Songwriting frustration - crumpled paper

Starting Songs, Then Keeping the Fire Burning

If there is one problem that practically all songwriters deal with, it’s this one: the inability to finish a song.

Most songs will start with something captivating: a great little hook, a catchy bit of chord progression, or perhaps a short idea for a melody. And they start with great promise. So for those songwriters who don’t seem to be able to keep the fire burning, what happens?

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Most of the time, a song dies soon after the start of the process for any or all of these reasons:

  1. You’ve got a catchy fragment, but you don’t know where in the song that fragment belongs. (i.e., you’ve got that great idea, but is it a chorus hook? a verse? a pre-chorus? a bridge?)
  2. You don’t have a clear image in your mind of what the final version of the song might be. (i.e., you’re looking for some other good idea to attach to this first idea, but you don’t have any clear picture of the completed song.)
  3. You’ve written a fragment that sounds interesting to you, but doesn’t help to conjure up new ideas to attach to it.

What Songwriting Inspiration Is

Remember that the kind of inspiration that you need as a songwriter is the kind that gets generated by your own good ideas. (“The Relationship Between Inspiration and Hard Work“).

That feeling of inspiration will die if you don’t follow it up with something that allows your first idea to grow. Inspiration continues to develop as a new, great idea gets added on to a previous one. That’s what songwriting is: the continual adding of ideas together until you’ve got the completed song.

Since I’m willing to bet that your inability to finish a song is a result of one of the three problems I’ve listed above, here are some solutions to try:

Find Out Where It Belongs

Once you’ve got a catchy idea as your starting point, take a moment and do a bit of objective analyzing:

a. If it’s relatively low in pitch, assume it’s a bit of verse, and work to develop it based on that notion.
b. If it’s higher in pitch, perhaps based on a simple melodic idea and chord progression, assume it’s a bit of chorus, and, while working to expand it to something fuller, be thinking about what you might write to lead into it.
c. If it’s supported by a wandering chord progression that includes more than 3 or 4 chords, try assuming that it’s a verse.
d. If it starts in a minor key, try assuming it’s a possible bridge, and see if you can find a way to expand it, aiming to move it toward a major key (ideally, the relative major).
e. Modify your idea if you can’t write anything that works well with it. It may be that it’s a bit of a dud in its current format, and you may need to make changes before the creative process finally kicks in.

The Importance of Thinking

The idea here is that as you write, improvisation and experimentation are good, but sometimes you need to stop for a moment and think. Think about what it is you’re actually writing, and how it might fit into the structure of a potential song.

When ideas dry up, you may be going down a dead end path, but that dead end may only exist because you haven’t given much thought to what you’re doing. Improvisation doesn’t mean that you must mindlessly experiment without using your musical smarts.

Sometimes, in the midst of a creative process, stopping and thinking can be the best way forward.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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