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30 Creative Songwriting Prompts Courtesy of Eno’s Oblique Strategies

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Oblique Strategies (subtitled: Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas) is a deck of cards developed by artists Peter Schmidt and Brian Eno as a series of ideas to help break creative deadlock in a project. If you’ve ever found yourself experiencing writer’s block or circling the same idea over and over, unable to progress, you’ll benefit from having some of these prompts at your disposal.

Schmidt was one of the pioneers of multimedia art exhibition and was one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. His art is abstract, moving, and beautiful, so it’s no coincidence that he and Eno eventually became collaborators. Schmidt had created “The Thoughts Behind the Thoughts,” a prototype for these card-based strategies in 1970. Around the same time, Eno had been collecting little inspirational ideas and strategies, such as “What to increase? What to reduce?” or “Ask your body,” that would help him when he felt stuck. The uncanny overlap between the two independent projects convinced them they had to collaborate.

These strategies are meant to inspire musicians, artists, and other creative types to find solutions to their problems from a variety of angles. Be it songwriting, composition, or electronic production, musicians working in any field can use these as resources for idea generation. Eno found himself getting frustrated in the studio, which would lead to panic. He wanted to open himself to more creative ways of making music, rather than always taking a linear, head-on approach. As musicians get more and more comfortable in our own habits and technical approaches to our work, the creative process is in danger of stagnating, leading to formulaic work, perhaps even we enter the height of our creative abilities. Oblique Strategies was developed to break artists out of this vicious cycle.

In 1980, Eno noted that, “the first Oblique Strategy said ‘Honour thy error as a hidden intention.’ And, in fact, Peter’s first Oblique Strategy — done quite independently and before either of us had become conscious that the other was doing that — was, ‘Was it really a mistake?’ which was, of course, much the same kind of message.” He then collected fifteen or twenty of the ideas and put them onto cards and brought them to Schmidt. They eventually agreed on 113 total cards and that became the first edition of the Oblique Strategies.

If you feel like your music needs a little rejuvenation or that your process has become a little stale, check these cards out. If you need a deeper level of advice and direction, you can also get in touch with us about our new 1-on-1 mentorship program, Headliners Club  learn more about that here. I’ve included thirty strategies below, sorted by the part of the writing process that they may aid most profoundly, although even that is perhaps overstepping the wide boundaries of this collection. Use them however you like, there are no rules to your creativity! And if you want to buy the newest edition of these cards, grab them here.

For when you’re getting started

For when you’re stuck

For when you’re boring yourself

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Evan Zwisler
Evan Zwisler

Evan Zwisler is a NYC-based musician who is most notably known for his work with The Values as a songwriter and guitarist. He is an active member of the Brooklyn music scene, throwing fundraisers and organizing compilations for Planned Parenthood and the Anti-Violence Project. He started playing music in the underground punk scene of Shanghai with various local bands when he was in high school before going to California for college and finally moving to New York in 2012.