There is nothing more frustrating as a songwriter than sitting down to pen your next single only to come up empty at the end of the day because inspiration never came.
During the age of the independent musician, it is more important than ever to make the best use of our increasingly smaller amount of songwriting time as we wear many hats.
To help beat those songwriting blues, here are five ways to overcome writer’s block and become a better songwriter.
If you aren’t one of those musicians who can play by ear— their superpowers baffle me— learning theory can be the single most important part of honing your craft. Being a professional songwriter without a working knowledge of theory compares to knowing a few popular phrases of a different language, but not being fluent in it.
Music theory can also act as a great catalyst if you’re stuck in a songwriting rut. Being able to easily change the key, play in different modes of scales, and add unique chords to songs helps new releases sound different from previous ones.
While memorization is important, I have a few resources I keep on hand for every songwriting session.
Until I learned theory, the composition side of songwriting didn’t come naturally to me. During a scene from the show The League, one of the main characters is relentlessly made fun of by his group of friends when they discover he has a library’s worth of For Dummies books in his basement.
Feeling confident I’d be safe purchasing just one of those books, I ordered a copy of Music Theory for Dummies and I was impressed with the amount of information packed in the book. Even if you are familiar with music theory or know it well, it is a great reference to have by your side.
Inspiration in print and sound
One of the best ways to stay inspired and keep new material flowing is to immerse yourself in creative compositions.
Books written by other artists are packed full of tidbits and stories that shed personal light on what it’s like working and living in the industry. These stories are not only educational, but they have made me feel less alone in the past. The arts can be a lonely profession, and sometimes it’s comforting to know others understand the frustration you go through because they’ve been through it as well.
I love paying close attention to the musical scores in movies and shows I watch.
While listening to your favorite artists can be a great method to drum up songwriting inspiration, finding new music and artists to listen to is equally as important.
Music supervisors and editors can help make or break a project. Sometimes I’ll find a song I’ve never heard before in a movie that was simply used as source material in a scene. I’ll immediately find the song on a streaming platform and add it to my library so I can really listen to it later.
I find the music in Paramount Network’s modern western show Yellowstone quite inspiring. Music supervisor Andrea von Forester has done a magnificent job enriching the show with gritty, outlaw-style music from both independent artists and major label acts.
I have several playlists saved to my library featuring the music of that show. I play the songs through my speakers while driving or setting up for a live stream or practice, and it helps get the creative juices flowing.
Sometimes when I tell people most country songs are written by several different people, not just one, they are shocked. But Nashville’s entire recording music industry is built on co-writing sessions. There’s a reason for this. Millions of dollars can be made by getting a great lyricist, melody-maker, and guitarist all in a room together at one time.
Maybe you have a great melody picked out but don’t know where to go with the theme of the song. Or maybe you have pieces of lyrics written down but can’t quite figure out the hook. Whatever area you are stuck on, it can work wonders to bring in a fellow musician you are comfortable writing with and finish out the project.
If you’re not in a city like Nashville where songwriters are easy to find, getting together for a jam session with bandmates is another way to get a fresh perspective on the song you want to write or finish.
Family members who share a love of music and are talented musicians can help as well.
One of Miranda Lambert’s early songs, Greyhound Bound for Nowhere, was co-written with her father.
Changing instruments can redirect the course of a songwriting session. If you are a multi-instrumentalist, going from guitar to piano can dramatically change the mood of a song. Even if you are solely a guitarist, changing guitars can offer new tones not heard while writing a song on another guitar. Some guitars have deep, bass tones that create a heavy sound. Other guitars have been constructed to produce sound that rings forever even with a single strum. Each guitar has a unique personality and switching it up can bring a new vision to your process.
Learning a new instrument is a great way to stay inspired as well. Playing blues scales on a guitar is a completely different experience than playing them on a piano. Musicians with longevity aren’t afraid to be bad at something because it means they are learning something new and it will help them stay inspired and keep producing in the long run.
Adopt the right philosophy
This last tip might surprise you. Adopting the right philosophy for success is too often overlooked in society. Developing a strong mind and will is just as important to your songwriting career as recording music and getting it out to your supporters.
While there are many self-help style books out there that take a modern approach to molding your mind into a healthy goal-crushing machine, I have always favored the philosophers of centuries past.
Stoicism can not only teach you control over your emotions (better control means better harnessing them for songwriting inspiration), but the stoics also dive into developing a thick sin that is unmoved by unconstructive criticism, something that is constant when you are in the public eye in any way.
For some stoic inspiration, check out The Daily Stoic for resources, tips, and more.
Keep in mind that there is no philosophy out there you’ll ever agree with all of the time. Take what is applicable and use it to better yourself and your work. The rest is meant for someone else.
Art isn’t supposed to be easy. No great piece was ever constructed because of an easy life. The music business is about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. Harness that. Learn to write when you don’t feel like it. Learn to write when you’re tired or full of energy, happy or devastated. Songwriting is not a profession that caters to convenience, but dogged habit and determination. Writer William Packard once said, ‘You can’t lead bunny lives and write tiger poetry.’ That is one of the truest statements about writing ever made. Don’t be like a bunny. Become a tiger. The rest will follow.
For more on songwriting, check out this fantastic article on Indie Music Bus about one songwriter’s personal journey with creativity through the years featuring musician Ryan Cassata.
Rebecca Day is a singer, songwriter, performer, author, and freelancer. She is also 1/2 of swampy, Americana duo, The Crazy Daysies. For more information, check out rebeccadaymusic.com.