I read a quote recently by Paul McCartney (I believe it might have been Philip Norman’s book “Paul McCartney: The Life”) in which he said that he didn’t know how to write songs, he only knew how to finish them.
That quote shows great insight. I’ve made it a large part of my life to teach others how to write music, but in fact, all I’m really doing (hopefully) is showing people how to improve what their writing. I can’t actually teach someone how to come up with original ideas.
Everyone has their own way of making it most likely that they’ll generate good musical ideas. Some people go for a walk, and just being out and in nature makes it most likely that musical ideas will pop into their minds.
Other people find that they are at their most creative when they’re playing an instrument, noodling around.
Others find their musical imagination is in overdrive when they’re improvising with bandmates. For everyone, it’s different. (For me, I find that the times I work hardest at playing my instrument (trumpet) are the times that I get the best ideas for composing music.)
If you find it hard therefore to generate ideas that lead to good songs, you’re actually describing two possible problems:
- the inability to come up with good musical ideas in the first place (melodies, hooks, chords, etc.), and/or
- the inability to turn those ideas into good songs.
Turning an Idea Into a Song
I think the second of those problems is actually the most common one, and the one that’s hardest to solve. In fact, most people who suffer from writer’s block come up with many ideas, but they judge them all to be bad, and so they get stuck.
But are they really bad ideas? Or is the problem really more that they just don’t know what to do with them?
A musical idea, in the context I’m describing, is anything that serves as a starting point, so for many songwriters, that means a hook. It might also mean a bit of catchy lyric, a pair of chords that grabs your attention, or any other kind of fragment.
As I say, I think most people can come up with things on the spur of the moment. It’s what you do with them that makes them successful or not.
So if you’re great at coming up with things, but lousy at creating a finished song with them, here are a few tips to keep you on task:
- Don’t throw out any musical idea that you think is bad. A bad musical idea is often something that is looking for another idea. So it may simply be unfinished, more so than bad.
- Keep a digital recorder or smartphone with you at all times. Interesting musical ideas can happen when you’re least expecting them.
- Figure out where your new musical idea belongs within a song. You might be spending time trying to get your musical idea to work as a chorus, when it might make a better verse. Rethinking where you imagine it belongs can suddenly open a floodgate of ideas.
- Try your musical idea in a different key, a different mode, a different style, etc. No one’s hook is set in stone at the beginning. You do have the opportunity to change it slightly, and see what it turns into. Take your time, and let your imagination wander.
- Always apply the principles of good songwriting. So often, writer’s block happens when songwriters ignore why good songs work. Much like a jigsaw puzzle, songs make no sense if pieces are out of order, or forced together. Spend time listening to good music, and figuring out why they’re good.
So it’s not the starting stage where things often go awry in the songwriting process. It’s the later stages, when we get confused as to what to do with our ideas.
In a sense, no idea is good at its first stage, at its start. A songwriting idea becomes good when we know what to do at the second stage, when we develop them into good songs.
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