An important first step to being a successful songwriter is to finish songs. If all you have are bits of ideas, with nothing resembling a completed song, you’ve got a huge psychological hurdle to get over. Just finishing something — even if it isn’t what you think of as “good” — gives you a positive shot in the arm that makes it easier to call yourself a songwriter.
I believe I’ve mentioned this in a post a while back, but I think back to the days when I taught ear training at university. I’d play melodies at the piano, the students being required to write down what they heard. Some found this melodic dictation to be a very difficult task, and of course we teach all sorts of techniques to help. But there’s nothing as daunting as a blank sheet staring you in the face.
My advice to students in my ear training classes, when it came to doing melodic dictation, was to make their best guess; write anything down, even if they were sure it was filled with errors. Why? Because it’s a lot easier to work with errors than it is to work with a blank sheet.
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When you stare at a blank sheet, you’re no further ahead than you were before you sat down. You’ve got nothing to fix, nothing to change, nothing to edit. At least having something written down gives you a chance to see where the problems are. In my classes, the students who wrote notes down, even knowing they were wrong to start with, eventually got the highest marks in the class.
And it’s the same thing with songwriting. If you don’t have a completed song, you’ve got nothing to fix, nothing to change, and nothing to edit. And it’s worse than that, because you also have this nagging sense that you might just be a pretender in all of this. Maybe you aren’t really a songwriter, you find yourself saying.
Doubting that you’re a songwriter is the slippery slope called fear of failure that starts every bout of songwriter’s block. The negative emotions that come along with that fear make it harder to turn it around.
If you find that you’ve got lots of snippets of music, but nothing you can call a finished song, here are 5 tips to help:
- Finish something, even if you think it’s garbage. You can fix garbage; you can’t fix a blank sheet. Once your new song is finished, listen to it objectively, and start to tackle it, component by component. Try playing through the chords, and make sure they’re all working, and fix what isn’t. Then sing the melody over the chords to a neutral syllable (“la la la…”), and fix what seems lame. Then tackle the lyrics. It may take a while, but you’ll keep getting closer to what you really want to hear. And all the while, you can still say to yourself that you’ve written a song!
- Don’t feel trapped into always asking others for opinions. It can bring you down and make you feel vulnerable as a songwriter if you feel you must always get the approval of your peers. It’s important to play your songs for others, and to get the opinions of good musicians. But approval from others, even from seasoned pros, isn’t always necessary for you to hone and improve your songs. It’s possible (and good, occasionally) to choose a song to work on in relative isolation. At least some songs.
- A bad opinion of your songs does not necessarily mean you have a problem. Always remember that music, like all arts, strikes different people in different ways. The fact that someone doesn’t like the song you’ve just written is not the indicator that something must change. The fact that you don’t like it is the indicator that you’ve got work to do.
- Consider a collaboration to finish difficult songs. Finding a songwriting partner, someone that you consider a musical soulmate, can help you finally deal with the fragments of music you’ve created. Tapping into other songwriters’ strengths can be a wonderful experience. But choose your collaborator wisely.
- Know when to take a break. I am a firm believer in setting and keeping a writing schedule, and I also believe in writing even while you feel the grip of a creative block. Having said that, however, there are times when a few days away from writing can be just what the doctor ordered. Focus on other artistic activities, such as playing, teaching, painting, dancing, or whatever else keeps you thinking creatively.
Above all, finish something. The positive shot in the arm that comes from finally completing a song gives you something you can fix. And all the while you’re fixing it, you can be grinning and reminding yourself that you did it – you’re a songwriter!
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.
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Gary is also the author of “Beating Songwriter’s Block: Jump-Start Your Words and Music“