If you make music for fun with no intention of improving as a songwriter, creating only when you feel like it isn’t a bad way to go. But if you’re serious about making the best music you can and want to get better and better as a songwriter, you’ll have to put in the work during the times when writing music feels like the last thing you want to do.
The inspiration myth
The stories we hear about in music when a songwriter hears a song in a dream and writes a hit or a band transforms something that happened to them into great music are usually true. Using inspiration to fuel music is an undeniably great way to create. But what do you do when inspiration is nowhere to be found? How do you create when life momentarily feels boring, predictable, and seemingly impossible to transform into music?
The truth is that the ability to write during these times might be one of the biggest indicators of whether you’ll be able to pursue music seriously over the long term or not. Professional songwriters aren’t sitting around at home waiting for great musical ideas to fall into their laps. They are constantly experimenting, exploring, and asking what’s possible in music. Inspiration is fantastic when you can identify and leverage it, but sometimes it’s an asset we can’t start to use until we sit down and toy around on an instrument or while writing lyrics. In other words, inspiration is often there waiting for us, but we have to do our parts by putting the work in first.
Creatively thriving through consistent work
The more time and effort you throw into your songwriting practice, the better work you’ll make. This sounds so obvious, but it’s something many bands and songwriters don’t take to heart. Wait for that special feeling of emotional motivation to wash over you to start writing, and you might be waiting forever. But if you commit to writing multiple times every week for hours at a time day in and day out for years, and you’ll be sure to finish songs and consistently improve as a songwriter.
It’s a lot sexier to view songwriting as something we do in reaction to big life events or as a coping mechanism when things get hard, but that approach won’t work if you want to pursue music seriously. If we want to make the best music we can, we need to devote enough time and space in our lives to discover and refine ideas. The simple truth is that writing in a reactionary and inconsistent way almost certainly won’t give you enough good material to work with. You’ll get better and better ideas the longer you look for them, and this inevitably means writing when you don’t want to.
A couple of minutes after tooling around on an instrument or freewriting lyrics you’ll probably feel glad you did. In this sense, writing consistently is a bit like exercising in the way that we often dread it but are happy we’re doing it once we get started. It’s important to remember that making music is hard and often thankless work. Yes, it should be fun and gratifying, but it’s not realistic to think it will feel great 100% of the time. It’s possible to work on an idea you love only to see it go nowhere, or to write music for weeks and come up with nothing you like or can use. These situations are common, of course, and if you can keep going through rough patches like these, you’ll be able to write better music on the other side. The truth is that working during especially difficult and uninspiring circumstances is a cost of admission of being a serious songwriter.
We have to be able to work consistently as songwriters, but we should also know when it’s time to take breaks. If you truly love music and want to make it for the rest of your life, you’re running a marathon, not a sprint. Sitting it out for a period of time is essential for your well-being, but also for your ability to create. Like so many other things in life, knowing when to show up to the music-creation process and when to rest is a balance.
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.