It’s a vital part of being a well-rounded musician. If you’re hoping to be a professional singer-songwriter, it’s absolutely vital.
And though it may seem daunting, you’ll find that transcribing music is a very good way to start the process of developing your musical ear. It costs nothing, and with every song you transcribe you’ll see the benefits.
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If you look at an article from a newspaper, the first thing you see is the headline. Headlines are written to grab a reader’s attention. It’s fair to say that newspapers will gain or lose readers based on the quality, accuracy and attractiveness of a headline.
In the news world, the headline gives a summation of what the article is about, but it does even more. It normally takes the most relevant point of the article, and then phrases that point in such a way that it’s difficult to ignore it.
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In songwriting, a title is a headline. It tells the listener — even if just in vague terms — what the song is about. But like a news headline, it does even more. A good song title usually does any or all of the following:
- it includes the most relevant bit of chorus lyric: “Paparazzi” (Stefani Germanotta, Rob Fusari), “Rolling In the Deep” (Adele Adkins, Paul Epworth);
- it tells the audience roughly what the song is about: “The Girl Is Mine” (Michael Jackson); “Say You Won’t Let Go” (James Arthur, Neil Ormandy, Steve Solomon);
- it stimulates the curiosity of the listener with an intriguing word or phrase: “Imagine” (John Lennon), “Radioactive” (Alexander Grant, Ben McKee, et al).
A good song title can be important for another good reason: it’s a great way to start the songwriting process. Whether you write songs on your own, or you do collaborations with bandmates or other songwriters, you can come up with a great title as a starting point, even if you have no idea where that title is going to lead.
If you try a title-first process, you’ll need to make sure that, in the end, it’s relevant to the song. Just as an enticing headline that has nothing much to do with the article makes people cynical or even angry, an irrelevant title can turn people off.
By starting your songwriting process with the generating of a long list of possible titles, you’re concentrating on the bit that audiences will see first, and that may have more significance than you realize.
We always advise songwriters to avoid clichés when they write their lyrics, but the title is that one element of a song that can tolerate the use of a catchy phrase, even if it’s a cliché. That’s why titles like “Over My Head” (Christine McVie), “Knock On Wood” (Eddie Floyd, Steve Cropper), “Rags to Riches” (Richard Adler and Jerry Ross) and so many others are quite acceptable as song titles.
Knowing how important a good title is to an audience is all the reason you need to try a title-first songwriting process. Try a brainstorming session where you come up with ten to twenty possible titles, and then take some time to look at each one and see where it leads.
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I’m Gary Ewer. For years I’ve been helping songwriters understand the basic fundamentals of good songwriting. I do that mainly through the free articles on this blog, and also through my 10-eBook bundle. If you lack consistency in your songwriting, and you want to take your abilities to the next level, everything you need to know is in that bundle package, so please take a look at those ebooks. And if you want to browse through the more than 2300 posts in the blog archive, scroll to the bottom of this page.
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