It’s an all-too-common affliction that every songwriter suffers from at one point or another. You’re in the middle of writing a song, when suddenly, you get that empty feeling. The assembly line of ideas that was running efficiently just moments ago has now stopped dead in its tracks. And you, along with your unfinished song, are left twisting in the wind. What is a wayward songwriter to do?
Fear not! Here are a few tips that are sure to get your creative process flowing again.
1. Listen until to hear. I know this sounds very "zen" and may seem like spiritual mumbo-jumbo to some of you. But it's really a very practical and basic concept. Song ideas do seem to come out of thin air. Whether you believe they come from your brain, your heart, your gut, or God, one thing we can all agree on is they come on their own terms, at a time they see fit. And when you've become used to a consistent flow of ideas, a pause in inspiration may appear to be a complete block, when in reality, it may just be a brief hiatus. Your muse may just be taking a break. So.....wait. Play through the other parts of the song, or listen back to what you recorded so far, or sit in complete silence and wait to see if an idea emerges. Don't try to force random ideas that may not fit. Be patient.
2. Distract yourself. This is my personal favorite. A lot of times, your brain is just getting in the way. You may be over-analyzing your song, or you might be caught up in what the end result is going to sound like and if the client or fan is going to like it. In short, you may be thinking too much. So you need to distract that part of your mind, and get it out of the way. The trick here though, is to do something that doesn't require 100% of your attention, but just enough to occupy your conscious thoughts. For me, taking a drive, going for a walk, or taking a shower almost always does the trick. I know of one very successful songwriter who plays video games when he's stumped. Try juggling, or bouncing a ball on a tennis racket. Something to keep your pesky brain busy so your instinct can take over. But remember, if you find yourself completely forgetting about the song altogether, you may have picked an activity that is either too complex, or too encompassing (trigonometry and sex probably won't work), so keep it simple.
3. Let go of expectations. Sometimes we set very limiting boundaries on what a song should sound like. Maybe you're trying to stick to a very specific genre, or stay within a standard song form. While this may be necessary in order to create a song in an intended style, sometimes the creative process needs room to stretch in order to start generating ideas. Allow your focus to drift and start letting your mind go in any direction it pleases. It doesn't matter how "out-there" your ideas may get. Let your creativity roam free just so you can get it rolling again and then you can re-focus your direction once it starts working again. Plus, sometimes coming up with ideas that don't fit, helps to narrow down the possibilities and make the right ideas easier to find. And, who knows. You may get lucky. Sometimes, crazy and random ideas end up taking your song in a direction you've never been before.
4. Sing. This one may sound kind of silly, but it really works sometimes. Play the song up to the point where you've stopped and once you get there just start singing the first thing that comes to mind. Really give it all you got and just blurt it out. You may end up singing a melody, a bass line, a beat, or any of the many elements that make up a song. This method can help to lower your inhibitions and stop you from over-thinking and really dislodge your block. If you have a recording device, have it running when you do this so you can listen back to your "performance".
5. Take a break. When all else fails, stop. Put the song away for a few hours or days. Let yourself completely forget about it. When you revisit it later, ideas should start flowing again.
Most importantly, just remember that mental blocks are as easily solvable as technical challenges, like learning how to play a difficult passage on your instrument or operate a new piece of software. Mental challenges may seem completely out of your control because their solutions don't involve concrete steps like "read the user's manual" or "practice your scales". Instead they require non-musical, psychological techniques like "patience" and "distraction". The tips in this article will help you integrate these techniques into your creative process. And eventually, as you become more familiar with what writer's block feels like, a well as the many possible solutions, you'll be able to figure out what works best for you. At that point it will no longer be a thing to fear. Instead it will be an occasional, minor, and easily solvable obstacle. Good luck!
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About Joe Hanley
Joe Hanley is a composer and songwriter in NYC and has spent 29 long, A.D.D.-ridden years on this big, beautiful Earth, jumping frenetically from one part of the music world to the next. He's toured with Universal-Motown recording artist Tina Parol, released a CMJ chart-ranking jazz album, and written and composed music for advertising, websites, artists and TV. Joe writes for the blog www.WriteRecordMix.com which publishes articles about the challenges musicians face bringing their music to reality. His original compositions and songs can be heard on his website at www.JoeHanleyMusic.com.