It’s not unusual to have times when the music just seems to flow out of your creative mind, and then times when you can’t seem to come up with anything that sounds good at all. It’s the up and down of what it means to be a songwriter, and it’s normal.
But if, after a few good successes, you find your songwriting process grinding to a halt within the first few moments of each attempt to write something new, it’s time to press pause and take a look at your process to see what’s happening.
Not surprisingly, there are many reasons why you might find that your creative mind going blank just when you need it most. The most common reasons are:
- You don’t have a compelling topic. (You don’t know what to write about.)
- Your lyrics have no sense of organization. (You mix narrative, descriptive lyrics with emotional, reaction-based lyrics.)
- You don’t yet have a clear sense of the form of the song. (You have no idea where the song is going or what the final version is going to look like.)
The solution to any problem requires you to stop, at least for a moment, and get a handle on what you should be doing about it. Every songwriter has their strengths and weaknesses, and the best ones have a clear understanding of where their problems are so that they can target them and solve them.
If any of those three problems listed above sound sadly familiar to you, here are some solutions to try:
1. Searching For a Song Topic
You should be able to condense any good song down to a one- or two-sentence summary. If you can’t get to the heart of what you’re writing about in one or two sentences, then your lyrics are going to aimlessly wander, and it will be difficult or impossible for audiences to connect.
You can certainly “borrow” song topic ideas from other songs; topics are not protected by copyright. (Don’t borrow anything too specific, though. A song about building a city on rock and roll, for example…)
So here’s a solution to try: start keeping a journal of song topics, and include the general topics of your favourite songs. Make a one- or two- sentence summary of as many songs as you can.
Once you see those topics, you’ll find it likely that you’ll start to imagine your own take. That’s when the song topic becomes your own. You’ll find that as you read through your list of topics, your creative mind will compel you to expand and invent an angle that will take you in a more imaginative direction.
2. Organizing Your Lyrics
With those first few attempts to come up with a song lyric, you’re going to find yourself scrambling if you don’t already have a pretty good idea where in the song those lyrics will live.
If you’re working on a verse lyric, you’ll want to minimize the emotion of what you’re writing, and focus instead on observational, narrative-style lines. The verse is where the audience gets to hear what the song is about; the chorus is where they get to emote along with you.
Just getting this one thing working can help you through a logjam, because it’s such a common problem.
3. Dealing With Form Early in the Process
You may be thinking, “What relevance does form have when I’m just starting the writing process?” Having a sense of what form your song might take doesn’t necessarily mean having a blueprint, where you just start adding notes and words. But knowing at least that you’re working on the verse, in a song that’s likely going to have a chorus following it, tells you a few things that can keep you going:
- You should keep the melody relatively low in pitch.
- You should allow the lyric to tell a bit of a story, even if only by implication.
- You should keep your accompaniment light and transparent.
- You should allow the musical energy to slowly build to eventually connect to the chorus (whatever that chorus is going to be).
Of all those potential process-related problems, having a good grasp of what your song is about — the actual topic — is going to be an important part of getting the process moving, and keeping it moving.
So keeping a journal of song topic ideas is one of the most important things a songwriter can do. Also, keep a list of song titles, even if you haven’t yet worked out what the title is referring to.
Think of those lists as a powerful tool for developing a direction for your song. Once you have a direction, other things will more easily fall into place.
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