The Role of Inspiration in Songwriting

A bad drawing!

by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.

When I pick up a pencil and try to draw a face, it looks grotesque. I get the perspective wrong, the shading looks haphazard, and the dimensions are simply off! Because I am untrained, I can’t really finish any drawing I start. As I progress in my art project, I get discouraged, and eventually I stop with the drawing unfinished. Hmm.. does that sound familiar? If you take that paragraph, and insert songwriting terms instead of art-based ones, those opening sentences could easily have been spoken by many songwriters.

Ask any visual artist what makes a bad painting, and they’ll probably tell you that a bad painting shows failings in technical abilities and understanding, not so much a lack of inspiration. So tell me… why do we as musicians so often point to a lack of inspiration as our main problem with writing a good song, when the real problem is probably a lack of technical ability?

So many songwriters miss out on the opportunity to improve their technical abilities, simply because they don’t realize that their problems are technical ones, not musical ones. Humans are blessed with imagination. And while some are more blessed than others, a lack of imagination is not really the problem with songs that are bad. If you can’t finish a song, it’s probably not a problem with your creative abilities as much as a problem with your technical ones.

Inspiration is an odd thing. Many misunderstand it, and believe that without feeling inspired, it’s impossible to write music. Nothing could be further from the truth! The truth is that inspiration comes from the songwriting process, not the other way around.

If you can’t finish a song, don’t blame a lack of inspiration; that’s probably not the real problem. It is more likely that you are needing a refresher in the the nuts and bolts of how songs work. Like an artist, you need to “get the perspective right.” Taking a fresh look that the mechanics of songwriting will solve writer’s block faster than simple inspiration. Because even if you are inspired, you still need to know what you’re doing!

Inspiration is not a bad thing, but enduring happiness comes from knowledge and experience, not from inspiration, which can be temporary.

If you were an artist, all the inspiration in the world will not tell you how to mix colours, hold a brush, get the perspective right, or anything. Successful artists are trained artists. And so it is with songwriting. All the inspiration in the world will not tell you how to construct a song, how to get a verse melody to partner properly with a chorus melody. Inspiration alone will not show you how to properly harmonize a melody. Inspiration alone will not tell you that you’ve used the wrong kind of lyric in your bridge, or that your instrumentation is running contrary to the energy plan for the song.

So the next time you get stumped trying to finish a song, ask yourself: Am I just lacking inspiration, or is there more to my problem? A bit Rembrandtof inspiration is a good thing, but pales in significance to a bit of technical knowledge. If your music sounds like a representation of the line drawing at the top of this page, rather than the one to the right, it’s technique you lack, not inspiration.


Gary Ewer's Songwriting E-booksGary Ewer’s songwriting e-books will get you writing the songs you’ve always known you could write. They’ll show you, using chord charts, sound samples and diagrams, how good songs are constructed, and how to avoid the pitfalls that plague bad songs. Read about those e-books here.

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  1. You said: “all the inspiration in the world will not tell you how to mix colours, hold a brush, get the perspective right, or anything. Successful artists are trained artists.”

    I don’t believe that to really be true. Although you’re right that knowing the technical stuff is really helpful, especially in the long run, inspiration can be a great thing and can make you have an understanding of what needs to be done even if you don’t consciously know all the points of why that is the way it should be. Without inspiration and only knowing the technical side you’ll end up with music that is soul-less and meaningless… much like a lot of the cut and paste stuff that many bands put out now, such as Linkin Park.

    Many artists are successful because of their refusal to learn the conventional methods of doing things. When everything someone knows has been taught to them they stop being an artist and start being what I like to call a ‘sheeple’… like sheep-people.

    • Hi Ken – You make some good points here. Certainly, music that has no soul is not good either. But when art fails, I believe it has more to do with a failure on the technical side of the project, not so much on the inspiration side. I didn’t mean to convey that inspiration is a useless element in the songwriting process, but rather that when songs fail, there are usually technical faults that can be addressed. I love the quote by musicologist Ernest Newman, who says something like “Good composers don’t write because they are inspired, but become inspired because they are writing.”

      So in that sense, I think you are absolutely correct, that music that is devoid of inspiration lacks soul, and becomes nothing more than a music theory exercise (i.e., “sheeple”, as you say.) If I might put my comment another way, if I were offered the choice between learning “ten ways to improve my technical abilities”, and “ten ways to become more inspired,” I’d choose “technical abilities”. Because I know that once I get writing, the inspiration is going to come – from writing.

      Thanks very much for your thoughtful comments, Ken.

  2. Good point about technical knowledge. This is the same as learning scales and patterns. Some might find them boring, but once you learn and master them, your fingers are free to do whatever you can think of.

    You might be able to hear the riff in your head, but it does you no good if your fingers won’t do what you tell them to.

    I would also like to add that inspiration comes from a combination of perspiration and preparation.

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