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By Jack McCarthy
The art of songwriting is a noble one. The task of storytelling through music, whether fictional or inspired by events in one’s life, is challenging and rewarding. But all delusions of grandeur aside, songwriting can be a real pain, especially when deadlines, stress, and writer’s block come into the picture. Whether you are writing music by yourself for a project, collaborating with your bandmates for your next release, or composing for another artist or a soundtrack, writer’s block can, at best, slow you down and make you question your creative abilities and, at worst, make you wonder if you’ve reached your artistic peak and question your entire career. If you find yourself experiencing these negative doubts about your songwriting, here are four steps to consider while you try to escape writer’s block.
Step 1: Know Yourself
Whether you are a seasoned songwriter or you have just recently begun to write your own music, an important part of songwriting involves being self aware. Knowing what makes you tick will spur your creativity in new and unexpected ways. What kind of music do you enjoy listening to? How does your taste in music reflect the style of songs that you want to craft? How do certain grooves and tonalities make you feel? Which events and stories from your own life or the lives of others around you inspire you? These are all questions for self reflection while trying to write music.
Admitting that no music is truly 100% original (even the great composers of classical music borrowed ideas from their predecessors and contemporaries), consider which artists you draw influence from and what elements of their music you find to be most similar, inspiring, and relatable to your vision.
Step 2: Know Your Audience
Knowing your audience is a crucial aspect of marketing your music, but it is also important to consider your audience when writing your music. What kind of people (outside of your friends and family) do you want your music to appeal to? What artists do people in your target audience listen to? Which moods and lyrics does your audience relate to?
While you certainly want to stay true to your own artistic style and write songs that are not a carbon copy of the next big thing in your genre, you also don’t want to misread your audience. For example, fans of John Mayer may have latched onto your recent acoustic singer/songwriter-esque release, but they may jump ship when they hear the synth heavy alt-rock that you’ve been crafting.
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Step 3: Revisit Old Ideas
If you have been writing songs for some time and find yourself feeling creatively stifled, consider listening to your older songs for inspiration. Map out those songs and identify elements or themes that you can expand upon, improve, or alter. If you are new to songwriting or don’t have music that you previously released, take a trip down memory lane and listen to music that you enjoyed two, five, or even ten years ago. Identify the elements of those songs that you enjoyed and try to incorporate those ideas into your own writing.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Ryan Tedder, a songwriter and the frontman of OneRepublic, once said: “With iPhones, nobody has an excuse for writer’s block. If you’re at Whole Foods getting your green tea extract and you have a melody, you just drop it into your voice memo and save it for later.” Going along with Ryan’s idea, if you have stockpiles of melodies and song snippets saved in your phone, go back to listen to them and you might find your “diamond in the rough” idea that will kickstart a new song for you.
Step 4: Try a New Starting Point
If you sit down with pen and paper in hand and find that no new ideas are coming your way, consider a fresh perspective in your writing process. If you are used to writing your songs by starting with just an acoustic guitar and vocals, try opening your mind by starting on the piano instead. If you usually start with a melody in mind but just can’t seem to find the right tune today, start by looping a beat or groove instead. With the great variety of affordable recording and composing software on the market today, you can have a wide palette of sounds at your fingertips and no longer be limited to just the instruments that you own or have the ability to record at one time. If the idea of recording software makes you anxious, you can get started with something as simple as Apple’s Garageband if you are a Mac user or FL Studio on PC.
Writer’s block can be a burden on any songwriter or artist’s progress. There are no hard and fast rules to songwriting and there are certainly no surefire ways to break out of writer’s block. If you are experiencing a block in your creativity, these steps may help you to rediscover your muse or ignite a creative spark that you’ve never had before. Whatever the case may be, the most important step in breaking out of a songwriter’s block is to keep writing and never give up despite your frustrations. The more you write, the easier it is to write. Share your own methods for breaking out of a creative block below.
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Jack McCarthy is a contributing writer for WeSpin, a growth training platform and community. Jack is a singer and songwriter living in Philadelphia, PA; though you may have more luck finding him in the studio or on the road. He has worked with many artists, producing and playing on a variety of tracks.