When it comes to song composition, there’s good news and there’s bad news. Bad news first. To be straight with you, writing songs is hard. The creative process is messy, and some days you don’t feel like you can get in the flow. Other days you’re just antsy and distractable and would rather browse the phone book-sized Sweetwater catalogue in search of a Hail Mary that will help you finish songs. Deep down though, you know that more gear or a few extra plugins won’t necessarily do the trick. So what sorts of things can actually help? All of the tricks we cover are free, and just require a little bit of focus and intention.
- Stop Writing for Listeners– You’ve probably had so many thoughts run through your head. “What if my fans don’t like this song?” or “What if it doesn’t get a lot of streams on Spotify?” It’ll paralyze you if you let it. Aside from the big names and some formulaic songwriters who have a permanent place in the top 40, most people can’t get away with writing for the masses without coming across as totally inauthentic. Sometimes your instinct is your art and to try to massage it into something that is more palatable is just…people would smell a rat if you gave them what you thought they want (hat tip to Matt Healy from The 1975 for this gem of a phrase). I can remember very recently I listened to Sufjan Stevens’ newest album. One of his songs sounded like it was trying too hard to be the type of song that people want to hear, not necessarily the type of song that comes tumbling out of Sufjan so naturally and authentically. Allie and I were listening together, and she asked me what I thought of it. I immediately responded with, “you can smell a rat.” She laughed. It actually really bummed me out. I’m not sure if I’ll go back to listening to the rest of that album. But put on one of his masterpieces like Casimir Pulaski Day and I experience what I can only imagine is a supernatural moment between a songwriter and their muse. Give your audience that same experience.
- Get a change of scenery– If you’re writing in google docs, switch over to pen and paper. If you’re stuck in a DAW folder-diving, get the heck outta there ASAP. The more distractions there are, the harder it is to write. And you could be stuck in the application for hours without making any progress. It’s super easy to get into a consumption mode instead of creation mode, when you’re playing with different patches or folder-diving. Being inside a complex software application doesn’t always lend itself to getting the high level parts of your song written. The moral of the story is, there are no bad tools, but If you aren’t feeling movement in one location, move to another until you feel like you can get into flow.
- Start Small– completing songs can be overwhelming. Most of us are only good at a few parts of the song, and often we are mediocre at others. For me, I’m super fast at creating lyrics to music that’s already been arranged. You might be great at writing lyrics and a melody, but terrible at coming up with a chord structure. Trying to get all of the parts done in one sitting is really hard to do. Instead, try to pick one part to work on. Once you finish that one part then go on to the next. And when you’re stuck, just focus on getting unstuck from that one part. Whatever you do, try not to focus on the whole song and all of the remaining parts that need to be finished. If you’ve been able to spend two hours writing and only come out with a really solid hook or melody, that’s okay. Sometimes writing comes easy and sometimes you have to work for it. But getting overwhelmed never made anyone go faster, that’s for sure.
- Keep the lyrics simple– Think about the Beatles’ greatest hits. Some of them were so very simple and about entirely mundane subjects. Sometimes we try to over complicate things or we impose standards on ourselves that are impossible to live up to. We might expect ourselves to have a really clever internal rhyming scheme, or write lyrics like Sufjan every single time. Give yourself space to ramp up.
- Use the Pomodoro Technique– The concept came up in the 1980’s. It’s a fancy word that describes a very simple productivity hack. The rules are simple. Write a list of things you want to get done, and set a timer for 20 mins. Once your 20 minutes is up, take a 5 min break. Rinse and repeat 4 more times, then take a 25 min break for some food, a short walk, or just stretch your legs. This may sound too simple to be effective, and yet it works. Imagine how many times you’ve sat down to work on something and before you know it three or four hours has gone by? And you haven’t done much of anything? This technique keeps you focused, and tricks you into thinking you’re getting a break soon enough. I’ve gotten into flow countless times when using this technique. It’s a keeper!
What are your favorite tips for getting unstuck while writing? Write them down in your songwriting notebook or on stickies near your workspace. You have so much creativity locked inside of you and getting stuck kinda just kills it. So let’s get better at finishing those songs.