Improvisation As a Cure For Writer’s Block

Improvising activities bring your creative mind front and center. It can spell the end of writer’s block.


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Musical Improvisation: Guitarist and SingerThe best musical performances in the world have the innate sound of improvisation at their core. Perhaps that’s why great performances, especially in the world of pop music, are so hard to replicate. Musical ideas, when they seem to appear out of nowhere, can only be described as magic. The same applies to musical composition. Writing songs is a combination of the mind’s improvisatory abilities combined with a strong understanding of musical form and structure. When writer’s block hits, it’s usually the absence or impairment of the mind’s ability to create new musical ideas.

The good thing is that in such cases, the mind still has its strong understanding of musical form and structure. And since it only takes a small amount of original material to fashion an entire song (see my post on Coldplay’s “Paradise”), minor bouts of writer’s block are fairly easy to deal with by just digging your heals in and writing.

But there are times when your creative mind just seems to shut down. And let alone a “small amount of original material”, you can’t seem to come up with anything.

When that happens, you need something to get the creative mind operating again. Just as with performers, where the magic happens spontaneously, you need to allow the spontaneous nature of improvisation to take over and kick-start your musical imagination again.

The best way to improvise is with another musician, because when we create ideas, and then hear those ideas expanded and developed by someone else, our own creative mind receives a shot of inspiration, and the circle continues.

So here are some ideas that will hopefully get the creative juices flowing again:

  1. Rhythmic question-answer. With another songwriter, create an improvised rhythm by slapping it out on your lap. The other person responds with a rhythmic “answer.”
  2. Melodic question-answer. Sing a short 4- to 8-beat melody created off the top of your head. The other person sings a “reply”. Don’t worry about words here. And try setting some parameters. For example, you might set a rule that the first phrase will be mainly a rising line, and the answering phrase must be a mainly descending line. Don’t worry if 90% of this sounds like garbage. If you come across an answering phrase that seems to be on track for working well, try repeating that question phrase again. Modify the answer to keep improving it.
  3. Adding melodies to words. Create a short 3- or 4-word phrase that might serve as a bit of lyric. It works best if you start by chanting the words tunelessly, then try creating a melody to set the words. For example, you might chant, “We’re back together!” a few times, then try making up a short melody. Try choosing different syllables to be the high point each time.
  4. Adding melodies to rhythms. This can be done by yourself, by creating some rhythm loops on your computer that you can improvise melodies to. Keep the rhythmic patterns short – 2 or 4 beats long. Or this activity can be done with another musician who simply slaps out some rhythms while you improvise sung or played melodies. Try a similar activity by creating a short repeated bass line on your synth, and improvising melodies above it.

As you can see, these activities all have two things in common: 1) they’re short; and 2) they require you to create one thing at a time. You’re not putting songs together with these improvisations. You’re generating musical ideas that might appear in some future song. Because as I mentioned, your ability to put songs together is not what’s affected with writer’s block, it’s the creating of musical material that’s been impaired.

Happily, you’ll find that the successful creation of one or two good ideas will get your creative mind working again, and you’ll feel your confidence quickly returning.


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