The author is a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.
Creative Blocks in Songwriting
Writer’s block is a problem that’s widely known not only in the literary world but also to the general public. Fewer people seem aware of songwriter’s block, a similar problem faced by musicians.
Songwriter’s block can take different forms. Like writer’s block, you may simply have trouble coming up with acceptable song topics or lyrics. Or, if you are a musician as well as a lyricist, the problem may go much deeper and you may struggle to put two chords together.
It’s happened to all of us, and even the best songwriters go blank from time to time. But the musicians who are able to smash through this issue are the ones who recognize it as a sign that something is amiss in the process.
Often in life adversity can present opportunity, and this may be an opportunity to take a hard look at your creative process and figure out where it is failing. Basic music skills aren’t usually the problem, but what about time management skills, organizational habits, or routines that help with mental clarity?
These are just as important as your guitar chops, and often the very things that can help keep songwriter’s block at bay. By developing perspectives and habits that address all aspects of songwriting, not just the words and musical notes put down on paper, a musician may better weather the storm when songwriter’s block shows its ugly head.
5 Ways to Manage Songwriter’s Block
As you can see from this article, I am not only a guitarist and songwriter but also a writer on this website. The suggestions I’ll give you in this article are based on what I’ve learned over years of writing countless songs, hundreds of internet articles, and even several novels. Just to thicken the plot, I’ll also add that at one point in my life I was a cartoonist and artist.
The point is it’s all kind of the same. If you are a creative person, you are going to run into walls from time to time. Sometimes they are big, monstrous, seemingly impenetrable walls.
In this article, I’ll go over five basic lessons I’ve learned over the years to help me smash through those walls when it comes to songwriting. I think these can work for anyone, where you are a songwriting beginner or an accomplished musician in a funk.
- Write the music you love.
- Approach songwriting like a business.
- Work when your energy is at its peak.
- Start writing songs about anything, and don't stop.
- Understand that there is no failure.
Of course, the exact issues that cause creative blocks are as diverse as each individual musician, but remembering these five fundamentals may help you. All I can say for sure is it helps me, and I rarely stumble for very long when it comes time to create something new.
Here are the five points in more detail.
1. Write Music You Love
This first one seems like a no-brainer, but I think sometimes musicians get caught up doing what they think they should be doing rather than what they really want to be doing.
We all have different genres and forms of music we are more passionate about than others. If you are stuck when writing a song, ask yourself if you are creating the kind of music that truly makes you happy.
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Are you writing music that you, yourself, want to hear?
The process of figuring this out may take a little soul searching, especially if you have friends who are into a certain style of music. If you’ve been trying to write melodic death metal and suddenly realize you’re in love with Chicago-style blues it can be jarring, but simply shifting gears to the music that gets you excited may be all it takes to get your out of your funk.
This can also happen within genres. You love rock music, but something is wrong with the rock song you are trying to write and it just isn’t coming together. Sometimes we are on the right track musically, but a song we were once excited about has become stale and boring.
The sad truth of it is that it might be necessary to scrap what we’ve been doing and move on to something else, at least for the time being. Sometimes we can be too close to the work to see any real solution and taking a wider view can help to refocus.
Other times, that wider perspective lets us see that the project is unrecoverable, and it is better to commit the energy elsewhere. There is no point continuing on with a song you don't really like.
It’s important to realize that leaving a project behind is not a failure. They can’t all be gems, and hopefully, we will have learned something from the work, if nothing else but what not to do.
Bottom line: Write music you want to hear. Concentrating on the music you care about makes it much less likely you’ll get stuck. If you feel like the song is stale and you are frustrated instead of excited it is probably best to move on to something else, at least in the short term.
I like to use a version of the Pomodoro Technique when writing. This is where you set a timer and work for a set period, then take a short break, reset the timer and start again. The standard work period is 25 minutes, but you can adjust it to whatever works for you. I like to use a 30-minute writing period followed by five minutes of rest where I get up, move around and get a few things done around the house.
2. Approach Songwriting Like a Business
Life is crazy. Or, more specifically, all the nonsense that goes along with life. Circumstances in our personal lives might make it difficult to accomplish the work we should be doing, and they can make it hard to create music. When life goes all topsy-turvy, everything else gets more difficult too, whether you are a musician or a businessperson.
The thing is, businessmen and businesswomen can shut their office doors and concentrate on the matters at hand. Those of us who work from home often do so in the midst of chaos.
Even for those who live alone, sometimes the problems of life may weigh heavily on your mind and it can be hard to get things done. You might think that is par for the course for the struggling musician, but I don't think it's a smart way to approach songwriting.
It’s romantic to think of the troubled songwriter, sitting alone with a guitar on their lap and the weight of the world on their shoulders, pouring their hearts out into their music. While there may have been a few notable musicians throughout history who worked that way, most songwriters require a fair amount of clarity to get things right.
The solution is to approach songwriting just as you would a business. Close the door and let family and friends know you are not to be disturbed while you work. Set aside defined periods of time, which you will dedicate to the business. And your business is songwriting. (Tip: This business mindset also helps when you are trying to run a band practice.)
It also helps to start referring to your songwriting as "work" instead of "messing around with the guitar". This lets family members know you are serious about what you are doing, and it might even help you to take yourself more seriously.
Bottom line: Your songwriting is like a business. It is important work you are doing in your life. As such, you will be more productive if you approach it from a business mindset. Set aside time and space to accomplish your work without interruptions.
