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7 Tips For Songwriters To Get Out Of Their Creative Box

Sep 04, 2021

Have you ever experienced writer’s block? Have your songs started to all sound the same? Let’s talk about 7 tips to get out of your creative box!


1. Change The Instrument You Write With

I get it. We all have that instrument we’re most comfortable with. 

You might only play one instrument.

So, naturally, you write all of your songs utilizing a single instrument. 

But, here’s the thing. 

If you play the guitar, you can play the bass by default. 

If you play the piano (or any other non-guitar instrument), picking up basic rhythm guitar will take you under a year.

If you do already play more than one instrument, it’s time to use that second instrument in your songwriting. 

The way and style that you write with the piano will be different than a guitar. 

Why? Because these instruments are played so differently. 

Guitar tends to either be very rhythmic chords or melodic-central solos.

Piano tends to focus more on the pairing of melody and chords.

Did you play an instrument for band or orchestra in high school? Middle school even?

It might be time to get out your dusty flute. 


Different instruments inspire you differently.

The way you play a flute is radically different from the way you play piano or guitar.

Not only that, a flute sounds totally different. And the reality is that how your instrument sounds in response to you playing makes a huge difference in how you play it. 

Don’t believe me? Pick up an electric guitar.

Now use a distortion pedal with it. Alright, now turn the distortion off and use a reverb pedal. 

I highly doubt you played the same style with distortion as you did with heavy reverb. 

This leads us to #2.


2. Change Your Instrument Playing Style

If you don’t play a second instrument or you just want to expand your horizons with your favorite instrument, you can simply change the way you play.

For example, if your go-to is to grab your guitar and strum chords, try doing finger picking or picking using your pick instead.

If your go-to is the piano, then change up your play style with that. 

If you usually do melody with your right hand and arpeggios in your left, change it up.

Do chords with your right hand, single notes in your left hand, melody with your left hand, or really any other different combination.

tend to write songs on the piano in 2 ways: 

  1. Single notes with my left hand and a sort of “riff” with my right hand
  2. Arpeggios with my left hand and melody with my right hand

But, when I change it up, that’s when I write some of my most exciting and different songs.


3. Pivot Your Sound, Sub-Genre, or Genre

We all have a sound. And that’s a great thing. 

Having an identity and a sound is a part of being an artist.

But a great way to get out of your creative box is to pivot from that sound.

Notice I said pivot, not leap

If you’re a country artist, I’m not telling you to write a rap.

If you’re a rap artist, I’m not telling you to write some metal.

But, if you’re a southern rock artist, try writing a song that’s pure country or pure rock.

Southern rock is basically a hybrid of country and rock, right? So your sound is already tangential to those genres. 

Other ways to pivot your sound is to write something acoustic if you tend to write songs utilizing a lot of non-acoustic instruments. If your music is usually raw and acoustic, try writing a song using a lot of synths.

Just like you love that one soft song on your favorite hard rock band’s album, you will love the songs you write that stretch you a bit outside of your comfort zone.


4. Change What You Write First

One of the most age-old songwriting debates:

Should I write lyrics first or music first?

For what it’s worth: you should do some of both.

But we all prefer one or the other. Many of us do just one of them.

Whichever you do exclusively (or more often), change it up.

If you’re like most people, you almost exclusively write songs by writing the music first.

In other words, you write lyrics to fit the music. The music exists, and then influences the lyrics you write for it.

Do you see where we’re going with this? Whatever type of music you tend to write- whether that be cutesy ukulele tunes or somber piano ballads- continually influences and dictates what type of lyrics you write.

So, if you keep writing somber sounding piano music, your lyrics will probably continue to be somber songs that are pensively musing on the darker side of life.

But, if you write the lyrics first instead, it might be a good chance to get outside of that box. Maybe the only reason your songs recycle the same messages and themes was because the music you kept writing inspired you to those themes and emotions

When you don’t have music to dictate the tone of your lyrics, you might write something about radically different subject matter, themes, and emotions.

And this is a great thing.

If you tend to always start with lyrics and then write music to fit the lyrics, it works the same way.

You’re basically “putting music to poetry”. Your own poetry. What’s the implication of that phrase? That the music was influenced by and maybe even dictated by the content of the poem.

So, no matter what side of the lyrics-first vs music-first fence you reside on, try writing from the other side.


