If you ever spend time reading or listening to interviews with some of the world’s best songwriters, you’ll probably notice how much time they spend talking about other people’s music. McCartney often talks about how he was influenced by Dylan, The Byrds, The Beach Boys, and many others from many genres. To McCartney, listening to others has been a crucial part of his success.
Listening is a vital activity for songwriters. Listening keeps reminding you of what good music is. It can also remind you of what bad music is, or at least, music that you don’t like. And listening can do a lot more: it can keep you in a creative state of mind when writer’s block hits.
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When you can’t seem to come up with songwriting ideas, the next best thing is often listening. That’s because writer’s block is often a “top-level” problem. In other words, all the parts of your brain that pertain to creating music are likely still firing on all (or most) cylinders. It’s just usually the final steps — the parts of songwriting that involve actually putting pen to paper — where artistic cramping takes place.
If you ever want evidence for the fact that your musical brain is still working just fine even while experiencing writer’s block, imagine someone asking for your help critiquing their song while you yourself feel blocked. You’ll find that you can still assess music just fine. You can still talk about music, and you can still play music well. In your brain, everything is working.
So if you’re in the midst of a bad bout of writer’s block, it’s a good idea to step back a bit from writing, but to keep yourself immersed in musical activities. And listening to good music is one of the best antidotes for writer’s block.
And if you want some specific suggestions, try these:
- Start your day with listening. Put something good on while you’re making breakfast, or heading down to the coffee shop. And don’t pressure yourself to know what it is exactly that you like about what you’re listening to. Save that responsibility for later. For first thing in the morning, just listen.
- Play along “with the band.” At some point later in the day, put on music you love, take out your guitar or keyboard, and play along. Become a member of the band. Be discerning. Play tastefully. Don’t just jam mindlessly. Think about what you’re doing. But think of yourself as a player, not a writer.
- Interview yourself about someone else’s song. Choose a favourite song, and listen to it at least once. Then write down 5 questions an interviewer might ask the composer about the actual nuts & bolts of the song. Then (and this is the weird part) answer the questions as if you wrote it. Try to figure out what the real writer would say about it. It’s an amazingly powerful creative exercise.
- Transcribe a favourite solo (into musical notation if you can), or learn it well enough to play along. By doing this exercise, you’re tapping directly into someone else’s creative process, and it can be very revealing.
- Keep a listening journal. Every day, choose one song for which you make some notes about what you’re hearing. Write down the form of the song (verse-chorus-etc), the instrumentation. Do some research on the personnel on the recording. Is there anything you’ve learned as a songwriter from this song? What’s the chord progression? What would you ask the composer if you could?
The whole point of listening is to keep your mind active, and to keep you thinking like a musician. Listening is one of the best cures for writer’s block because other people’s good music will excite you. Good music often sounds easy, even though it may have taken a long time for them to get it right.
Not only is listening a good cure, it’s also great preventative medicine that can keep songwriter’s block from moving in. So keep listening. You’ll reap the rewards.
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