I hate songwriting when things aren’t flowing.
Okay, that’s not totally true. I always love the craft of songwriting, but I get super frustrated when nothing is showing up even though I am. When I’ve been working on a song for months or even years and it’s not finished, I feel like giving up.
So to help you (and me) stay in love with the craft of songwriting, here are some things you can do.
Read books about other songwriters
If the term “garbage in, garbage out” is true, then so is “gold in, gold out.” And one way to consume gold is to listen to artists who make gold.
The first book I’d recommend is Songwriters On Songwriting by Paul Zollo. It’s packed with fascinating interviews Zollo has done over the years with some of the best songwriters.
“What songwriters?” you ask.
Well, here are just a few of them: Paul Simon, Pete Seeger, Brian Wilson, Randy Newman, Leonard Cohen, Tom Petty...oh, and frickin’ Bob Dylan too.
It’s so inspiring to read about these songwriters, their processes, how they approach songwriting, and which of their songs they like and don’t like. I seriously think this book should be on every single songwriter’s bookshelf.
And if you want even more songwriting gold, there’s a sequel book, More Songwriters On Songwriting. It includes interviews with James Taylor, Elvis Costello, Stephen Stills, and a bunch of others.
So if you want to re-fall in love with songwriting, I highly suggest checking out those books.
Rewrite someone else’s song
One way to really appreciate a song is to rewrite it. When you do this, you start to understand the (often simple) chord progressions, the imagery a songwriter uses, and the creative melodies they chose.
So try this: take a song from your favorite artists and rewrite it, line by line. Say the thing in your own words, then make your own chord progression and melody based on the original.
This is mainly an exercise to help your creative juices flow, but if you end up with a killer song of your own, then great! Either way, this should help reinvigorate your love for the craft.
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Try a new songwriting method
Sometimes it can feel like songwriting becomes the same old thing every time. You may feel like “your well is drying up” and you’re losing that creative bug.
But I don’t believe that’s usually the case.
If you start to get tired of the way you write songs, try using a different songwriting method. Here’s a list of ideas to get you started:
Make the music first, record it, then come up with a melody and lyrics over top of it. Paul Simon did this for his album Graceland.
Just write poetry: start with only words, no music. Don’t even touch your instrument. Start out by writing a poem and see where it gets you.
Stream of consciousness writing: this is where you just write whatever the heck is in your brain, no filtering. I prefer to do this at my computer because I can type faster than I can write by hand. Just sit there and don’t let your fingers stop -- a lot of what you write won’t make sense, but that’s okay. Somewhere in the gibberish you may find a song title.
Play multiple songs at once: Tom Waits did this. He would turn on five radios at once, each on a different channel, and listen for interesting overlaps. Sounds crazy, but it just might spark something in you.
Stop talking (and listen more): in Songwriters On Songwriting, Bob Dylan said, “poets do a lot of listening.” And I think that’s wise -- we could all learn to listen more. So try to not talk for an entire day. Or, if that’s not possible because of your job or something, don’t talk for just a few hours. Focus on listening. You never know what you might hear that could end up being a new song.
Set a timer, especially if you’re a part-time musician who’s strapped for time. It will push you to create quickly and filter less.
Make some random MIDI notes: pull up a virtual instrument in your DAW of choice and just start placing MIDI notes randomly. Just go crazy and don’t think about what you’re doing. Then play it back -- it will sound terrible, but there could be a melody in there that jumps out to you.
Cut up your lyrics and put them back together in a different order: this idea is attributed to author William S. Burroughs, but David Bowie loved using this technique. You can even use this with chords to create a chord progression or with a bunch of song titles.
Sometimes, your songwriting just needs a dose of something different in order for you to realize how much you love doing it.
Another way to get unstuck from discouragement is to try a new instrument. If you always write on guitar, switch to piano or bass. If you normally write on ukulele, pick up an electric guitar and turn up the distortion.
A chord progression you play on the piano can sound very different on the guitar. It can give it a totally different feel.
Bonus: try changing the key too. “Changing keys influences the writing of the song,” Dylan told Zollo. “...For me, that works.”
Look how far you’ve come
It’s important to remember where you started. That way, you can see how far you’ve come -- how much you’ve improved as a songwriter.
I tend to compare myself to other songwriters, and that’s when I get super discouraged and want to give up on the whole songwriting thing.
But what if I started comparing myself to...myself?
What if I went back and listened to my old songs, thought about the structures, lyrics, metaphors, and chord progressions, then compared them to my new songs?
I think this can be one of the best ways to encourage yourself as a songwriter. Just look at how far you’ve come and that will help you keep going.
Caleb J. Murphy is a singer/songwriter whose music has been on NBC, ABC, and in hundreds of indie film projects. He also sends a twice-monthly email to indie musicians called 5 Things To Help You Keep Going.
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