Music & Lyrics – Overcoming Writer’s Block

Pen & Notepad - Unveilmusic
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Everyone that is artistic gets stuck once in a while. Even though it doesn’t apply to just writers, it is typically referred to as Writer’s Block. Even the most successful writers will hit creative walls now and then. It is what they do to get past their block and finish the song that helps them to be successful writers. So what tricks can we mere mortals use for getting past these creative blockages?

Start With The Title

Some people will disagree with this one. After all, how can you have a title before you have a story? Well sometimes the title can be the story, especially when it comes to music. Do you think Bon Jovi chose “Wanted Dead or Alive” as the title after he wrote the lyrics? No, that song was written out of the title and associated theme. The song title typically spotlights the theme of the song. So if you get stuck, try creating the title first. Then see what thoughts develop from it.

Keep A Notebook/Journal of Ideas

One of the best ways to beat writer’s block is to already have something to write about. Keeping a notebook journal or some general form of tracking your ideas is beneficial. Once songwriters would carry notepads or tape recorders with them, then it was digital recorders, and now all you need is a smartphone. With smartphones and tablets you can create a text note for lyrics or an audio note where you sing or hum a tune. My personal favorite approach is to use Evernote. I have it on all of my devices, and I use it for saving tons of information these days. Since it is on all of my devices, I can create a new note on my phone when I’m on the go, and it’ll be on my computer and iPad when I get home.

If you want some other ways to use Evernote, check out my previous article on it: Evernote For Musicians.

Have A Scheduled Writing Time

Sometimes waiting for inspiration to strike can take a while. Instead, set aside some time each day to focus on writing. Much like a child will have a set time each day to practice learning an instrument, blocking off a short time during the day to focus on just writing can help you get into the habit of writing. Also, by making this part of your daily routine you will get regular “practice” on it. Gradually it will become easier to just sit down and write.

Have A Dedicated Work Area

This tip is one I’ve seen more often applied to people starting to work from home. Since most of us don’t have the luxury of a private studio outside of our homes, we have to make do and find a spot to work. Hopefully, you have at least some room or area of your home that is your “studio.” Regardless of whether or not you have a dedicated “studio” area, try and pick a location for your writing. Eliminate any distractions in the area that will take away your focus on your writing. If you don’t need internet, then unplug it. If you don’t use a computer for your writing, don’t have one next to you. By designating a specific place to be your “writing space,” you start focusing more on writing in that space, and it helps you develop a “writing” mode effect when you sit down there to write.

Find Inspiration Everywhere

Surely you have heard the phrase “imitation is the purest form of flattery.” A lot of artists take what they see and hear around them for inspiration. This is how some of the greatest paintings have come into being. Some songs have been written to imitate real world sounds. Being a guitarist, one of the first songs I think of is Steve Vai’s “Bad Horsie.” His playing is intended to imitate the sound of a horse neighing in certain places.

Take A Break and Get Out

Speaking of taking inspiration from your surroundings, sometimes it is useful to change them. If you get stuck, take a break and get out for a while. Do something completely different. Go for a walk in the park, go to the library, or meet someone new at the coffee shop and have a conversation. Distancing yourself from the task of writing can open you up to the flow of inspiration.

Take A Nap or Meditate

If you are tired or just unable to focus, you might need to just get some rest. Take a short power nap and fall to sleep thinking about the song. When you wake up, you might get that creative spark. Also try getting into the habit of meditating on a regular basis, and your ability to focus will improve. Plus it won’t hurt to meditate for a few minutes to calm yourself and clear your head if you get stuck on a song.

Eat A Healthy Snack

You can’t think very clearly if you are hungry, and even if you aren’t, just taking a moment to eat something good can give a helpful kick. Sometimes a little caloric boost is useful. After all, your brain uses about 20% of your daily caloric intake. Of course, eating healthy on an ongoing basis is better, but at the least eating some nuts, berries, or seeds can give you a quick mood and health boost.

  • Nuts – these are good sources of protein and Vitamin E which are beneficial in improving memory and concentration skills.
  • Berries – any berries will contain vitamins and more that are beneficial for your mental health.
  • Seeds – Sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and the like contain vitamins that can boost your mood and mental function.
  • Tea or Coffee – Coffee has a few things going for it, but the main aspect is the caffeine. Tea, especially green tea, is full of antioxidants and medical studies have shown it to help improve memory.
  • Water – Drinking water is probably one of the most important things you can do during your day. We need water to live. Our bodies are composed of a large percentage of water, and our brains specifically are about 70-80% water. So keep a glass of water by you while you write.

