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Secrets about Songwriters Block I wish I'd discovered decades sooner

Posted by Jessica Brandon on Tue, Jan 12, 2016 @07:00 AM

Secrets about Songwriters Block I wish I'd discovered decades sooner

by Gary Ewer

Songwriters Block

Creativity comes from divergent thinking, and the stresses of work and family life can cause it to disappear and leave you with the dreaded songwriter’s block.

Adapted and excerpted from Beating Songwriter’s Block: Jump-start Your Words and Music (Backbeat Books). Reprinted with permission.

When did you know you were a songwriter? You may have come to it as an adult, but more than likely the seeds were sown when you were a young teenager, maybe even younger. Perhaps it was while learning those first few chords on your new guitar. Or maybe you started conjuring up musical ideas while trying to stave off boredom, practicing for your piano lessons.

Whenever it was, at some point you came to a realization that the ability to create music was within you. And you realized something else: writing music gave you a pleasure that simply playing it could not. You experienced a deep sense of satisfaction and pride every time you completed a song.

As this young musician, you suddenly found a new and exciting way to express yourself, and it was satisfying. Your developing musical mind allowed you to realize that certain sounds, chords and melodic shapes held meaning for you. As your songwriting abilities matured and improved, you found courage to express your musical abilities to others. You started feeling confident to allow others to listen to your songs at high school variety shows, local cafés, and songwriters circles. And this exposed you to the work of other songwriters, which led to changes and a further maturing of your writing style. You found yourself able to take chances, and to express yourself in new and innovative ways.

 

Divergent thinking

In psychology, the ability to think creatively is a product of “divergent thinking.” That’s a term that refers to one’s knack for exploring several possible ideas or answers in the processing of information. As we know, thinking creatively often means thinking, saying, doing, and writing things that are unexpected. Certainly to be a songwriter requires it.

Research shows that creative thinking can be significantly damaged by many aspects of what it means to live in today’s busy world: physical and mental exhaustion, the lack of structure in daily scheduling, and excessive drug and/or alcohol use.

The inability to compose songs should not be automatically interpreted as songwriter’s block. Being distracted by family duties, having an oppressive work or school schedule, or worrying about aspects of one’s health are all issues that can keep musicians from being creative.

When we cannot compose because of those types of problems, the dilemma should not be seen as a kind of songwriter’s block, but rather as the direct result of a mental distraction. One could say that once all distractions are resolved, writer’s block is what remains if you cannot write.

It’s normal for anyone involved in the creative arts to have moments during the writing process when they feel stuck, unable to create new ideas. When these moments keep them struggling for a few hours, even a day or two, we would simply say that it’s a normal struggle that happens anytime someone tries to be creative. Most people know this, but when it happens it can be immediately worrisome.

To use an analogy, a day without rain does not mean drought. If, however, that day or two becomes several, or stretches into weeks or months, it is most certainly a drought, and – as with songwriter’s block – it is an issue of severity. Here is a list of feelings and experiences that people with writer’s block suffer, many or all of which you are probably encountering right now:

  • You feel almost totally uninspired.
  • You can’t seem to generate musical ideas that could lead to a finished song.
  • Negative comments from others about your music have caused you to fear writing.
  • Positive comments from others about your music make you worry that you’ll let your audience and supporters down.
  • Rather than stimulating your creative mind and generating excitement, the success of other songwriters saps your confidence.
  • Your own songs sound boring to you.
  • Your last few songs all sound the same.

As you can see, writer’s block is a sapping of a songwriter’s creative abilities and inspiration, made worse by an overwhelming sense of fear.

 

You’re not alone

The term “writer’s block” is, of course, not exclusive to the world of musical composition. All those who create for a living – novelists, columnists, choreographers, playwrights, even visual artists – are painfully familiar with the dreaded term. Almost anyone who must create a work of art, who must generate something original from their brain, knows the sinking feeling of staring at a blank piece of paper with their mind going similarly blank.

If you’re like most songwriters, there will be times when giving the bathroom a good scrub feels more appealing than sitting down to write. So when creative ideas evaporate, and your musical imagination has all but disappeared, what’s going on?

For authors, writer’s block is a well-studied, highly scrutinized phenomenon in the fields of medical research and psychology; in short, very much written about by people with lots of letters after their names. Not so much in the music world, however.

Though research in the specific field of songwriter’s block is a bit thin, research on the concept of creativity is, thankfully, more abundant. Understanding writer’s block, whether talking about an author attempting to finish a novel or a composer trying to finish a song, requires an understanding of the concept of creativity.

Researchers know that the ability to think creatively is part of being human, and has little to do with background or personality. Perhaps one of the best descriptions of what it means to be creative comes from Teresa Amabile, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and a researcher in the field of creativity, who depicts it with three intersecting circles representing three different elements: expertise (knowledge), motivation, and creative-thinking skills.

