By Jack Kieffer
Feeling stuck in a rut? These specific and practical songwriting tips will help you cure your writer’s block in no time. Whether you’re an electronic producer or more traditional singer/songwriter, you can use this list as a resource to spark new songwriting ideas.
1. Start a remix
Can’t get an original tune off the ground? Start a remix. If you can pull an acapella file into your DAW and write around it, it’s easy to remove the vocal later and turn your remix into an original. I know that Aryay in particular did this (with his recent release of Overwhelmed on OWSLA, which started as an Ellie Goulding remix).
2. Write off of a chord progression
This is probably the most common songwriting method out there. If you’re trying to dive in straight away and write out lyrics but it’s not working, try taking a different approach. Go into your DAW and open up a new MIDI roll (or go to a piano or MIDI keyboard) and start banging some notes out. Once you’ve built a simple chord progression, you should be able to bounce ideas off yourself and get some songwriting work done.
3. Create a storyline
If you’re experiencing a bout of writer’s block, one of the best things you can do is get your mind back into the right creative headspace. Build a storyline to write around — this can be anything at all — but if you treat your music more like a story and use it to convey a message, you’ll have a better chance of writing something that will connect with people.
4. Build a world in your head
Many artists (especially those who work in the electronic vein) will create environments in their minds in order to come up with new ideas. Picture a place that you know or make one up in your head — what do you hear there? What kind of stories can you tell there? What sounds belong? Is it a major or minor feel? This is perhaps one of the most effective songwriting tips in terms of getting past writer’s block and putting down fresh ideas.
5. Tap into your own experiences
This is an obvious tip, but don’t underestimate it: tap into your own experiences when writing songs. If you create honest music, you’ll connect with more people. It’s easy for listeners to detect phony lyrics and ingenuine melodies.
6. Tap into your feelings
If you don’t have a specific story to tell, and aren’t able to make one up, then tap into your feelingsdirectly. What are you feeling right now? If you don’t have anything to pull from, then remember back to a past experience that provoked a strong emotional response. Hold on to that emotion and then use it as a driver to create the story of your song.
7. Listen to music that inspires you
I’m sure you have those few tracks that remind you why you got into making music in the first place. Go back to your roots and listen to the music that inspired you to start doing what you’re doing. This will, if nothing else, help you get your head back into the right creative space.
8. Listen to a different type of music
Need some new songwriting ideas? Listen to a different type of music — go out of your way to find a few songs that you never thought you would listen to and sit through them. Listen for ideas and techniques that you can take and fuse into the genre that you’re trying to create.
9. Play with samples
This tip primarily applies to producers and those working within DAWs — pull in some samples and mess around with them. Even just creating a simple drum groove with samples can spark an idea! Don’t be afraid to mangle and process audio to get something new.
10. Make some sounds
Again, this is primarily meant for those working in DAWs on electronic productions. If you’re stuck, try making some sounds. Many times, the timbres of sounds you make can inspire new ideas. If nothing else, you’ll be creating sounds and synth presets that you can use in the future when you have a stronger creative flow.
11. Come up with a “feel”
If you can’t come up with a specific storyline to write around, and you’re unsure how to move forward, start with a very general approach. What is the “feel” of your song going to be? Do you want people to dance? Is it going to be a high-energy tune or something more vibey? At the very least, establish a few vague goals for your song.
12. Take a walk outside
Sometimes it’s okay to be stuck. Maybe you’re worried about something else, or maybe the ideas just aren’t in full flow on that particular day. Take a walk outside, take a break from songwriting, and come back to it when you feel more prepared to work productively.
13. Write down a list of things that matter to you
Songwriting is supposed to stem from the heart (or at least from some sort of emotion). Write down a list of things that matter to you. This may inspire you to write a song about one of these topics, or it might bring up feelings that you can then capture and put down on the page. The main goal with all of these techniques is to isolate some sort of human connection and then develop it into a full-fledged song.
14. Be inspired by visuals
Some people are more visually and spatially inclined than others. If you’re someone who’s into art, colors, cinematography, or anything of that sort, get inspired by visuals. Watch other music videos and mute them to come up with your own ideas. Go look at paintings, use crayons and draw on your walls, whatever works for you.
15. Go record your own samples
Don’t complain that all of your samples are boring and that nothing is inspiring you to write better music — go outside. Travel into your city with a tape recorder and get some samples yourself. Footsteps, traffic ambience, people sipping coffee, rain, whatever strikes your fancy. Be a creative whirlwind and then you’ll have a ton of great material to work with when you get back into the studio. Who would have thought that music production tips could advocate leaving the studio?
16. Don’t force your work
Do what you can to work on a consistent basis, but don’t force yourself to be creative if it’s not yielding anything worth saving. People can tell when your music isn’t genuine, so wait until you get a creative spurt to get back in the studio. This is especially true for those working with lyrics — cheesy lyrics will kill your song and have people clicking away in droves.
17. Put yourself in a different environment
Can’t drum up any good songwriting ideas? Maybe that’s because you sit in the same chair in the same room every single day of the week trying to make beats. Go out somewhere new, refresh your brain, and earn some new environmental influences. You’ll need to do this in order to kickstart your creativity once in a while. Who knows, maybe you could even try sitting outside and working with headphones.
