Musical inspiration

How to Write Songs When you Don’t Feel Inspired

The whole notion of songwriting without being inspired to write — it begs the question, “Why”? Why write if you’re not particularly inspired to do so?

One reason you might write when not “feeling the muse” is that you’ve got a looming deadline. Perhaps you’re recording, and you need one more song. Maybe you’re taking part in a songwriting circle or workshop, and you need a song to contribute.

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Or maybe you’re providing songs and other music for someone else’s project, like a film or YouTube video.

When deadlines are approaching, you can’t afford to sit back and say, “I’ll get to it when I feel inspired.” On this blog I’ve often quoted the great American composer Leonard Bernstein, who said: ““Inspiration is wonderful when it happens, but the writer must develop an approach for the rest of the time… The wait is simply too long.”

So what is that approach? How do you get down to the business of songwriting if you just aren’t coming up with exciting ideas, and you’d rather sweep the floor than write?

Good songwriting is a conglomeration of good habits. Once you’ve put a process in place — a sensible way to tackle the task of songwriting — you’ll find that your own musical ideas will generate a kind of musical excitement that serves as its own inspiration.

So when Bernstein mentioned “approach”, he was likely referring to a set of habits that will serve you well when specific ideas are lacking.

Here, in my opinion, are four things that a songwriter could and should be doing pretty much every day:

  1. Make songwriting a daily activity. For at least five out of seven days, you should make attempts to write music. These attempts may just be short tasks, like writing a line or two of lyric, or working out a chord progression for a verse or chorus, but it needs to be done regularly. Don’t feel you have to write a complete song every time you sit down to work.
  2. Listen to songs daily. Just as writing is an important daily activity, listening can be every bit as important. Familiarize yourself with other songs in your chosen genre, and then expand outward to listen to songs from other genres. The more you listen, the more your musical mind will expand and develop.
  3. Record your own song snippets and listen carefully. Ask yourself, “If this were someone else’s song, what would I suggest they do next with it?” This kind of objective listening is an important part of becoming better at the art of songwriting. Listening to a short smartphone recording gives you a kind of distance that makes it easier to imagine it being written by someone else, and can help you hear your own songs the way others will hear them.
  4. Every few days give yourself a songwriting challenge. For example, give yourself a simple two-chord progression (Cm-F), play it over and over, and then set a timer for 3-5 minutes, and see how many melodic ideas you can come up with. Or write a line of lyric, and see if you can come up with ten possible lines that could follow it. Songwriting challenges force you to work quickly, and there is value in requiring your musical mind to generate ideas on the spur of the moment.

And as I mentioned, you start to notice that your own musical ideas — the snippets of melodies, chords, lyrics, etc. — will create within you a kind of inspiration that keeps you excited. This kind of “internally-sourced inspiration” is much more powerful than any other kind, and it puts you in the same mind-space as many of the world’s top songwriters.

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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