Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

I need the practice

July 27, 2010

Do you wait for the muse before starting to write a song? How’s that working out for you?

When I wait for the muse, it can be months between writing sessions and I know that’s not enough writing for me. I need the practice. So I no longer wait for the muse. I try to invoke the muse and try to be the muse, but most of all, I just try to write more and more often.

Regular writing in itself seems to attract the muse. But it also strengthens the creative muscle. Just like sports and piano lessons, it’s better to practice regularly than to save it up for one long session (i.e. 7 daily one-hour sessions instead of one grueling seven hour session).

Something about the daily repeated action of engaging the creative mind and putting words (or melody) to paper is the perfect practice for writing songs. Writing songs takes practice. But instead of playing scales or doing crunches, a good way to practice writing songs is to actually write a song.

A side benefit is that if you tell yourself you’re writing a song as practice, the pressure is off to create your masterpiece. And when the pressure (usually self-imposed) is off, creativity is freed.

If you’re only writing when inspiration strikes, try writing as a regular practice. And post a comment here to let me know how it works.

When the lyrics just won’t come

July 21, 2009

What do you do when the lyrics (or melody) just won’t come?

I believe this is a common problem for songwriters. When the ideas aren’t flowing, that’s when you need some tricks up your sleeve, some way to jumpstart your creativity.

Here’s a trick I use regularly. It may seem like a cop out, but it’s a legitimate, time-honored technique for songwriters: collaborate.

I am very comfortable writing melody and chords. But I sometimes struggle with lyrics. So I found a co-writer who is good with lyrics and weaker on the music side. Together we bang out new songs easily and relatively quickly. Co-writing (also called collaboration) is very common in Nashville, LA, NYC and other music centers. Look at the credits on any Motown record and you’ll see Holland/Dozier/Holland on many of the hits and other co-writers as well. If Motown isn’t your bag, check the writing credits of your favorite artist. You might be surprised.

I believe everyone is born creative, and that we sometimes block our own creativity. Stress can do this. If you are stressed out in any part of your life (work, school, relationships, songwriting), then it will be harder to reach in and access your own innermost creative thoughts.

Learn how to de-stress yourself. For some people that means regular exercise or meditation. Others need to get more sleep or resolve some interpersonal issues. Sometimes all it takes is a short break from the routine, maybe a walk around the block or a few quick stretches.

When I get stuck in the middle of writing a song, I will take a walk, to take my mind off the problem. Usually, unbeknownst to me, my sub-conscious mind is still working on it and partway through the walk, a new idea pops into my head. Voila! I’m unstuck.

Another cause of writer’s block is super high expectations. If you expect to write a masterpiece every time, you’re setting yourself up for failure. If you lower your expectations at first, you free yourself to write anything and that leads to risk-taking, ground-breaking creations.

In writing your first draft (or 2nd or 3rd), it helps to turn off the part of your brain that is critical and judging and just let it all flow. Later, you can re-engage the judging part of your brain to edit your draft. This is what that side of your brain is good at: finding typos, checking for rhymes, noticing logical inconsistencies, etc.

Writer’s block

July 9, 2009

Q. I’m a guitar player. All my songs seem to be in the same few keys: G, C and E. And there isn’t much variety in my chord progressions either. How do I get unstuck?

A. I sometimes run into the same problem. Our fingers get accustomed to certain movements, like familiar chord changes and that limit our songwriting.

Here’s an exercise I use when my songs start sounding the same, especially when my guitar chords seem to all sound the same. I put the guitar away and write. I just walk around and work out some lyrics and a melody in my head. Sometimes my footsteps provide the beat.

When you break it down, the essence of a song is melody. The melody is what people remember. So if you have a good melody and lyrics that support it, you already have a good song. You can make it better by using creative chords, but the meat is the melody (unless you’re vegetarian and then the tofu is the melody).

I was amazed the first time I tried this. I came up with a melody and words. I was driving so there was no way I could use my guitar. When I later tried to put chords to it, I was surprised that the melody called for a chord sequence I would have never thought of, and one my fingers weren’t familiar with.

The guitar (even if you’re a real virtuoso and a creative hotshot) can limit you. Any instrument has its limits and you can stay within the instrument’s limitations or you can transcend them by writing without any instrument. So give your guitar a rest. I highly recommend it.

