When you have an instinct for something, it means that you have an innate talent or gift for that activity. A songwriter’s instinct means that you enjoy writing, that it makes you happy, and that it satisfies you on an artistic level. And of course, that you find it to be easy (all things being relative, of course!)
There is a problem with instinct, however, and it probably relates more to that final point: the fact that it’s easy. When, as will likely happen to all songwriters, you hit a rough patch, and you’re barely able to see a way to put any notes together at all, you’ll be left wondering what happened to your instincts.
And actually, that’s a fair question; what did happen to those innate abilities that have brought you this far?
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Everything you do in music is the combination of two processes:
- The imaginative process: your artistic brain conjures up ideas and fragments. These ideas come from our imaginations, fuelled by our lifetime of musical experiences.
- The creative process: you put those ideas and fragments together in musically meaningful ways. In other words, you write a song. (This process can and usually does also include the imagination.)
Described that way, you can see that it’s possible to be imaginative without being creative. If your ability to imagine musical ideas is strong but you don’t have the ability or inclination to assemble them into a good song, you’ve got a kink in the creative process.
But that’s a bit of a side issue here. What’s more important to focus on is the relationship between your instinct for songwriting (which is the sum total of your imagination and your sense of creativity), and your ability or lack thereof to solve problems when writer’s block hits.
Having a songwriting instinct means that you’ve gotten this far by your natural talents. But just like a great batter who suddenly starts missing the ball, talent without technical knowledge can make you look untalented when a block hits.
There is little I or anyone can do about your innate talent. That, as I’ve mentioned, is a product of your past musical experiences, and probably genes as well. But I can do something about your technical knowledge, and that’s probably why you visit this blog.
The best way out of a creative block is to focus on the specifics of your musical technique. The batter who’s going through a bad patch solves the problem by slowing it all down and thinking a bit about the technique (and even physics) of it all.
The songwriter who is going through a bad patch solves the problem by answering a simple (though not so simple) question: what are the basic principles that are likely to result in a good song?
And that requires knowledge. A songwriter with an innate talent may not realize, for example, why some songs need a pre-chorus while others don’t; why some chord progressions work better in a chorus than in a bridge; why songs shouldn’t start with overly-emotional lyrics; and so on. They’ve just always done the right thing.
At some point, your instincts are going to feel like they’re letting you down. But in a sense, they’re not the culprit. We all need an instinct for that thing that we do. Instincts are important, and can lead to tremendously powerful music.
But when you’re going through writer’s block, you can keep working — if you have the technical understanding of what makes good music.
So if you ever wonder why you like to read about songwriting, listen to interviews with good musicians, and generally like to talk shop, that can be an instinct as well. The instinct to protect yourself when writer’s block hits.
Having a technical understanding of what makes good music means that you can go beyond your instincts. Or maybe a better way to say it is that you can enhance your instincts, and work even when instincts are letting you down.
If you’re going through a creative block, there is much you can be doing that will help you. So keep reading about songwriting, keep listening to good music, and even keep writing.
Sometimes, the best solution to writer’s block is to write.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter