It’s part of human natural ability to understand music, at least to some degree. People with absolutely no musical training can often tell when they’re hearing mistakes as their young child works on their weekly piano lesson.
Humans have this musical ability through DNA, bolstered by whatever experiences they might have as a casual listener to music. Many people, even people with little or no previous musical experience or training, can create and hum short little snippets of melodies on the spur of the moment.
When it comes to writing a song, most songs start with the ability to imagine these short little musical ideas. The problem that songwriting gives us, though, is that just because we can make up little bits of melody is no guarantee that we can fashion it into a complete song.
In other words, it’s a lot harder to finish a song than it is to simply start one. And one could argue that one’s ability as a songwriter comes down to how good they are at finishing them, not starting them.
It’s worth taking some time to ponder why finishing a song is so much harder. There are probably several reasons:
- You need to know where in a song this hummed bit belongs. Casually humming a melody you’ve just made up is one thing, but deciding if that bit of melody is a part of a verse, a chorus, or some other part of a song, requires a lot more thought and a lot more experience.
- Good songs must make an emotional connection to the listener. With a quickly-imagined melody, there may be little to indicate which direction to go to get the most bang for your musical buck. It might be part of a love song, but who knows? Deciding that is an important part of what songwriting is all about.
- Good songs are a partnership of several elements. So the bit you’ve hummed may be the start of a great chorus hook, but you’ll need lyrics, more melodies for the other parts of the song, some idea of what instrumentation you’d need, and so on.
- A good song is a musical journey. That means that you need to take that one idea you just hummed, and then add other ideas in such a way that the end result sounds like a satisfying journey that takes the listener from start to finish.
That last point, especially, is a tricky one. It’s hard to define what a “musical journey” really is. Certainly for different musical genres the journey will be dramatically different. But one thing is for sure: your spontaneous humming of a short melody is just the start. And without a good grasp of musical form, you’ll find the task of finishing the song to be the trickiest bit.
Most songwriters who deal with writer’s block will tell you that it’s after the imagining of that initial melody that everything becomes hard: they’ve got a starting idea, but they don’t know where to do from there.
If you’re stuck, having created a good initial musical idea, but can’t seem to form it into anything like a completed song, try this:
- Take a break. You may need a day or two away from the pressure of writing, or maybe even a week or two. In any case, stop hitting your head against that creative wall that’s frustrating you.
- Keep listening: Make daily listening to good music a constant activity. That has a way of keeping your mind feeling creative and musical.
- Keep playing: Use your writing downtime as a good time to keep improving your playing chops. Good playing abilities helps you feel musical and imaginative without the pressure of writing.
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