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It happens to every writer, the dreaded “writer’s block.” Writer’s block is that horrible feeling that paralyzes you while staring at a blank word doc or notebook to the point of being incapable of knowing where the hell to start, much less what to actually write. It happens to authors, columnists, bloggers, and yes, songwriters, too.
Unlike other writers, songwriters have the honor (or curse) of not only having to come up with the words on the page, but also rhyming patterns, the melody, a memorable chorus, a bridge, oh, and tell a universal story differently than every other songwriter has, all in under four minutes. Not to mention the music stuff, major or minor? What style? What tempo? What key? Argggh!
Each one of these points can block you from finishing your song. When you actually think about it, it’s a miracle any song gets written and finished.
But there is hope. Having to balance all of these creative choices provides songwriters with extra tools that those who only write words do not have. So, I want to share with you a sampling of some of the techniques I teach to my songwriter groups and personally use to ‘break the block.’
First, the point of breaking a writer’s block is not to produce amazing work immediately. That’s most likely not going happen. The goal of this is to trick your brain and creative synapses to open up and flow freely again so that you can get back to creating great work. These techniques work for any level of musician/writer, so give them a try and find which ones work best for your style of writing.
Even Prince wrote shitty songs. Not every song you write is going to be a masterpiece, so get used to it. Too often we waste our time and energy trying to force an incredible song when it just isn’t there. So, what to do? Finish a crappy one. Seriously, finish it as quick as you can. Do not think about how this song would play live, or how you could record it, because it’s not going to be. Do not pause on a lyric line, simply find a rhyming word for the end and write into it. Do not suffer over the transition of the chorus into the second verse, simply write a three-word chorus and repeat it four times. Those three words are also your title. Finish the song. You can always come back and rip yourself off later if there are good bits in it.
Take the words out of the problem. Don’t think at all about the “what” of the song, but focus on the vibe of the notes and chords you already have. Say you have a cool chorus written, but the words are just not fitting right, play that pattern and start singing to it using only vowels. By using soft consonants like “d” and “b” and add vowels. Start with “Doo, Doo,” and then use “Bah, Bah.” You can try to use “Oohs” or “Ahs,” but I have found that you need the consonants in order to establish syllabic rhythm. Humming is fine, but it won’t get you finishing quicker. Using these types of “non-words,” you will start to feel the rhythm of the melody and perhaps, where there are too many (or not enough) notes.
Is this professional publisher and licensor telling me to rip-off songs? Yep. Seriously, take a song you love or even hate, and try to write your own version of it. Pick a song, any song. Remember, the point of these exercises is not to write a great song; it is to simply break the block. I do this with commercial jingles and show themes. For instance, I took the theme from Golden Girls and made it into “Spank You for Wearing Depends.” But it doesn’t have to be a parody song. Fire up Spotify and pick one of the Top 5 streamed songs, and write your own version. Again, this is not going to be recorded or released. It will get your creative juices flowing and you just might expand your writing style.
If you write on piano or synth, pick up that old guitar and strum a while. Conversely, if you always write on acoustic guitar, try writing a chorus on a bass, or even just the low E guitar string. If you have a synth, try writing a song using only a horn sample. By changing the tonality of the instrument you are writing on, you will find new areas to spark your imagination.
Look, the struggle is real. But, it’s only temporary. You have tons of great songs to write, and I can’t wait to hear them.
-Michael St. James is the founder and creative director of St. James Media, specializing in music licensing, publishing, production and artist development. Follow on Twitter @michaelstjames
photo by Andi Sidwell, used under a Creative Commons license.