For songwriters who want to explore their creativity in meaningful ways, changing up old habits and taking risks over and over again isn’t an option. However, it’s not easy, especially if you’ve been making music for a long time. One of the most frustrating things about songwriting is that the routines you build can be both helpful and destructive for your process, depending on how you spend your time writing. Constantly renewing your creative curiosity with exercises like these will help you to write consistently, but in ways that are new and challenging.
Boundaries might seem bad for songwriting, but they can actually be a huge help. Like a restaurant with a million-page menu, the choices are virtually endless in music-making. Rather than seeing boundaries as limitations, using them as foundations for your process can be a massive help. It’s as simple as committing to writing within specific pared-down frameworks of music. If you’re writing with a vast instrumental library using a DAW, sticking to a predetermined instrument framework can be helpful.
Experiment with modes
Modes are a blessing for music-makers who need a quick way to find direction in what they’re creating. Each mode features a unique sound, ranging from dramatic and emotional to dissonant and tense. Creating a chord progression or melody using modes is a great starting point for writing. Yet, it doesn’t mean you’ll have to use it for your entire song. Experimenting with modes is a phenomenal way to explore unfamiliar musical territory. This is especially true if you frequently find yourself writing in the same key signatures.
Write in obscure time signatures
Exploring compound time signatures is as obscure as some songwriters get. Sound like you? Making an effort to write material in unfamiliar time signatures is great for adding newness and risk to your process. Like with any good songwriting exercise, expect some discomfort if you try this, and don’t shy away from it. The goal of experimenting with obscure time signatures shouldn’t be to write new music, necessarily. It should be to challenge your creativity and stretch your musical understanding. Beats written in unfamiliar time signatures can easily be constructed in DAWs. However, things can get trickier when all an artist has to work with is a metronome and an instrument. If you can, try both and see what happens.
Layered, busy music can be great, but starting new ideas with minimal instrumentation is an easy and helpful way to write no matter what kind of music you make. Whether it’s starting by writing vocals with a subdued rhythm track or building a bass line before anything else, minimalism gives you the gifts of clarity and space in your writing process and takes away the pressure of having to create something fully formed out of the gate.
Loop your ideas
Looping is a phenomenal tool for songwriting. With many ideas coming to us in fragments, playing over layered music that’s looped repeatedly for a long period of time gives us the space and freedom to develop ideas naturally and to their full potential. The ideas you loop could be as simple as basic drum machine beats or as fully formed as instrumental tracks that you sing over, and this can easily be done with any DAW. Instead of stopping and replaying the music you’re trying to loop over, make sure that whatever you’re playing over is set for continual playing.
Try out extreme tempos
If you’re normally an 80-120 BPM sort of writer, try exploring ideas written in extremely fast or slow tempos. This is the perfect way to break out of boring songwriting habits, and it could result in new ways of writing that work for your process. You can try this out with your DAW or by playing with a metronome.
To get the most out of these ideas, make sure you record while you write. Check-in with yourself during the writing process. Additionally, make sure what you’re doing is challenging, productive, and fun. By exploring music in new ways that puts your love for creating at the center, you’ll have a thriving songwriting practice you can rely on for as long as you create music.
Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician, and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.