5. Change Your Value Judgments Temporarily

I’ve talked before about the importance of knowing your value judgments and using that knowledge to inform your writing.

Basically: If you think lyrics and melody are the most important parts of a song, then you should write those first.

If a great bass line is important to you, start with that.

But, if we start writing all our songs with the same instrument, that can be very limiting.

I tend to have a very high value on deep, pensive lyrics and a memorable, emotional melody.

Because those 2 things are so immensely important to me, the melody and lyrics are rarely outside of the first 3 things I write. Usually the other member of my “first 3” written club is the main piano riff or guitar riff. 

But it’s a lot harder to write a killer bass line or catchy drum beat when you write most of your song before even thinking about those two things.

So it can be helpful to temporarily change your value judgments. 

Even if you’re with me, and value deep lyrics with an emotional melody, try writing a song where you value having a killer bass line, catchy drum beat, or interesting harmonies.

How do you do this? Write what you’re valuing first.

So try writing a bass line for a song before you write anything else.

Try writing a drum loop before you write anything else. 

Try writing the bridge of your song first. 

Whatever parts you don’t usually prioritize are all candidates for changing your value judgements temporarily… and writing them first.

Because, I was never going to write a great bass line unless I made it a priority.


6. Find A New Source For Inspiration

One of the most common traps I see songwriters fall into is the trap of only writing from the perspective of their current circumstances.

There are a couple issues with this.

One is that it’s highly limiting. If your life is fairly vanilla, with you happily married and going to the same job with the same people every day, inspiration can dry up very quickly.

You don’t want to end up like Andy from Parks and Recreation

No one wants to hear your song about shining shoes. That’s obviously extreme as it’s a joke in the show but, for some, that’s not that far from reality.

Another issue is that it can be an excuse for self-destructive behavior. Have I been guilty of that?

Yes. Absolutely. 

But then I grew up and learned that I don’t need to be actively experiencing something to write about it. I can empathise and remember how something feels without presently going through it.

If you’ve ever had your heart broken before, you remember how it feels. You don’t need to go through another breakup to remember all the different emotions of someone casting you aside. You might block it out, but you remember.

And you don’t need to experience losing a child to be able to empathise with that. You’ve lost someone before right? If you’re so lucky as to have not lost someone close to you yet, you’ve probably lost a pet before.

Now, I’m not saying that losing a pet is the same as losing a child. But they both involve loss. They involve the sadness of knowing you will never see someone again. You can relate to the idea of the continued shock that something you thought would always be around is gone.

Humans have immense capabilities to empathise. No one in my life had died when I saw Bambi for the first time.

But I was sad and emotionally scarred when I watched Bambi lose his mother anyway. Because, even though I hadn’t lost my mom (or anyone), I could imagine and feel the immense sadness of poor Bambi. 

So, go watch a short film on YouTube, watch a movie you think has a compelling story to tell, or look at some pictures that make you feel things you can write about. 

Learn to find inspiration outside of your current circumstances.


7. Challenge Yourself And Create Rules

We tend to fall into patterns.

And there’s nothing wrong with that.

But sometimes it’s good to force ourselves out from those patterns or, on the other side, to force ourselves towards something else.

Just like you can leave a job you don’t like, you can also just pursue a job you think you will like.

It’s 2 sides of the same coin.

The first side is to challenge yourself. This is explicitly challenging yourself towards writing in a specific way.

Let’s say you never really use symbolism in your songs. A good challenge to yourself would be to write a song that has at least one use of symbolism.

You’re explicitly challenging yourself towards something different to get out of your creative box.

Maybe you tend to write the bass part at the end, rather than showing the most underrated band instrument any love. You could challenge yourself to write a great bassline for a song first

No melody, chords or lyrics. Just write that killer bassline before starting to write anything else.

The other side of the coin is to force yourself away from certain tendencies via rules.

For example, you could make rules that you can’t use any strumming in your guitar parts, can’t use a I chord in your chorus, and can’t have any of the vocal melody in the piano part.

You can combine multiple rules into each song you write.

The idea of these rules is to force yourself not to do some of the same old things you’re comfortable with.

If every single one of your songs is built around strumming an acoustic guitar, it might be time to change it up.

If you never consider any song structure beside verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus, it might be time to change it up.

So find your tendencies and attack them. I’m not saying to never do these things again, but at least have some songs where you force yourself out of your creative comfort zone.

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