Try A Different Instrument

Sometimes when you are stuck, trying to write on another instrument instead can open up a flow of inspiration. For one, it forces you to think differently about the song. If you started the song on the guitar and switch to piano, you will be able to play the same chords but with different voicings. Perhaps you decide on a change to the chord progression because of this, or you decide you like it better on piano. Instruments that you are less capable on will limit what you can do, thereby forcing you to think more creatively within those confines.

Write Your Lyrics With Your Other Hand

This goes along with the idea of trying a different instrument. Unless you are ambidextrous, switching hands when writing lyrics will make you focus more. Despite the sloppiness of the writing, it will also make your perspective change, which can lead to some possible “ah ha’s.”

Listen To Your Favorite Artists

Sometimes it is best to just listen to some of the artists that inspire you. Pay attention to how their lyrics and vocals flow. Get out your instrument and try jamming along with some songs. Don’t copy the songs, but use them as a catalyst to get you in that creative mood. Sometimes just by jamming along you may come up with something you like that becomes the foundation for a song of your own.

Listen To New And Different Music

For his song Freak Show Excess, Steve Vai has stated his source inspiration as Bulgarian wedding music, particularly the group Evo Papisov. Now that’s an interesting source of inspiration. Sometimes listening to different groups than usual, or even different styles can be a helpful creative catalyst, especially if you feel all your work is sounding the same. Once again, this ties in with the “getting inspiration everywhere.”

Force Your Creativity By Limiting Focus

Instead of making your focus the entire song, try instead to focus on just finishing one section. Don’t sit and ponder every detail. Just crank it out. Then go back and revamp it. And then revamp it some more. Make that one section your primary focus and make it an incredible section. Then you move to the next and make it build on what was said in the previous section(s).

Or Do The Opposite and Free Write

When writing lyrics, maybe trying to focus exclusively on just one section isn’t working. Sometimes that approach will only stifle your creativity even more. So if you find yourself getting even more blocked by limiting your focus, try “losing” your focus. By this I mean to not focus on any particular aspect of the song beyond the central theme. With your main theme in mind, start writing without lifting your pen, or fingers if typing, for several minutes. Don’t stop during your writing to evaluate or criticize what you’ve written. If you can’t think of anything to write, then write that you can’t think of anything and just keep going. This is called Free Writing or Stream-of-Consciousness Writing. Once you’ve written for several minutes this way, simply go back and look for anything that stands out. Then build from there. This is a great way for drawing out lyrics hiding somewhere in your mind.

For writing instrument parts, you can take a similar approach. If you have a great set of lyrics, but can’t come up with any chords or melody you like, try a Free Writing approach. Set up an audio or video recorder of some kind, think about the style of music you want, and just start playing whatever come to mind. With so many options for recording audio and video, from smartphones to tablets to a fancy recording rig, you can easily find a way to capture your ideas. Just remember this isn’t meant to be perfect, so you don’t need a top-notch recording setup to do this. This is simply a way to work through a creative block. Anything you record and like will be something you invest more time into. So the quality of the audio/video only matters so that you can hear what you played.

Keep All Of Your Ideas

Write something that seems great one day and not so great a few days later? It happens to all of us. Don’t get rid of it though. You could be suffering from a bad day of self-doubt, or simply the inspiration you had is gone. By keeping your rough idea, you can always come back to it later. Maybe somewhere down the road it will become useful, either as a song basis or a catalyst for a whole new tune. You never know. Once again, this is where using Evernote adds an advantage by allowing you to search through your notes. So if you write a song about dogs that you stop working on but need again months later, Evernote will make it easy to find.

Bonus Tip: Watch Tenacious D’s Pick of Destiny

Sometimes you just need a good laugh at the efforts of other musicians to get you moving. I really enjoy this movie and all of the Tenacious D songs. They are really creative in their blend of humor with their serious writing. If nothing else, just have a laugh at how they go about their songwriting.

James Higgins (295 Posts)

Professional guitarist and instructor based in Alabama; performance, songwriting, and recording. Atlanta Institute of Music graduate. Part-time blogger.


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