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I have great admiration for those who write movie scores. They don’t have the luxury of waiting until they feel inspired. Professional productions run on a schedule, and it’s usually tight. That ability to write on demand is possible for all composers of music, arguably the sign of a healthy state of creative mind. You don’t want to have to wait until you feel inspiration come over you. As a songwriter, you should be aiming to get to a point where you can simply pick up your pen, or your guitar, and start writing your next song. But how do you get to that point?
Composing in the absence of inspiration may seem impossible, but in fact most famous composers, authors and creators in other art forms have a rather low opinion of the importance of inspiration:
Inspiration is wonderful when it happens, but the writer must develop an approach for the rest of the time… The wait is simply too long. – Leonard Bernstein (Composer, Conductor)
Just as appetite comes by eating, so work brings inspiration, if inspiration is not discernible at the beginning. – Igor Stravinsky (Composer)
For me, songwriting is something I have to do ritually. I don’t just wait for inspiration; I try to write a little bit every day. – Sean Lennon (Singer/Songwriter)
Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work. – Stephen King (Author)
We should be taught not to wait for inspiration to start a thing. Action always generates inspiration. Inspiration seldom generates action. – Frank Tibolt (Author)
It’s easy enough to tell a songwriter to stop waiting for inspiration. But in reality, how do you start the process of creating a new song when your brain seems devoid of musical ideas?
Here are 5 suggestions for getting the creative juices flowing when you feel like nothing will help:
- Listen to lots of music. It’s one of the best ways to get your imagination moving.
- Improvise melodies on top of loops/rhythms on a synthesizer or computer. Sometimes, what feels so daunting is the feeling that you have to be the creator of everything – melody, backing rhythms, chords, lyrics, etc. By improvising melodies above a loop, you take away the responsibility of having to deal with the backing rhythm tracks. As you improvise, you’ll find that much of what you create will be garbage, but some will jump out at you as being usable. Those usable ideas will usually serve as a seed that creates longer song ideas.
- Play/sing a repeated note while changing accompanying chords. You’d be surprised how many songs use repeated notes as a basis for melodies. Choose a key (i.e., just start strumming a chord), and sing a note that fits. You might want to try starting on the note a 5th higher than your starting chord. So if you choose E as your starting chord, sing a B. Improvise some rhythms on that note as you strum, and then try changing chords. From E, you will want to experiment with moving on to A, F#m and/or B. Then start moving the note up or down, returning to the starting pitch.
- Create word lists from action verbs. An action verb is any word that describes something you can do. Start by choosing a verb, then create 2- or 3-word phrases that uses that verb.Here’s an example: Verb: Hold. Possible list: Hold me, hold on, hold it, hold her, hold my hand, hold my heart… Once you’ve done that, choose another word and create another list. The purpose here is to get your creative brain moving, and eventually you’ll hit a word combination that seems to speak to you. A logical next step is to take one of the word combinations and apply Step #2 above.
- Never underestimate the power of a songwriting partnership. Trying any of the ideas above as a 2-person exercise can create incredible songwriting ideas. Some of the best songs are the results of partnerships. Two or more songwriters working together offers the advantage of many different approaches and possible solutions. And if one person in the group is going through a bit of writer’s block, the others can keep the songwriting process going.
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