There's nothing like it: listening to a song you've written that you can be proud of. But it's not easy to get to that point. Songwriting by itself is hard, but there's a mythology surrounding it that only makes it more difficult. In this article, we'll take a look at three myths that can seriously hamper your creativity. The myths surrounding talent, inspiration and writer's block.
One of the biggest misconceptions about songwriting is that it's a skill you either have or don't have. People look at musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell or Freddie Mercury and think: they're simply ‘geniuses' with some sort of inborn talent for writing amazing songs. But the truth is that whoever your musical heroes are, they've put in countless hours to develop their craft and write better songs. Writing songs is a skill that requires practice, just like for example transcribing songs by ear, fingerpicking or playing rhythm guitar.
The first song you'll ever write will probably not be very good. The same goes for the second, third and fourth. You'll know that they can be better. You can tell that it falls short in some way. Now, the only reason you can tell that these songs fall short is because you have good taste. Your taste is telling you that what you're making might be on the right track to being ‘good', but still has a way to go.
There's a gap between your taste and how good the things are you're making at the moment. The only way to close this gap? Do a lot of work. The only way for your songwriting skills to catch up with your taste is to put in the hours and write, write, write. And that's where we run into our next big myth: inspiration.
"It's like a ghost gives you the song and goes away. You don't know what it means. Except the ghost picked me to write the song." This is how Bob Dylan describes what writing songs is like for him. Sounds romantic, right? Inspiration descending upon you like a ghost and ‘giving' you a song.
I'm sure that's what it feels like for Bob Dylan, but quotes like these suggest some unhelpful ideas about creativity and inspiration. For one, there's a tremendous amount of skill involved in turning an idea into a fully fleshed song, as we saw above. The ‘songwriting ghost' can't give us those skills, so we need to keep practicing writing songs.
But this quote (and many others like) also play into the second myth: the myth that we should wait for inspiration to strike in order to write good music. It has a certain romantic appeal. It certainly makes for a better story to say ‘I experienced this amazing event and it inspired me to write this' than ‘I just sat down at 9 AM, got to work and this is what came out'. If true, this myth would also be bad news for anyone with a deadline. We'd all have to sit around waiting for our ‘songwriting ghost' to come whenever we wanted to write something.
As Jack London put it: "You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club." To write songs, you need to sit down and get to work. Some things you write will be good, other things won't. Sometimes you'll feel inspired, sometimes you won't. You might be working on a song for an hour until an idea you really like hits you. It might be the next day in the shower. It might be a week later when you're walking the dog. But you would never had those ideas if you hadn't put in the work in the first place. Inspiration comes to those that work for it. So if you want to write songs, don't sit around waiting for inspiration: get started.
Hopefully you're on board with the idea that you just need to get started. But is that even possible? Don't you need at least some inspiration? Don't you need an idea for something to work on?
Of course, the problem isn't to come up with ideas. The problem is to come up with ‘good' ideas. And when you're experiencing writer's block, you're telling yourself: "I'm not sure this idea will be good enough. I am not 100% certain that this will work out." The thing is, it's very difficult to determine what ideas are good and which ones aren't. Some mediocre ideas will turn into great songs, some seemingly great ideas never quite come together.
You've probably had the experience of having an idea you think is pretty cool, but then starting to question whether it's any good after working on it for ten minutes. The answer to that question is this: you don't know and you can't know if the idea is any good until you finish the song. You don't know how things will develop, what ideas will present themselves along the way and where the song will end up. The challenge is to just go with the flow and see where the song takes you. Questioning if your idea is ‘good' is not conducive to your creativity, because that question can't be answered.
So we don't need inspiration and we don't need good ideas to get going. But even knowing that, it can still be hard to get started.
I think the problem all comes down to this: when we start to write, we want to make something that's ‘good'. But writing a ‘good' song is simply a horrible goal, because it's so fluid, so subjective. While we're in the middle of writing it, it's both very difficult and unhelpful to try and determine whether it's ‘good'. A better goal is to write a bad song. Try and write a bad song every day and I guarantee you that your talent will sabotage you and you'll write some good songs ‘by accident'.
Another way to bypass your inner critic, is to give yourself specific assignments such as ‘use as many chord types in a song as you can'. The story goes that the Radiohead song ‘Just' was the result of a bet between the singer and guitar player to see who could use the most chords in a song. The guitar player (Jonny Greenwood) won. Of course this assignment can be anything. Pick a strumming pattern you don't often use and build a song around that. Find an exotic chord that you've never heard before and use it at least three times in the song. Make a song that switches time signatures half way. As long as you fulfil the requirements of the assignment, you'll be doing exactly what you need to do.
Finally, another great strategy is to focus on quantity instead of quality. After all ‘speed kills the censor'. For example, you could take the twenty song challenge and see if you can write twenty songs in a single day. (For more on this idea, google ‘Immersion Music Method'.)
Hopefully these ideas have been helpful to you. In the end, it all comes down to this. To make great things, you need to do as much work as possible. Just keep at it, and you'll not only get better at it, but simply improve the odds of writing something awesome. So don't wait: get started!
Just Rijna is the founder of StringKick, a site focused on helping you learn the skills you need to explore your own taste and become the musician you want to be.
He writes in-depth guides on topics ranging from barre chord technique tips and music theory to performing better on stage and playing guitar by ear.
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