The Creative Power of Improvisation in the Songwriting Process

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

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Synthesizer KeyboardIt’s not easy to keep churning out songwriting ideas, especially if writing songs is something you’re trying to do on a daily basis. Some writers set themselves a goal of writing a certain number of songs every month, or every year. I applaud those people, because they aren’t waiting for inspiration; they’re getting to work! One way to keep the ideas coming is to practice improvising.

Practicing improvisation may seem to be an oxymoron: if you’re practicing something, you’re not usually improvising. But improvisation is a skill that can indeed be practiced, and it can generate tons of songwriting ideas.

The great thing about song ideas created in this way is that it takes a lot of the pressure off you to actually write a song. You’re simply coming up with ideas. And if, in the hour or so that you set aside for this activity, you generate a dozen or so fragments that are catchy, it’s time well spent.

In my experience, you’ll find in fact that you’re generating tons of ideas. Here are a few suggestions to help guide your improvising sessions:

  1. Try setting up a repeating chord and rhythmic loop on a synth, then sing or play melodic shapes above the loop. If you’re a guitarist, record yourself playing a chord progression, loop it, and start improvising melodic shapes.
  2. If you’ve got a songwriting partner, the process works even better, because the player of the chords (and rhythms) can modify what they’re doing as the other creates. In that way, new ideas are generated at an even more prolific pace.
  3. Sometimes even just a dry drum beat in the background can generate ideas, so set your synth to play anything, and create keyboard riffs above it.
  4. You can generate lyrics in the same way by creating a repeating hook and add lyrical ideas to the melodies you create. It can help to start the process by coming up with a list of related words.

Much of what you create by improvising will be garbage (believe me!) but that’s not important. What you’ll discover, to your delight, is that after a few minutes of improvising you’ve got a ton of ideas that can serve as a starting point for a new song.

It’s important not to fall in love prematurely with an idea created in this way. An idea does not always equate to a hook. Once you’ve got a list of ideas, come back to them in a day or so, and see which ones pop out and grab your attention. Improvising has a way of dulling the mind a bit and clouding your judgment. Coming back to those ideas after a few days will give you a fresh mind to judge which ideas are useable and which ones aren’t.

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