It was shortly after I graduated high school that I started writing songs. Looking back decades later, I realize that there are plenty of legitimate reasons why “Attack of the Killer Bees” remains buried in the archives. We all have to start somewhere, and that’s generally at the beginning and the bottom. From a positive viewpoint, you have nowhere to go but up! It’s my hope that this list will help others in some way just as those people in my life have helped me. Even if you only take away a single piece of helpful information, I will consider it a win for both of us! On to the list!
1. Do it for yourself!
In my experience, it is paramount to do it for yourself. Create what fulfills you, what brings you joy, what you want to hear, what provides you with catharsis, what helps you grow. Having been through the process of pandering to others, I found myself greatly removed from what I truly wanted to do in the first place.
2. Create a space.
If you haven’t already done so, I highly recommend creating a space dedicated to writing. Preferably, it should be a comfortable, quiet space, without distractions. Leave your social media, phone, Netflix, and anything else that may disrupt your work behind so you can focus on being creative.
3. Push for completion.
When I first started writing, I never seemed to finish anything. There were plenty of ideas, but nothing completed. One day a friend of mine (and fellow musician) came over and was listening to some of my “audio sketches.” He bluntly asked me “Why don’t you ever finish anything?” I took it kind of hard, which pushed me into a period of introspection where I kept asking myself “Why don’t I finish these ideas?!?” Since I had no good answers, I decided to “push for completion” regardless of the quality of the work. Good, bad, or ugly, at least something would be done! This turned out to be one of the most important lessons I have learned about writing music. The benefits of using this approach are the following:
- You can refine your ability to go from concept to execution to completion.
- Your workflow can become very refined out of necessity.
- Your portfolio can grow vastly along the way if you stick with it.
- You can learn to accomplish much more in less time as well as how to work within various constraints (limited technology, less time available, etc.).
- You can learn something new each time you work through the process.
- The more you write, the better you can get at it. Practice may not make perfect, but it provides ample opportunities for improvement.
- Your creativity is boosted due to the necessity of finding ways to build your songs.
- You can develop your ability to meet deadlines and goals.
4. Headspace in your workspace.
As you approach your workspace, consider your headspace. If you are feeling melancholy, consider what instrumentation, lyrics, themes, or approach you can take to capitalize on that state of being. I highly recommend watching the video below of a lecture on creativity from John Cleese where he discusses getting into the “open mode” to be more creative.
5. Tear down the walls!
Speaking of headspace/mindset, practice tearing down any personal walls between you and the music. Lose your inhibitions, hang-ups, insecurities, and anything else that can get in the way. Be fearless, experiment, try things you wouldn’t normally write, and understand that there are no “mistakes” in what you create, only learning. Capitalize on your strengths and work on your weaknesses, but don’t get hung up on mistakes. You will learn that there aren’t necessarily any bad ideas in your art, it just may take more time to refine them to find the heart of it.
6. Be prepared.
Have your gear ready and on-hand to get your ideas “on tape.” Have a notepad by the bed, a voice recorder in the car, a kazoo in the bathroom, or your home studio fired up and ready to record at a moment’s notice. By eliminating obstacles, you increase your chances of catching the muse, or at least remembering your ideas before they are lost.
7. Inspiration schminspiration, get to work!
Speaking of the “muse,” inspiration is something you hear people talk about all of the time. Inspiration is a great motivator and can be found in many things like books, movies, weather, painful life events, love, and more. Having said that, I feel Stephen King sums it up best. “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” If you make writing part of your daily ritual, you will refine the process and find it much easier to capture inspiration when it does hit you. Meanwhile, you continue writing daily regardless. Just like exercise, you will see results from putting all of that time in the woodshed. That in itself is a success.
8. Good artists borrow, great artists steal…from themselves!
You may have heard the old cliché that “good artists borrow, but great artists steal,” but there is a hint of truth to it. It is entirely okay to write something inspired by others. We build upon the works created before us. Throughout our lives as musicians, we find music that we connect with in profound ways. Bands and musicians, for better or worse, become our heroes or idols, or simply people we find inspiring. No matter how hard you try, you won’t sound quite like Led Zeppelin, Andres Segovia, Danny Elfman, or The Thrown Ups. As it stands, you are a culmination of your many influences, experiences, and abilities. Let those things flow through your work and let it help you find your own “voice” along the way. Perhaps you visualize Miami Sound Machine meeting Yat-Kha on a stage with Yma Sumac and Diamanda Galas at the mic while Black Sabbath jams along with Imagine Dragons using only chicken bones, a bent trombone, a kalumbu, and rototoms without heads. If so, let it out!
“I heard papa tell mama let that boy boogie-woogie. It’s in him and it got to come out.” – John Lee Hooker
9. My precious!
Don’t be precious with your ideas. If the initial idea is weak, take some additional time to refine it and move forward from there. Try not to work the life out of it. Sometimes the first take is the keeper!
10. Serve the song.
If you listen carefully, each song element can dictate what should follow. This is your intuition talking, so get out of the way and let it happen. You develop your intuition over time, so don’t get discouraged if you find yourself creating something you don’t like. While you may not like it, the process of having created it in itself will be an educational experience that builds growth. See #9.