18. Write from a unique perspective
Think of a song like “Stan” by Eminem. Why was it such a success and why is it revered by many hip-hop enthusiasts? Because it’s unique and written from an interesting perspective. Try doing something other than writing as the clichéd characters of today’s modern music (girl/boy who got broken up with, boy/girl who loves a boy/girl, etc.) Eminem used “crazy fan who goes nuts over his obsession and drives off of a bridge” with wild success so I’m sure that you’ll be able to come up with something halfway decent. Tell a story, pull emotional triggers.
19. Write off of a melody
Some people are melodic geniuses, and some aren’t. If you fall into that first category, and placing notes on a MIDI pattern or strumming riffs out on the guitar is second nature to you, use that to your advantage. Start off with a simple melody, build chords around it, and then work on adding vocals and lyrics if you’re trying to make that kind of thing.
20. Open old projects
Every producer who’s been in the game for a while has got some old projects stocked up that they never released or have sitting unfinished. Even if you just use them for MIDI or general inspiration, open those old projects back up and see if you can’t find anything with potential. A lot of times you’ll quit something only to realize later that it wasn’t as bad as you thought it was. This is just another one of the many songwriting tips that help you find inspiration and get past that pesky case of writer’s block.
21. Write using a universally relatable principle
When you’re looking for a songwriting topic, and you don’t have any specific story ideas, write about a universally relatable principle. Some examples of these would be love, death, grief, etc. Things that most people have experienced or been affected by in some way. If you take this approach, you might be able to create something that connects with a wider audience.
22. Use the opposite “tool”
This tip might be met with some reluctance, as many people tend to get set in their ways, but try using the opposite “tool.” If you usually work in a production vein on a computer in Ableton, try sitting down at the piano and writing out chord notes in a score, or vice versa. Changing the way that you operate (even within your specific workflow, i.e. within your DAW) will give you new and different results. Experiment!
23. Return to your original inspirations
This is similar to the tip about listening to music that has inspired you in the past, but it’s a bit more general than that. What fires you up and motivates you to sit down and make track after track, hoping that one day you’ll make it to where you want to be? Is it a recording of someone’s live show? Is it a particular song or video? Is it something a family member said to you? This is a tip very specific to each person, so take a bit of time to think about how it applies to you and your work. Note: if you’re a producer looking for motivation, watch the fan-made video of Porter Robinson’s live show. You won’t regret it.
24. Start your writing in the middle
Can’t come up with any sort of verse? Who cares, start with the chorus! Can’t get the drums to sound right in your intro? Skip it, do the drop first. If you can’t get your ideas kickstarted, start writing the song in a nonlinear fashion. Start with the end if you want to – there will be plenty of time later to fasten everything together and structure the sections.
25. Borrow song structures
Listen to some of your favorite songs with a keen ear for song structure. You’ll hear that much of today’s music is built in 8 and 16-bar pieces – write down what’s happening in each of these phrases and then use that as a guide for your own songwriting endeavors. If you have a basic structure and concept to work with, it’s easier to come up with your own ideas and create something new.
26. Keep it simple
Don’t make it too hard. This rule applies to almost every aspect of songwriting and production – think of all the songs that have hit #1 on the charts simply by having unique vocals and a background piano track! You don’t need to be fancy to make something that people connect with. Less is more.
27. Go through the common components
This applies more to those working in a production environment, but it works for others as well. If you’re creating a tune, and it sounds like it’s missing something, think about your favorite songs (or songs similar to the one that you’re making). What elements do they have? Examples would be hi-hats, kicks, snares, subs, leads, chord synths, etc. – try throwing some of these common elements into your mix – you might find the thing that you’ve been searching for.
28. Chop up an acapella
This is a great way to come up with melodies if you’re stuck on that step of the process. Use a sampler/slicer in your DAW to cut acapella samples to MIDI. Then you can almost randomly place MIDI triggers and then listen to the results: chances are you’ll hear a couple few-note phrases that you can take and build into melodies.
29. Listen as a listener
It’s very easy to lose perspective on your creation during the songwriting and production processes. Listen as objectively as you can and treat your song as any regular listener would treat it — for some psychological reason unbeknownst to me, this will often accentuate the issues in your mix and highlight areas that you should be able to improve upon.
30. Keep your goals in mind
Keep in mind the original goals that you had set for yourself with a song. Who’s the audience? Is there a certain type of emotion that you’re trying to evoke? A certain style that you were trying to make? It’s great to give yourself creative freedom, but make sure not to get off track if you’re aiming for something specific.
Conclusion and Next Steps
Now that you’ve discovered some new techniques to cure writer’s block and get your ideas down onto the page …
… it’s time to get serious about turning those ideas into songs that you can market to labels and promoters.
The key intermediary step?
If you want to start improving your music right now for free, download “50 Simple Ways To Get The Perfect Mixdown” or check out more free tips at Build Your Sound.
Which of these songwriting tips do you like best? What are some techniques that you use to cure writer’s block? Let us know in the comments.