Creating song ideas is not often the toughest part of songwriting. Working them together is harder.
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There is definitely a sense of beginning, middle and end when it comes to the songwriting process:
With some songs, everything seems to happen quickly, and you find yourself moving from the beginning stage — that initial collecting of ideas — right into the middle stage where most of the writing takes place. You find yourself polishing things up within hours. When that happens, it’s exciting and you feel incredibly creative.
With other songs — possibly most songs — your initial burst of ideas that happens in the beginning stage will happen quickly, but it’s the middle working-it-out stage where everything seems to slow down. That’s normal.
In that sense, you find that the start of the middle stage is really the start of the songwriting process itself. And there’s a reason for that. Almost anyone can spontaneously create musical ideas, but developing those ideas into something that looks like a song is your art, where the real work begins:
And it’s that start of the middle stage — the true start, if you will — that is the make or break stage. If you’ve got a trunk full of unfinished songs, whether literal or figurative, most of those unfinished ones probably got stuck at that stage, where you’ve struggled with trying to get a song shaped and designed.
If you find yourself always getting stuck at this early stage of writing, take heart: it’s a very normal problem in the creation of anything in the arts. Once you’ve got your song’s basic shape and purpose, you find a kind of momentum gets created, carrying you on toward the end stage of writing.
So what can you do to get yourself through that difficult “beginning of the middle” stage of writing? Here are some tips:
- Take breaks if frustration takes hold. There is a lot of excitement that comes from the beginning stage when you think of a great hook, a great line of lyric, or a great chord progression. But once you start to try working them together, frustration can take hold quickly as the process naturally slows down. So take lots of breaks, and don’t allow negative opinions of your writing skills to take hold. Even a 15-minute break can allow you brain to clear, and you’ll return to the task with a much better frame of mind.
- Listen to music during your breaks. Hearing someone else’s successful songs can help you develop and keep a positive attitude to writing. And no, you won’t be tempted to plagiarize simply because you’re listening to someone else’s music.
- Draw a picture of your song. Most songwriters work entirely by the sound of what they’re doing. They strum, sing, and only write down chords and lyrics. Try this: on a piece of paper, draw the outer shape of your initial idea for your song using boxes or other shapes, showing the overall design of your song. Your page should like boxes labeled as intro, verse, chorus, and whatever other sections you might include. Sometimes seeing your song as a series of connected boxes gives you enough of a different perspective that other ideas will come to you.
- Write your lyrics on a page like a poem, separate from chords or other musical elements. This is not to say that your lyrics should work like poetry (they often don’t, nor should they). But seeing your lyrics as a separate element will remind you of their importance. Most bad songs are bad because of the quality of the lyric. Writing the lyrics separately gives you an opportunity to see them clearly, and helps you decide if you like what you see.
- Experiment with completely different approaches to your song idea(s). Once you’ve got musical ideas created, don’t feel locked in to whatever tempo, key, basic backing rhythm you thought would work. Try changing things up. Maybe what you thought was a fast song should actually be slow. Maybe your backing rhythm or time signature needs to be changed. The start of the middle is the time to try improvising new and creative ways to put your ideas together.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
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