It’s possible to be imaginative without being creative. That statement may come as a bit of a surprise to you if you’ve always thought of those two terms as being synonymous. From a songwriter’s point of view, your imagination refers to your ability to dream up bits of musical ideas, often seemingly out of thin air. Creativity is your ability to fashion those ideas into a complete song. In that sense, it’s quite possible to have lots of ideas, but stumble when it comes to the actual writing.
If this is news to you, you’re likely prone to suffering from writer’s block, and it probably hits you often. Once you’re able to see your imagination as something separate from your ability to create music, you’ve got the potential for solving writer’s block.
In a very real sense, most incidences of songwriter’s block is a problem with the imagination, not specifically a problem with creativity, even though it eventually (and logically) leads to a problem creating music.
When you write music, you start by generating a musical idea: a short chord progression, a bit of melody, a line or two of lyric. That bit of idea creates a kind of “musical excitement” – inspiration. That inspiration stimulates your creative impulses, and you create more ideas to assemble together. This imagination-creation cycle is what usually happens when you write music. Sometimes it happens quickly, and you can write a song in 15 minutes.
At other times the process is slower, meaning that it may take weeks or months to finish a song. But that’s certainly not meant to indicate that you’ve got problems. That’s what the imagination-creation cycle is like; sometimes fast, sometimes slow.
When a block occurs, it’s mainly a situation that starts when the quality of your musical ideas takes a hit. It seems to you as though everything you try to write sounds lame or otherwise flawed in some way. You generate an idea, play around with it, find that it doesn’t stimulate your creative senses, and so you toss it.
You then generate a new idea, play around with it, find that it’s not working for you, toss it, and then… on it goes.
It’s normal to generate ideas and toss them, to be sure. It’s part of the creative process, and we know as writers that not everything we imagine will be useful. If, however, you get stuck in a cycle of imagining musical ideas and tossing them out, you’re on the brink of developing a block.
A block is mainly a psychological condition that shows itself first as a fear of failure. You start to believe that it’s possible that you’ll never break out of the rut you’re in. The first step to solving a block is often to hone your musical imagination. You need to improve the odds that the ideas you’re thinking up are going to be useable in a songwriting project.
That’s why concentrating on songwriting exercises – small tasks that allow you to generate bits of lyrics and melody – are so useful. Exercises can get your brain working in a non-threatening environment, their main asset being the fact that there’s no expectation of creating a full song at the end. So the pressure is off.
What kind of exercises? Here’s a few that can help immediately. My new book, “Beating Songwriter’s Block: Jump-Start Your Words and Music” has an entire chapter devoted to short, productive exercises and “games” that get you generating musical ideas for melodies and lyrics.
Once you’ve started to release your musical imagination, it’s time to turn your attention to the creation of music: examining how you’re putting those musical ideas together. A block can often be accentuated by shoddy songwriting technique.
In a sense, that’s what my blog has been addressing for the past 6 years: how to put musical ideas together. My songwriter’s block book contains several chapters meant to show you the ins-and-outs of song structure, and how the best songs in our musical history follow those basic principles.
If songwriting has always felt hit-or-miss to you, you’re not realizing your full potential. There are ways to be sure that every time you sit down to write is productive, fun, and perhaps even profitable.
Beating Songwriter’s Block: Jump-Start Your Words and Music is available now from Amazon, and from Hal Leonard Books.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
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