The Difference Between Inspiration and Motivation for Songwriting

If you write songs only when inspired, you’re missing out on the benefits of motivation.


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waterfallIn casual conversation, you may be inclined to use the words “inspiration” and “motivation” interchangeably. For example, you might say, “I really feel inspired to write today”, or “I really feel motivated to write today,” where the same meaning is intended: you feel a strong urge to get some musical ideas down.

But as a songwriter, it’s best if you differentiate between the two. And if you’re looking for a way to draw a distinction, think of inspiration as a relatively fleeting feeling of excitement and energy, like throwing paper on a campfire. Motivation, on the other hand, is a guiding light that always shines.

I’ve been fond of telling songwriters that inspiration is not a normal first step in the songwriting process. The actual order of events (and research shows this to be true) is that songwriting starts with a positive action – the sitting down to write. Once you imagine a musical idea, your creative mind gets to work, thinking of things to do with that idea. That act of creativity then generates an excitement that we call inspiration. Inspiration is the excitement you feel, which then stimulates you to imagine more ideas, generating more excitement, more inspiration, and so on. That’s the normal cycle that successful composers of music experience.

But is that to say that inspiration as a starting point never happens? What about those writers who claim that the birth of their child inspired them to write a song? Or the ones who are inspired by the beauty of a waterfall? Do they only think that they’ve been inspired?

No, that kind of inspiration is undeniable. But, like paper on a campfire, it is fleeting. Unless you provide a fuel of more substance, inspiration may only last for that one song, and sometimes can’t sustain your creative process for even that. Unless you’ve got a very exciting life, inspirational events will not be enough to keep you writing daily. You need more.

That “more” is motivation. Like inspiration, motivation often finds its source in something specific. But while inspiration draws its life and energy from an emotional event, motivation is a bit more even-keeled, drawing its energy from something more life-defining, something longer term.

For example, inspiration to write a song might come from intense emotions one experiences following the death of a loved-one. Motivation to write a song might come from a longer-term resolve, based on the pride that  that loved one always showed in your abilities as a songwriter.

Motivation is so valuable specifically because it doesn’t usually happen as the result of an intensely emotional event. After 9-11, many musicians were understandably inspired to create something beautiful to block out the horror of that day and to attempt to prove that beauty and love still exist.

Others, however, see songwriting as the result of a natural desire to create something beautiful in an unpredictable world. For them, motivation is a guiding light that is always there regardless of the ups and downs of our daily lives.

Described that way, you can see that motivation is a much more predictable initiator and sustainer of the creative process. We will all have inspirational events in our lives for which the only thing we can do is to write music, and there is nothing wrong with that. But to sustain your longterm goals as a successful songwriter, it’s far better to find longer-term motivators to serve as a constant guiding light.

Heres the crucial difference: Ask yourself, “What will inspire me to write today”, and you will have something that will work for today. Ask yourself, “What is my motivation for being a songwriter”, and you will have something that can define your life and sustain your creative process.


Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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