Too many choices, self-imposed limits


I noticed something about my songs – the vast majority of my early songs are either slow or medium. That’s probably because the slower it is, the easier it is for me to play the guitar part and that fact subconsciously affects my writing. At least that’s my theory.

So I set out to write some faster songs, for balance if nothing else. I wanted to find out if I could write a good fast song or if I’m destined to be a ballad writer, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

One more reason I wanted to write some fast songs is that nothing brings down an audience more than a set of slow songs without an occasional uptempo number to change the pace. And, as you singer/songwriters know, when you perform in a drinking establishment, they sell more drinks when the music is loud and rowdy or at least bouncy.

I find it’s a good exercise to push myself to write songs that don’t come naturally. Which leads me to one of my favorite exercises: self-imposed limitations.

Back in the day, when somebody like Mozart wrote music, it was always for a specific event or purpose. When Mozart’s patron, the Archbishop of Salzburg, would ask for a piece for the celebration of a family member’s birthday or the anniversary of the king’s coronation or some such thing, Mozart had to comply. He did not have the luxury of choosing his topics, he had to write what his ’employer’ told him to write.

According to, Mozart’s next patron, the infamous Hieronymous Colloredo, laid down the hard line to the Mozarts [Amadeus and his father Leopold]. They were employees and their job was to remain in Salzburg performing music for the court (Mozart’s compositional skills were not valued).

Neither did he always have the luxury of choosing his instrumentation. If a string quartet was available, that’s what he wrote for.

Nowadays, as songwriters we can have too many choices. If you use MIDI or loops, you have just about every instrument under the sun to choose from. We have tons of studio effects at our disposal. And because of recordings, radio, TV and the ‘net, we are all aware of many different styles of music that were unknown to Mozart, most of which didn’t exist in his time.

Too many choices can be a hindrance to the creative artist. To get around that, simply limit your palette. Just as a painter may choose a limited color palette for a particular painting, you can choose to set some limits on yourself for a particular song writing session.

I call it self-inflicted limits. Here are some examples. Limit yourself to writing a song:

– for a small combo, say bass, piano and drums,
– for 2 voices in the style of the Everly Brothers,
– for 4 voices in the style of CSNY,
– for 4 a capella voices, SATB
– in waltz time,
– for an unusual mix of instruments, say tuba and guitar,
– with a particular rhyme scheme,
– in barbershop quartet style,
– that would appeal to kindergarten age children,
– about a particular subject, say your favorite sports team,
– from the point of view of someone of the opposite sex,
– about a fictional character from literature,
– in a minor key,
– about a story in today’s news

You get the picture. Constraining yourself at the beginning of the process can help you focus. Once you get started and the juices are flowing, you can always jettison the limits and expand on what you’ve got.

Let us know if you find this exercise helpful, and if you have any that work for you — we’d love to hear about them!


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