[Songwriting Advice] 5 Tips for When You Have Songwriter’s Block
by Jon Anderson
There aren’t many things more frustrating than staring at a blank page, waiting in vain for inspiration to strike.
If you’re a songwriter, there’s a good chance you know the feeling: words and melodies stuck in the back of your mind, full of potential but miles from becoming a coherent song. If you’re in front of your instrument, maybe you play through a few guitar licks that feel like old habits, or press out the piano chords you’ve been working through for months - but still nothing comes.
Or maybe you have a song that’s half written, and you’ve been playing through the existing parts over and over, hoping for the rest of it to spring to life - but it never does. Eventually, you either start playing fully completed songs that already exist, or just put the instruments away completely and give up.
It’s songwriter’s block. And, while it’s definitely exasperating, it’s also not uncommon.
Even prolific songwriters go through periods where writing feels hard. But, here’s the thing: they get through it - and so can you.
Stuck by songwriter’s block? Don’t give up. Here are five easy things to shake up your routine just enough to find the spark of inspiration you’ve been missing.
1. Start a “Lyric List”
One of the most practical ways to avoid songwriter’s block is to keep a running “lyric list.”
Basically, this is a place where you can write down words as they come to you, at any place and at any time. Too often, songwriters will be hit by the turn of a phrase, or a certain combination of words and ideas, only to have it disappear by the next time they pick up their instruments.
Yes, ideally, lyrics will come to you when you’re sitting down and intenti trying to write. But, probably more often, they’ll come to you while you’re driving, or while you’re doing the dishes, or while you’re talking to a friend.
Here’s what I recommend: keep a journal or running Google doc available to yourself at all times. When the words come, capture them in your list. They may be phrases, ideas, or both - the important thing is to record the things that inspire you.
Then, the next time you’re staring at a blank page and find yourself stuck, open up your list, and see if any of the ideas and words that have come to you in the past can spark inspiration in the place you are now.
2. Go for a Run
Sometimes, the mind just needs a change of speed. If you’ve been trying to write for hours and nothing’s coming, try going for a run. Anything that gets your heart rate up will do, but there’s something about running - and biking, too - that can put you in a helpful headspace.
Scientifically speaking, exercise helps to increase the blood flow to your brain, which can facilitate better mental processes (and maybe help you make musical connections that weren’t happening before).
Besides that though, there’s something about consciously checking out of songwriting and into a completely different activity that can help you to get unstuck. Whether it’s the scenery, the air, or the mental perseverance it takes to make it through your running route, the fact is that there’s something about running that helps get the creative juices flowing. But don’t just take my word for it - a bunch of famous writers were runners, too.
So, the next time you’re stuck, try going for a run.
3. Go Read Something
In the same way that checking out of a song and into running can jog your creative process, checking out of songwriting and into reading can help you, too.
Again, part of the benefit is in the mental switch. When you read, you’re immediately entering into ideas that aren’t your own - worlds, characters, stories, and words that offer a perspective through a different set of eyes. Who knows? You may find the inspiration you’ve been missing in a quote from the protagonist of a book, or you might find the the ideas in a story compelling enough to reprise in your song.
Another reading avenue I recommend: reading the processes of writers you admire. There are tons of songwriting blogs out there that dig into the ideas of songwriters. Go ahead - try searching for interviews with your favorite songwriters to get insight into their writing process.
Reading through their words and discovering what makes them tick may just help you to get unstuck.
4. Switch Parts
Let’s get a little more tactical. Have you been stuck with a great verse that you just haven’t found the chorus to follow up? Or, maybe you’ve written what you think is an ear-catching chorus, but have had a hard time getting the verses to flow from it.
Try switching things up. The easiest thing to do is to move parts that you’ve already written to the bridge - there’s a lot of creative freedom to be had in the bridge, after all, and many ideas can fit into that spot.
Maybe, though, what you’ve thought was the chorus makes more sense as the pre-chorus. Or, what you’ve been using as a verse is better suited to being the chorus.
If you’re stuck, try making a simple switch. Sure, there’s a chance that moving your song components around won’t help.
But there’s also a chance that it will.
5. Switch Instruments
Last but not least, one helpful way to get unstuck is to put down the instrument you’ve been trying to write on, and pick up another.
There’s a huge difference between writing on guitar and piano, for example - just look at songs by Lady Gaga versus songs by Bob Dylan.
Stylistically, different instruments and sounds can lead you into different creative spaces. What you were constructing as a ballad on keys may feel looser and more upbeat on an acoustic guitar - and that could be just what the song needs. Or, what you’d been writing on your acoustic may sound like another piece entirely when you switch it over to an electric.
So, if you’re experiencing songwriter’s block, try writing a song on something else.
Hopefully, a few of these ideas can help you overcome your songwriter’s block. Tactics aside, though, your biggest keys to coming unstuck will always be to examine things from new angles, and to keep writing.
So, if you have songwriter’s block, no matter what you do, don’t give up. Keep listening, keep trying new things, and keep writing.
If you do, the songs will come.
Jon Anderson is the founder of Two Story Melody, a music blog dedicated to uncovering the stories and processes behind beautiful songs. He's likes indie (or any good) music, good stories, and mango ice cream. twostorymelody.com
Information on the 23rd Annual USA Songwriting Competition, go to: http://www.songwriting.net