As a songwriter, the “expertise” part of that formula is easy to grasp: it is the understanding of the basic mechanics of how music works. Motivation is the enthusiasm you feel for songwriting as a personal activity. But it’s that third component, the “creative-thinking skills,” that is the trickiest one to delineate.

Keep in mind that Amabile is writing with her business school hat on, addressing managers of businesses and organizations, not songwriters. Nonetheless, her definition, “Creative-thinking skills determine how flexibly and imaginatively people approach problems,” makes one thing clear: creative-thinking skills will not be something that can be easily quantified. And if we cannot quantify them, that makes an accurate understanding of what it means to be creative a bit sticky as well.

Home-remedies – these “here’s-what-I-tried” kind of solutions, might not satisfy you. Perhaps you need better solutions, ones supported by research, and ones that can, if possible, represent a more permanent cure. If you really want songwriting to return you to that feeling of joy you once experienced, a solution needs to accomplish two things:

1) cure the block you’re experiencing today; and

2) teach you strategies that will make the more debilitating forms of writer’s block a thing of the past – permanently. It’s no good curing songwriter’s block if you sense that it could return again at any time.

A quick and permanent solution should be the aim and desire of every songwriter.

 

Pro tip

Discouraged, and can’t seem to get back in a good place, psychologically? Research has shown that the simple act of remembering the good times can have a positive effect on your mood, and may be all you need to return you to a positive frame of mind. Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps, Ph.D, suggests something unique for doing this: when you’re feeling great, write a letter to your discouraged self as if you’re a supportive friend helping someone through a tough time.

Tell yourself that you know what it’s like to feel discouraged with your songwriting. And most importantly, remind yourself that the current songwriting drought has been solvable before, and will be solvable again. Then seal the letter and put it away. When the time comes that you feel the grip of songwriter’s block, take the letter out and read it. It will feel like a vote of confidence and encouragement that will quite possibly get you back on the right track.

 

Read more in Gary Ewer’s book, Beating Songwriter’s Block. Visit beatingsongwritersblock.halleonardbooks.com and enter the discount code AP2 at checkout to receive 20% off the list price and free domestic shipping (least expensive method)!

 

To enter the 21st Annual USA Songwriting Competition, go to: http://www.songwriting.net

   

Tags: songwriter, song writer, Songwriting, writers block, songwriters block

Songwriting Tip: Easy Way to Write a New Song Lyric

Posted by Jessica Brandon on Tue, Jul 02, 2013 @09:30 AM

Easy Way to Write a New Song Lyric (Even if You’ve Got Writer’s Block)

“How, as a human being, does one face infinity? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums, through encyclopedias and dictionaries…” –Umberto Eco

The fastest and easiest way to write a new song lyric is to begin making a list.

You're no stranger to list-making. Lists help you remember what to buy at the grocery store. They track things you need to do today. Bucket lists store famous places you want to see, people you want to meet, life experiences you want to have before you die.

In short: lists help us make sense of a chaotic world. They help us plan, prepare, and organize our lives. But even aside from all their practical uses, lists can also be entertaining and beautiful in their own right.

“Apples and quinces,

Lemons and oranges,

Plump unpeck'd cherries,

Melons and raspberries,

Bloom-down-cheek'd peaches,

Swart-headed mulberries,

Wild free-born cranberries,

Crab-apples, dewberries,

Pine-apples, blackberries,

Apricots, strawberries;

All ripe together

In summer weather…”

–”Goblin Market” by Christina Rossetti

Lists Can Be Emotional

An old friend of mine likes to sit and list out things that make her happy and things that she's grateful for. She says making these lists lifts her mood and focuses her attention on positive things.

Every time she does that, whether she realizes it or not, she's writing her own personal version of “My Favorite Things“. The lyric of that Rodgers & Hammerstein classic is really just a long list of pleasing images, helped along by some delicious-sounding rhymes.

And the structure couldn't be any simpler: it's a list song! Just a list, plus a few lines of commentary toward the end. In modern terms, that lyric could be somebody's Pinterest board set to music.

Five Famous List Songs

In case you need more inspiration…

Reasons to Quit“–by Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. In the verses of this lyric, the singer lists out reasons why he should stop smoking and drinking, struggling to convince himself to kick the habit.

50 Ways to Leave Your Lover“–by Paul Simon. A bit of false advertising here: the chorus lyric lists ways to leave your lover–but only five. Where are the lost forty-five ways, Paul? Oh well, we get the idea.

I've Been Everywhere“–by Geoff Mack. This song packs 91 towns into two minutes and 45 seconds. The song's four verses are just tongue-twisting lists of cities for the singer to test her memory (and lung capacity) against. I've been performing this one for years, and this song sends a thrill through the audience every time. Probably because the audience is placing bets on whether you'll turn blue and pass out at the end of a verse…

Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)“–Cole Porter wrote many list songs in his day that have since gone on to become classics, but “Let's Do It” was his first. Each verse is a list of people, animals, and even objects that “Do It”: one verse lists birds; another lists sea creatures; another lists insects. So really each verse is a sub-list.

