Songwriting tips to help you stay creative
Not all these songwriting tips deal with the minutes and hours you’ll spend with your instrument in your hand, but that’s partly the point… your life outside of your music studio should be rich and inspiring so that the music you create is too.
There’s a saying among professional writers, clichéd but true: “writers write.” This notion can be applied to many disciplines, and songwriting is no exception. The biggest difference between a hobbyist musician and a pro is that the pro builds music on-demand. It’s one thing to work when you’re inspired by an amazing idea; working consistently, whether you’re inspired or not, is not as easy to do.
The best way to get there is to constantly practice writing, recording, and producing songs and work hard to get really good at being creative. Most of us have obstacles in the way, like a demanding full-time job outside of music, family obligations, and all the minutia of getting through a regular day.
With that in mind, here are eight tips to keep things in balance so you can complete your projects and keep writing.
- Shake up your muscle memory
Whatever your instrument of choice, you’ve probably found yourself repeating patterns and playing the same licks over and over. Breaking out of these ruts periodically will keep your playing and writing fresh. A memorable and powerful musical phrase might be just a couple of notes away from a trite and boring one. One way to smash your own conventions is to pick up a new instrument. If that’s not an option, try to play around with new chords or scales. And don’t be afraid to look to the music of other places, cultures, and traditions for inspiration. Incorporating the tones and rhythms of Indian, African, or Latin styles can bring a new angle to your compositions.
- Listen to everything
The world is full of sounds waiting to become music. Hearing these sounds in our everyday environments can inspire new ideas, tones, and rhythms. Also, actively listen to tons of new artists and spin inspiring old favorites. Music has to go in for music to come out. And don’t limit yourself to your own genre or medium. Go to a movie. See a musical. Watch a dance recital. Artists in other mediums can become some of your biggest influences.
- Keep your smartphone handy
Musical ideas can come at any time, so why not record your thoughts before you lose them? The more you get into the habit of creating, the more ideas will visit you. Your smartphone, with an onboard video camera or audio recorder, is a gift to songwriters. Ten seconds of singing or beatboxing into a phone could be the beginning of your best work ever, so don’t let those ideas float away. Plus, with modern devices and recording platforms, it’s easy to import interesting found noises into your work.
- Maintain a functional workspace
Your music space might be full of live instruments and amps or it might just be a chair and a tablet. Either way, it needs to be cozy and inspiring and should limit distractions. You should also keep it tidy. Musicians who do a lot of microphone recording tend to finish up with a cluttered mess of cables, mic stands, and amplifiers after a session. A studio is like a kitchen: after a good meal, you need to wash the pans and clean the dishes so you can cook again next time.
- Keep your significant other happy
Recording artists in long-term relationships are familiar with questions like “how late will the session go?” or “when will you be home from that gig?” Creative processes are unpredictable. You never want your spouse or partner to feel like there’s a competition, so you’d better keep that partner happy. Making date nights, day trips, and “couple time” a priority will help when you need to disappear into an open-ended studio session now and again. It might even inspire a heartfelt love song!
- Know what it takes for an idea to become a song
That cell phone video clip isn’t a song yet — it might just be a verse with one vocal phrase. You still need a chorus, a bridge, maybe some sort of funky breakdown. If there are lyrics, you need to know what the song is about before you can finish writing it. A good piece of music should evoke something: an emotion, a time, a place, a person. Listen to your ideas in quiet surroundings and meditate on what that music reminds you of. If it turns out to be nothing, it may be time to move on to another idea. Music is about feeling, so if you can’t bridge that gap from a cool riff to an evocative piece, be ready to toss that track into the bin.
- Take a walk
Music should be fun. Frustration does not help you make music. All of us experience hardware and software issues, difficulties nailing a good performance, and obstacles achieving the amazing sound in our heads. When you start swearing at your equipment, it’s time to take a break. Walk out the door before your laptop flies out the window!
- Step back and evaluate
Finally, you’re done. Your song is strong, your recording sounds amazing. Now, sleep on it. Step away from the work until it’s no longer ringing in your ears. Take your song with you and test it out wherever you can. There may still be room for improvement. Is every section of the song as strong as it can be? Is the emotion that inspired the song evoked when you hear it? As with any pursuit, confidence is a factor. Once you’ve proven to yourself that you can write something great, it’ll be easier to do it next time, and the next. You’ve most likely already taken this journey as a singer or instrumentalist, achieving proficiency. Creating rituals and conventions for yourself will quicken your process and train your mind to readily enter that magical creative zone. It takes deliberate repetition to create new habits.