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Monday, 9 November 2015

Songwriting When There's No Inspiration

If you’re a songwriter, you know what I’m talking about. It’s the lack of inspiration that comes when you want to write a song. You go about your week, waiting for some musical inspiration to come to you that will lead you to writing an amazing song and, in turn, transforming you into the next Bruce Springsteen. After a while, you decide that you should just sit down and write a song because, after all, you’re a songwriter. It shouldn’t be hard. So you get your pen and paper and you sit down and your mind is completely blank. You open up Facebook and start scrolling through the news feed. Maybe you’ll find some inspiration there? Half an hour passes and you know what everyone’s up to tonight, but there’s nothing on your page and you feel worse than you did before. So you go do something else and wait for the inspiration to come again… but it never does.

Those Mystical Beings Called “Songwriters”

I’ve been there many times and, as someone who is just getting back into songwriting after a couple of years, I know how frustrating it can be. But there is hope and there are ways to get your creative mojo back. People perceive creativity as being this magical gift that is bestowed upon a chosen few. They see people like Bob Dylan and John Lennon as artistic Gods, sent down from Rock ‘n Roll Heaven to enlighten the mortals with the Melodic Scriptures that reside in them. Even worse, some people believe that THEY have the same angelic abilities, that they just need a little bit of inspiration to bring it out. This can lead to a lot of frustration among delusional songwriters when they can’t find the words and melodies inside them to make an amazing song and they doubt that they are as magical as they once thought they were.

Of course, this is all a big bunch of baloney. Songwriting is a skill that is taught, learnt, practiced and honed. It’s a muscle. Just like a muscle, if you’re lifting the big weights (or writing the good songs) and you take a 6 month break, you can’t expect that you’ll be able to jump back to where you were without tearing a tendon. Luckily, there’s very little physical damage that you can cause yourself while trying to write songs… unless you have a tendency to hit things out of frustration. The other good part is that it’s easy to get back into it if you haven’t been writing for quite a while. The best songwriters in the world have written more bad songs than you have. They’ve written worse songs that you have. But they’ve also written better songs than you and a hell of a lot more of them (I’m guessing, I don’t know who’s reading this. Ignore if you’re Cat Stevens.)

Shut Up And Write

This is as much advice for myself as it is for all of you. Sometimes you just gotta sit down and start writing a song. The biggest excuse I have when I think about songwriting is that I have no ideas to turn into a song. That’s a pretty average excuse because I haven’t taken the time to sit down in the first place to come up with any ideas. The biggest step is always the first step and finding your feet when it comes to writing a new song might seem like a struggle. But it can be done, it can be practiced and it can be perfected.

Jonathan Mann's YouTube Page
One guy that is important to note for inspiration in this field is Jonathan Mann. This guy set out on a competition with himself to write one song every single day. That’s lyrics, melody, chord progression finished each day, with a recording and video up on Youtube to prove it. He started in 2009 and now has over 2000 songs up on his Youtube channel. That’s a pretty amazing feat, and whether you like his songs or not, it’s better than writing a song every couple of months. It’s worth checking out his channel because he goes into some of his processes on songwriting in some other videos. check him out here:

This technique is a great idea as it forces you to focus on the important parts of writing a song without thinking too much about all the noodly, unimportant bits. I’m not saying that you should copy his idea of writing and releasing tracks on YouTube every day (I mean, you can. It’s a free world), but try writing a song to completion each day. If you’re strapped for time, write a couple a week. Have them finished to a point where you can record them as a finished product for later. Try it for a week and see what happens to your songwriting abilities. At worst, you won’t come up with any gems, but you’ll have perfected some songwriting skills that you can use in your future songwriting endeavours. At best, you’ll come up with some great songs that you can use. You might change these songs up in the future, but that’s all part of the creative process.

I’ve Got No Ideas, How Do I Start

There are plenty of pages out there on where to begin with songwriting, and you never know what’ll work for you. It’s good to do what you know best, but when you’re struggling for inspiration, it might be time to step outside your comfort zone a little bit. Here’s some good ideas that might get your creative juices flowing and may even be the key to your next big hit.

  • Stare at a blank wall and sing some gibberish. This is a technique that I got from Jonathan Mann and it involves sitting at a blank wall with your guitar (or keyboard), playing through random chords or notes and singing nonsensical noises or words until you come up with a melody or lyrics.