3. Write When Your Energy Is Highest
Sometimes our way of approaching songwriting may itself be leading to a blockage of thought and lack of creativity. Some people who come home at night after working an eight-hour shift may find it tough to do anything creative. Even if you love music, you might be so mentally and physically spent that all you may want to do is crash in from of the TV.
Others can work the same shift and come home ready to go. They can’t wait to sit down with their guitar or in front of the piano, write some tunes and wash away the frustrations of the day.
The point is, some people thrive at night, while others work better in the early morning. Trying to work with a schedule that isn’t conducive to creativity can feel like songwriter’s block, but really it’s just burnout from fighting against your natural inclinations. But what can you when you’re stuck with a schedule for work or school?
It might be worth it to get up early and write first thing in the morning rather than after work. Your mental energies are fresh, and you have yet to be beaten down but the aggravations of the days. Even thirty minutes every morning can pay huge dividends, and thirty minutes of focused songwriting beats two hours of bleary-eyed frustration.
Or, maybe it’s better to take a nap after work and write late into the evening. You may wish to invest in a decent pair of headphones you can play quietly, but there is nothing wrong with doing the majority of your songwriting at 4 a.m. if it works for you.
Writing when your energy is at its highest might take a little sacrifice, and you may need to shift your daily schedule. I know how that goes. For several years when I worked a full-time job, I got up a couple of hours early every day to write before work. It's not fun, but if your songwriting is important to you, you won't regret it.
Bottom Line: Figure out where your energy is strongest, and take advantage of that time period. You may have to move some things around, but if songwriting is important you can make it happen.
4. Start Writing Songs and Don't Stop
Sometimes our own thoughts can work against us. Rampant perfectionism, negative mindsets or over-thinking every note and chord may lead to paralysis by analysis. This over-guessing often results in writing nothing at all. When we do create, we can so hard on ourselves that nothing will ever be good enough.
The solution is one of the most important things a songwriter can learn: Just write. Start writing and keep writing. Write songs about anything and everything, from reflections on emotional life experiences to musings about your toaster. Just write.
Creating music is an odd thing. On the one hand, most people write music they want other people to enjoy. Put another way, as creators we want other people to like us. In this way, music is a highly public thing; almost like a tiny version of yourself you are showing the world.
Yet, on the other hand, creating music is a deeply personal activity. How many times have you enjoyed a song but wondered the meaning of the lyrics and what the writer was thinking? Well, you can attach any meaning you like, but the truth is the writer and only the writer knows what they were thinking.
If you keep at this music thing you may write hundreds of songs in your life. They won’t all be gems. Some will be pretty good, but others will be learning experiences that nobody but you will ever hear.
If fact, you need to be prepared to write some truly awful songs and not care. They are all learning experiences, and with each one, you get better.
Only you will know what you are thinking when you write a song, and you don’t have to share it with anyone if you don’t want to. But you may as well get those learning experiences out of the way and write bad songs about your toaster instead of sitting there staring at a blank sheet of paper.
Bottom Line: You get better at writing songs by writing songs. Lots of them. About anything. You have to start somewhere, and you have to put in the work.
5. There Is No Failure
Sadly, fear stops many people in this world from doing what they really love. Fear is an emotion we’ve evolved over millions of years, and it once kept us safe from saber-toothed cats and other predators with bad intentions.
As a songwriter, you have no need to fear getting mauled by prehistoric beasts. But, taking a chance in life does open you up to something many people fear much more, and that's the possibility of failure.
We don’t want people to laugh at us, or talk behind our backs. We don’t want to waste our lives and have our relatives talking down to us at Thanksgiving about how we’re still clinging to some crazy dream. Even on a personal level, we don’t want to think less of ourselves because we tried something new and found out we were terrible at it.
But here is the thing: Approached with the right mindset, it is impossible to fail as a songwriter. Yes, if you intend to be a professional musician and write songs for a living you might have your work cut out for you. Professional people fail at things all the time.
However, if your goal is simply to create music, and you make sure you have realistic expectations and balance your songwriting with the rest of your life, you will never fail.
That’s because your songs are first and foremost for you, and you only stop writing them when you feel like stopping. If you want to write songs until the day you die, there is no reason to stop. There is no governing body that will intercede and take your guitar away if you aren’t good enough, and no mob that will show up at your door demanding you cease music production.
You can write songs for as long as you want, they can be about whatever you want, and nobody is ever going to stop you. You can even make your own albums if you want, by either renting studio space or purchasing a digital home studio and recording them yourself. If you want to be a musician and songwriter who makes albums there is nothing stopping you.
Bottom Line: It is tough to succeed in any profession, including professional songwriter. However, if you really want to create original music, and even make your own albums, you will succeed. The only thing stopping you is you.
Don't Give Up!
It would be nice if fantastic ideas would come every time we sat down with a guitar or in front of the piano, but the reality is that great musicians work hard to make those ideas come together.
More importantly, they work smart. They set aside time for business, get their minds right and put in the work to get better at their craft. The good news is that whatever they are doing we can do too if we change our habits and starting thinking about the big picture.
It’s also important to remember that everything we put to paper isn’t going to be a gem. That’s just how it is, even for the best of songwriters. And not only for songwriters, for just about all creative people.
Every novel a great writer pens isn’t a hit, and every painting a great artist creates isn’t a masterpiece. As musicians, we can be way too hard on ourselves. This can cause stilted writing, or songwriter’s block, or even so much frustration that we quit music altogether.
So don’t quit, if music is what you love. Quitting is really the only way to fail at this. Keep on improving and writing new music. You never know where it might take you.