Lagom is a Swedish word meaning enough, in balance, just right, perfect, simple. Learn it, embrace it, and let it change your artistic life. Finding any kind of finesse was a struggle for me. Lagom helped me get there along with the following approach. Dial it in to what you think is right, then roll it back by 10% and see if you are still happy. This can be applied to how much reverb you use, how many guitar overdubs you use, how loud your mix is, how many chord changes you are trying to work in, and so on. Consider taking a “subtractive” approach as well. Not sure about a track, lyric, layer, idea? Cut it away and sit on it for a moment. If you aren’t compelled to add it back in and the song holds up without it, get rid of it. This can help you develop finesse in your work.
12. Learn a new instrument.
Frank Zappa, Eddie Van Halen, Joey Ramone, Dave Grohl, Chris Cornell, Don Henley, and Adrian Belew all started on drums. Perhaps it’s time to throw out those drums and learn a new instrument! It can change your perspective, even if it’s picking up a tambourine (on second thought…), rebec, or a tin whistle. Learning to write from new perspectives can be very inspirational. If most of your songs are created playing guitar, write a song centered around a bass line or drum track instead. Keep in mind that if you decide to take up playing the drums, you may lose all of your friends, half of your family, and your neighbors may shoot at you on occasion. It could be worse. You could be the bass player. ;D
13. Get out your big ear!
Frank Zappa talked about The Big Ear when it came to listening to others around you when performing. While that is entirely important, even when listening to your own compositions, you should also use your big ear for something else. Listen to music from all over the world. I highly recommend spending some time studying folk music from various countries. While some of it may appear to be very simple, you will find a rich and diverse amount of highly stylized music that will tickle your brain and inspire you. It may even blow your mind. There is much to learn from music history as well, so don’t be afraid to dig deep into the archives and learn how to bang two rocks together!
14. Collaborate with others.
I can already hear some of you say “But I can’t! There aren’t any other musicians around for thousands of miles!” Lucky for you, you live in the future. While you could collaborate with the only other inhabitant on your island who happens to play the waterphone, you can also find collaborators online. The point is, different people work differently. You might expose yourself to another world by working with someone else who carries different experiences, knowledge, inspirations, aspirations, and intuition. They may teach you a few new tricks on Pro Tools or turn you on to a Swedish Polska. Maybe you in turn share your knowledge of North African drumming or how to build custom patches on a Memorymoog. Whatever the case, you will learn and you might make a new friend or two along the way. YMMV on that last bit.
15. Lyrics, aka The Achilles’ Heel of songwriting.
Don’t get hung up on lyrics. Practice writing them, but keep moving forward. You can take creative writing classes, study the great poets, use the cut-up technique, deploy oblique strategies, bang your head on a wall, or write backwards like Leonardo da Vinci. In the end, it will behoove you to push for completion on lyrics just as you do with the music. You will improve and find your voice over time. If you find yourself seeking out the perfect words, yet never finding them, keep this in mind. Better done than perfect. Also, when needed, consult The Done Manifesto.
16. Procrastination is something best put off until later.
I have said this for so many years to so many people, I’m surprised it isn’t on a t-shirt! Damn, there goes my million dollar idea. Whatever. You can quote me on that, now get to work! Do it now!
Regarding time: Consider time as your most valuable commodity and work accordingly. You will never have as much time as you think you should. While you may have heard the old saying “You can’t rush greatness,” it is also a good exercise to work within time constraints. You may already have these in place due to work, children, relationships, and so on. Learning to create and complete a song/composition within a short amount of time can be a refreshing (and yes, even infuriating) experience. It can provide you with valuable insight into working under duress, deadlines, pressure, and constraints. You learn to strip down your toolbox, write more efficiently, streamline your processes, and get to the heart of the idea. Something else that can help in this regard is to limit options. Too many options may obstruct your progress. You will eventually find a balance in this exercise between taking enough time to achieve a work of quality that you can be proud of, yet learning to work efficiently without allowing yourself to get stuck.
Exercise can inspire, keep you strong and healthy, and give you something else to do when you aren’t writing music. While important, that is not the kind of exercise I want to focus on for this list. Here is a writing exercise you should try. Practice writing songs using different tempos, time signatures, keys, instrumentation, and themes. If you generally write dance music in the key of C major in 4/4 at 120bpm on a synth, consider writing a tune in 7/8 at 93bpm in Bb minor on your trombone. The point is to break out of your comfort zone or songwriting habits.
18. Get a bigger toolbox!
On the opposite side of creating with limitations, consider increasing the size of your toolbox. Study your DAW and plugins, practice your instrument, learn to rebuild your instrument, study music theory, join a songwriting group and attend workshops, join a band, learn that instrument you always wanted to, learn a new language, take a musicology class, listen to new music every day, travel, learn how to play music from all over the world. All of these things can inspire you and bring about personal growth and stimulate creativity.
19. Don’t give up! Take a break instead!
Everyone goes through periods of what some describe as writer’s block. Don’t believe the hype. While you may not feel inspired, you can still write and work, learn and grow. On the other hand, taking a break can be a very healthy thing that provides you with an opportunity to recharge. If you begin to feel burned out, take some time away from writing. Odds are, your mind will continue to process what you have learned and experienced thus far. When you return, you may very well have a new perspective and more energy to work. Keep in mind that the longer you are away from something, the less likely you are to return to it, so don’t give up entirely if you still love writing music. Go for a walk, travel, take up a new hobby, exercise, find a social activity that you can enjoy.
20. Push for completion, the reprise.
Yes, this is also #3, but I can’t stress this enough. Think of it as a dance routine, martial arts kata, comedy routine, engine rebuild, pen spinning, magic trick, or anything else that takes a lot of repetition to master. The more you do it, the better you will get.
I wish you the best on your songwriting adventures! Time to get to work!