Years ago I remember a friend talking about the tyranny of the blank page. It rang so true with my songwriting experience. There had been many times when I had finally set aside some time for the craft of songwriting, opened my notebook or strummed my guitar and nothing of substance came. I remembered the seemingly arbitrary rules that my saxophone teacher would give me for improvisation and realized that committing to a process or a structure, or an idea is often all you need to really get in motion.
In general, it seems that we often just need to write. Write often. Write those bad songs. Finish them. Throw them out. Laugh about them with your friends. Whether you’re ready to sit down and write a new song or you’re stuck with one you’ve started, here are some basic songwriting tools and reminders for everyone.
- Collaborate – If you’ve never considered it, ask another musician for help and input on something that you’re working on! Look for a songwriters’ circle near you and if you can’t find one, create one! Ask I get together with other songwriters as often as I can for cowriting sessions and I’ll often get (or send) simple voice memos with ideas that are in progress. A facebook group is another way of sharing ideas and getting
- Make (and break) The Rules – While it may sound silly, creating rules can be one of the best ways to get started with songwriting or to get unstuck. Here are some examples to get you thinking.
- Starting points: Start with a particular element. Style, lyrics, the chord progression, a riff, an intentional plan for instrumentation, a visualization of the energy of the song…
- Lyrics: Start with a title, find a hook, choose a rhyme scheme, etc.
- Chord Progressions: Understanding a key may be the biggest asset when it comes to songwriting. From there, there are all kinds of tools to engage with the progression, but knowing the basic options for chords and then how to apply them through traditional progressions and cadences.
- Seek Inspiration –
- Create daily discipline with something inspiring. Maybe you read a page from Rumi’s Big Red Book or a Psalm from the Bible. Maybe you get in the habit of daily walks in the park, or meditation. When you find something that works, lean into it a little more and try creating enough structure around it to help you engage it regularly.
- Know how you’ll catch inspiration. Do you sing/ speak into your phone’s voice memos? Do you carry a notebook with you? Do you write in Evernote or send yourself a text message? Knowing how you can capture inspiration when those moments strike can be incredibly empowering.
Colloquialize. Pick a poem, an old hymn, a psalm, a fortune cookie saying, etc. What’s it trying to say? How would you say that to your friends?
Iterate. pick a phrase that you want to use but say it differently. Then do it again, and again! Keep tweaking it until you get to something interesting (ie: God is good. God is not bad. God does not hurt. The one is not one who brings pain).
Get to the heart. Pick one of those theological things that you’re attached to- try to “bring it down from the mountain.” What’s at the heart of it that we can all understand? Is it a simple phrase like, “love wins” or “you’re enough” or “we’re in it together?”
- Word Work –
- Start with a random word. Writing prompts, index finger in a dictionary, Random Word generators, pull a word out of a hat, etc. Random matching can be really fun too. Sort of like Mad Libs, you can create starter kits for yourself. Create 3 piles of cards; feelings, adjectives, and places.
- Pick a word or phrase that is meaningful or inspiring to you. Maybe it’s a quote or tweet.