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Four Ways To Overcome “Songwriter’s Block”

6:00 am Songwriting

If you’re someone who enjoys making up their own songs and then recording them, like I am, you’ve probably had the experience of wanting to write a brand new song, but coming up dry when you actually sit down to do it. I know I have! Maybe it’s because everything you come up with to play seems familiar, like you already made up that pattern. Or maybe the chords are OK and you may even have a “la la la” melody part, but nothing is coming to you for the lyrics to actually be about.

Sound familiar? Well, before you get frustrated and start wondering whether you will in fact ever write another original song, here are four tips that might help get your creative juices flowing the way they should.

1. Use new chords.

When you go to make up a chord pattern for a new song, do you always start in the same key? Do you always start with a major chord? Practices like these can make your “new” song sound like the “same old same old” and kill your enthusiasm for working on it before you even start. You need to jolt yourself out of that rut, and here’s how.

Get a book of guitar (or keyboard) chords, or consult an online list of chords, and pick one that you can play easily but seldom or rarely use. For a beginning musician, this might be a Dm7 or Cmaj7 chord. If you’re an old hand, you’ll have to dig a little deeper to come up with an F11+ or some other esoteric chord to start with. Now play your new chord, and experiment with following it with various other chords. You might try following a Dm7 with an Am chord, or an F, or any other chord you like the sound of. Try one bar of each, then try playing two bars of each to see how that sounds.

These opening two chords are very likely to suggest a melody to you. Go with this melody and let it determine what the next few chords are. Now you’re underway! The emerging chords and melody will likely begin to suggest lyrics, and off you go.

2. Use new chord changes.

This is similar to the previous tip, but without the exotic new chords. The idea is to purposely not play your usual chord changes, to avoid writing some song you already wrote. For example, if I pick up my guitar and strum a few bars of an A chord, my natural inclination is to go from there to a D, or to the relative minor, F#m. Maybe I go from the A to a G chord. But all of these are conventional sequences. What about something less obvious and more interesting?

For example, what if you modulate from the A chord to a C? Listen as you play one four-beat measure of A and another of C. Nice! This takes us away from the familiar I-IV-V three-chord framework (but not very far). Now, try other even more “oddball” changes and see if they suggest anything to you melody-wise. I like the sound of A to Em, perhaps for a slow song, and what about A to G#? Any of these sequences, or one you come up with, may kick-start your new song in a direction that will inspire you to finish it!

3. Find an opening line for your lyrics.

So often, I try and try to think of what a new song should be “about” and get nothing usable. But then someone says something on TV, or a line pops into my head out of nowhere, and I just know that with that as a first line, I can write the rest of the song. Many times, finding that first line, or even just part of it, is more than half the battle. So where can you get a first line? Try these sources:

* TV, any channel (I’ve used lines I heard on The Weather Channel in songs!)
* Commercials on radio or TV
* Movies
* Things people say to you, or to someone else
* Thoughts you have while wool-gathering (write them down!)
* Book titles (check Amazon, or the fiction section of your local library)
* Newspaper headlines
* Sayings or quotations (”It Takes A Village”, anyone?)

As long as you are able to recognize a good opening line when you hear it, any of these sources might do the trick.

4. Bypass the whole issue and do a “creative cover.”

OK, you’ve tried it all and everything comes out lame. Your biorhythms must be off-beat today or something, because you just can’t come up with anything new that you want to bother recording. Peace, my friend. All is not lost! Try selecting a known song and working up a cover version of that song in a completely different style and/or at a different tempo from the original. You can get the chords and lyrics off the Internet and go from there.

You needn’t adhere slavishly to the original arrangement. Insert a long jam solo in the middle if you like. Add a link between verses. Change key halfway through, or with every verse. Whatever! The point is to channel the creativity that you couldn’t quite focus into creating a new song into doing up this song as if you wrote it yourself.

You want an example? I’ve been toying for years with the idea of doing a slow, ballad-y version of the Dave Clark Five’s thumping Glad All Over. (If you try this yourself, be sure to send me a copy!)

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2 Responses
  1. Eugene :

    Date: October 30, 2008 @ 6:39 pm

    Nice article. Thanks. :) Eugene

  2. Rafa :

    Date: May 12, 2011 @ 8:20 am

    Man, wonderful advice, I honestly think your a supercool musician from what ive read, I relate easily with many of your advices and thank for your great efforts for articulating them for further consideration. From here where i live in Venezuela i send you my best wishes and success for your artistic musical career. And by the way Im also an humbly experienced songwriter and if possible i think it would be great if someday we could work together.

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