Hate it Here“–by Jeff Tweedy and Wilco. The singer lists out ways he's been keeping himself busy ever since his love left. Little chores, little things to stay busy–mowing, sweeping, laundry, checking the phone and the mail over and over again… this song's a great example of how a simple list can tell a story.

More List Songs

  • “21 Things I Want in a Lover” by Alanis Morrissette
  • “These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)” by Eric Maschwitz and Jack Strachey
  • “What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor?”, a sea chantey

And this is just a tiny fraction of the list songs you can find out there in the musical wild.

Keep your eyes and ears sharp for lists–they turn up often in articles, novels, poems, lyrics, and in your own life. Any given list could be a song. Even something as seemingly mundane as a grocery list reveals something about the person making it.

Let's Do It (Let's Write a List Song)

Maybe one of the topics above got your gears turning–here they are recapped, plus a few extras:

  • Things you love (a kind of Pinterest board set to music)
  • Reasons to [do something you're reluctant to do]
  • Things you admire in a lover
  • Things you do to keep busy while avoiding [something unpleasant]
  • Things that remind you of [a person or place that's important to you]

You can write from your own perspective or you could write as a character. Any one of these list song ideas could easily sprout hundreds and hundreds of variations. If you write a “My Favorite Things”-style list song from the perspective of Gengis Khan, by the way, please let me know.

For more information on USA Songwriting Competition, go to: http://www.songwriting.net

Tags: song writer, song write, Song writing, Songwriting, hit songwriter, songwrite, nicholas tozier, writers block

Songwriting Tip: When the Well Runs Dry

Posted by Jessica Brandon on Thu, Mar 07, 2013 @09:00 AM

When the Well Runs Dry

 Mark Cawley, songwriter

By Mark Cawley

I don’t believe in writers’ block so much. I do think you’re gonna have dry spells; periods of being uninspired from time to time. If it goes on long enough, self doubt can creep in until you wonder how you ever wrote a song in the first place. So how do you do your best to keep the well full?

You prepare. One definition of prepare is to “make ready beforehand for some purpose”. Nothing beats that moment of divine inspiration…but if you’re writing songs for a career you know you can’t conjure up these things every time. Sometimes it helps to have done some homework and stockpiled ideas for those days when you need something to get you going.

Keeping a list of ideas/titles has always been my favorite. I can’t tell you how many times these lines that I heard, read, or found have worked their way into a song on a day when I had nothing. I’m not the first to come up with things you can do to be creative when you’re not actually writing; there are some tried and true ways to use your time wisely: writing down bits of conversation, walking down the aisles of a bookstore and jotting down titles that catch your eye, watching movies and television with your paper and pen close by. You can highlight lines in newspapers, magazines, and books until all these things make their way onto a list of ideas for the future. Being intentional in your search for ideas can really pay off in the long run.

One of the secrets for me has been to make sure I get these lines all in one place. Doesn’t matter if they seem disconnected, I found them at all different times so there’s no thread anyway. Keeping them handy has been the key. Being able to throw out lines to a co-writer or just pore over the list while I’m playing guitar/keys or looking for a drum groove has gotten me unstuck more times than I can count. Some of these never turn into anything but can spark something else, some of them become titles, and lots of them find their way into verses or bridges.

If you write music, switching instruments is another lifesaver. Write on something you’re not familiar with and you’re bound to eventually come up with something different and inspiring.

Lastly, just taking a break can help. Give it a rest for awhile and do whatever lets you replenish your mind and body. I’ve taken breaks that range from just taking a quick walk to going weeks without touching an instrument.

Refresh, replenish, and refill the well... before it runs dry!

 

About Mark Cawley

Mark Cawley's songs have appeared on more than 15 million records. Over a career based in LA, London, and Nashville his songs have been recorded by an incredibly diverse range of artists. From Tina Turner, Joe Cocker, Wynonna, Diana Ross and Chaka Kahn to The Spice Girls, Tom Scott, Kathy Mattea, Paul Carrack, Will Downing and Pop Idol winners in the UK. He has had #1 records in the UK and throughout Europe as well as cuts in Country, Jazz & R & B. His groundbreaking website Song Journey created with Hall of Fame writer Kye Fleming was the first to mentor writers from around the world one-on-one online. He is currently writing and publishing as well as helping writers and artists in the US, UK, and Australia with a one-on-one co-active coaching service, iDoCoach. Check it out at www.idocoach.com

For more information on the 18th Annual USA Songwriting Competition, please go to: http://www.songwriting.net

Tags: songwriter, song writer, Song writing, Songwriting, Mark Cawley, Tina Turner, Joe Cocker, Wynonna, Diana Ross, Chaka Kahn, writers block, Spice Girls