  • Listen to the music you like until something jumps out at you. I do this a bit already, but it’s a great way to get some inspiration. Sit there with your notepad and listen to a song (or an album) and really get immersed in the song. Things might jump out at you when you hear a line, and a vocal line that fits afterwards pops into your head. Or a melody that’s different to what they use, that you think would work.

  • Use a different instrument than what you’re used to. If you’re a guitarist, jump on a keyboard to write a song. If you’re a keyboardist, try a mandolin. Turn your guitar over and tap out a rhythm and try to sing along to that. 

  • Take an instrumental piece of music and try to come up with some words that could go over the top. Take the melody that you’ve come up with figure out the key and write some chords to go underneath it… BAM, that’s a song.

  • Use a Brainstorm Chart. Write a theme in a bubble in the middle of a page. Think of as many sub-themes to do with that theme as you can and write them in bubbles branching off the main bubble. Take each one of the sub-themes and write down as many sub-themes as you can for each one of those. Now, for each sub-sub-theme, look at the words and try to come up with a lyric for it. Many of them won’t be usable, but some might be gold and will set you off on a tangent that brings you a great song.

  • Use some different technology than what you’re used to. Try using a loop pedal and record some loops until you come up with something that sounds cool. 

  • Write the sequel to someone else’s words. Find a poem or lyrics to a song that you’ve never heard before. Read the lyrics and come up with a melody for them. Using that melody, come up with your chords and then play around with lyrics until you have a completely new song.

Those are seven new ideas that I found on various websites on how to start a new song when you’re out of inspiration, but there’s countless more. You can think of new ideas on songwriting ideas or trawl the internet some more, but these ones seem pretty good to me. 

Get Yourself Into a Zone

It’s very easy these days to be distracted by all the things in this world that can ruin your creative flow. Phone calls, social media, loved ones, annoying pets and all the other distractions of this life can be very detrimental to your songwriting. It’s a good idea to set yourself some restrictions when it comes to your creative time and eliminate as many of these as you can while you’re trying to get into the zone. All social media messages can wait and voicemail was invented for a reason. It’s probably a good idea to turn your phone onto Airplane mode for the duration of your writing, that’ll keep those pesky facebook messages from popping up and ruining your flow. Make sure your cat’s fed and your partner knows that you want to spend some time without interruptions. You want to avoid meow’s at the door or requests for you to kill a spider in that time.

Be realistic with the time you have. There’s no use saying “I’m going to spend 6 hours straight writing a new song, and I’m going to lock myself in a room for that time”. Not only will you go insane, but you’ll probably end up wasting a lot of that time on useless thoughts and processes. Give yourself a time limit and a goal. An hour is a good amount of time of solid, uninterrupted creative work. Give yourself an hour and try to have a finished song done in that time. It might seem hard, but you’ll be surprised at what you can do when your mind is set on the task and there’s no interruptions to waste time on. If you have a standard workweek, it might be a good idea to assign the same time each day that works well with you creatively. I find that I’m terrible at doing anything in the afternoon after work and I work much better in the morning. Try getting up an hour earlier each day and coming up with a new song before you go to work.

Keep your workspace tidy and have your equipment at hand. It’s a good idea to have your recording setup organised from the start and have your desk nice and tidy so you aren’t digging through piles of junk to find that microphone that you want to use. Plus, there’s lots of articles out there that suggest that having a clean environment promotes good work flow.

The Challenge

What use is all of this rambling about becoming a songwriter if there’s no product out the other side. I’m going to take a 7 day challenge and write another blog at the end of it to show you what I came up with and go through some of the processes to explain how I got there.

The Rules:

  1. Spend one hour of time every day for the next 7 days dedicated completely to songwriting.

  2. Have a full song written at the end of each hour. Recorded as a demo form and ready to put up on SoundCloud

  3. Use a different one of each of the ideas for getting the juices flowing for each song.

  4. Turn on Airplane mode for the duration of the songwriting time to reduce the chance of being distracted.

If you’re keen to play along, please let me know, put links to your songs in the comments below or tag your songs on SoundCloud with #LBsongwritingchallenge.

Are there any songwriting techniques that you’ve found have helped you out? What’s your biggest struggle when writing a song? Has this blog helped you out in any way? Let me know!


PS. Here are some websites on songwriting that might be helpful

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