Another tool is to switch instruments. If you play piano, try writing on it instead of the guitar for awhile. In the end you may perform your new song on guitar, but the song will benefit from having been written on a different instrument. It doesn’t matter if you’re a weak pianist, because it’s only being used as a tool to break out of your old habits.

Guitar-playing songwriters love this one: try a different tuning, even something as simple as dropped D or DADGAD. Alternate tunings will put your fingers in unfamiliar territory. This is an easy way to get a whole new sound out of your guitar and to inspire different type of chords, melodies and lyrics. It’s so easy, it feels like cheating.

How Can I Turn on My Creativity?

April 17, 2009

People ask us this, but framed in a specific way. They say “I want to be a better songwriter. How can I be more creative when writing a song?”

People assume our creativity is what we use when we’re drawing, composing, sculpting, designing or any of the other accepted ‘artistic’ endeavors. And we assume we don’t need creativity when doing any other tasks.

But the most creative people I know are inventive and creative in all aspects of their lives. Contrary to what you might expect, childrearing, tax preparation, taking out the garbage, repairing the plumbing and being a good friend are all things that can be approached creatively.
You are limiting yourself if you only exercise your creativity when doing some things and not others.

In any career or personal endeavor, creative people are the ground-breakers, the idea people, the ones willing to try crazy sounding, impossible new approaches. Inventors are creative, entrepreneurs are creative, good teachers are creative and good parents are especially creative.

Understandably, workplaces that don’t support creative thought among employees are the most depressing places to work.

When you open yourself up to being creative any time, in any situation, then you are letting your best inner self out. When any time is a good time to create, then it’s not so hard to ‘turn it on’ when you sit down to write a song. It’s already ‘on.’

The creativity you express in one area of your life feeds the creative juices in other areas. They build on each other in an ever-widening spiral. It’s like one of those vicious cycles you hear about, only this is a fun cycle, a productive, virtuous, creative cycle.

So don’t make the mistake of ‘saving’ your creative energy for songwriting sessions exclusively. As you’re doing some mundane task creatively, you’re already setting the stage for your next song.

Put Down Your Weapon

May 30, 2008

Put down your instrument and unleash your creativity. By staying away from your instrument when you are writing melody, you can actually free yourself from some old restraints. If you usually write with your instrument, this will open up new possibilities for you.

Write a melody first, in your head or out loud, without any chordal instruments nearby. You can be in the shower, in bed, hiking, commuting, at your day job, etc. If it helps, record it into an inexpensive handheld voice recorder. If you don’t have one, you can phone yourself and leave yourself a musical voicemail.

Once you are happy with the melody, only then should you go to your instrument to start finding chords/accompaniment. You’ll be surprised how well this works. You might find yourself writing more interesting (or at least different) chord progressions than usual, as well as more daring melodies, new voicings, even new rhythms. Try it and let me know what happens.

Why does this work? This is only a theory. We are creatures of habit. After learning certain patterns, we tend to repeat the patterns. Maybe that’s the way the brain works, I don’t know the science of it. For myself, I learned certain picking patterns on the guitar and I practiced them over and over. Now my fingers seem to go there by default. If I write a song while holding the guitar, I tend play a familiar pattern. Maybe it’s muscle memory.

What’s a Songwriter Blog?

May 15, 2008

My first blog post – I’ll admit, this is an experiment. I want to find out if a blog is a good way to share songwriting tips. I’ve been writing songs off and on for close to 40 years, although I only recently started writing on a daily basis.

That’s your tip right there. If you want to be a songwriter, start writing on a daily basis. Kind of like practicing an instrument, songwriting also takes practice. Probably the best overall tip I could offer a beginning songwriter is: write every day. Don’t wait around for inspiration to strike. This really takes the pressure off, because you’re not going to expect to hit it out of the ballpark every time. Not every session will produce a masterpiece, but over time, the process will produce better songs.

This experiment is a way for me to share some of the tips I’ve picked up along the way. Many were learned at songwriting books/workshops or from classes in other kinds of writing, in music theory, and so on.

And many of the following tips come from a forum called Songwriters Tip Jar, which I started with Robert Cote several years ago. It’s still active and has over 7,000 registered songwriters. The brilliance of the forum concept is that the wisdom comes from everyone and is shared with everyone, unlike the old style teaching, which assumes one person has the knowledge and everyone else has nothing to offer and must sit passively and receive it.

I’m hoping this blog works the same way as the forum, in that you can respond to any of my comments with your own ideas, tips, criticisms or encouragement. There’s a place to respond below.