Curiosity is by far one of the most important traits to embrace as a songwriter. By asking questions, you’ll get new perspectives for your music; ways of seeing and hearing that will take your music into exciting new directions. But coupled with curiosity is the risk of failure, and whether we realize it or not while writing, most of us try our best to avoid failure at all costs, even if that means not living up to our potential as music-makers. Pursuing music in an open, curious way takes intention and work. These five strategies will help you to prioritize curiosity in your songwriting practice:
Ask questions. Lots of them
What happens if I put a delay effect on my vocals? If I write a song using only two chords, or one with only drums and vocals? What if there’s a better melody option for my verses that I’m not thinking of, and does this song really need a bridge? Asking lots of pointed questions about your music is creative curiosity in action. Questioning your music isn’t about picking apart each and everything you do to the point where you won’t be able to finish anything. It’s about asking questions in a way that gives you new directions to take your music. The enemy is always taking the safe route in music and writing something bland. Questions help you avoid falling into routines by constantly giving your fresh perspectives to see and hear from.
Allow yourself to fail
If you’re not failing, you’re not curious. It’s entirely possible to create routines in songwriting that reliably produce music without ever having to be curious. The trap is thinking that as long as we’re writing and finishing work, we’re succeeding. But if you do this in a way that avoids failure, you’re going to be less likely to create work that’s deep, adventurous, and interesting. Weirdly enough, we end up failing in huge, irreversible ways when we avoid the discomfort of curiosity that often leads to dead ends when we try new things. Give yourself permission to fail and understand that doing so is a part of the work of ambitious songwriting.
Start new songs in new ways
Starting songs the same way each time results in ideas that end up sounding the same. Embrace curiosity by forcing yourself to change things up. If you always start at your DAW, try writing lyrics first instead. If it’s always you on your couch with an acoustic guitar, begin by sketching out a bass line first. Curiosity in songwriting forces us to do things in different ways, and new approaches are often exactly what we need to shake loose new ideas. The first things we do to write music have the most impact on what songs eventually sound like, so commit to changing up the ways you first start writing.
Listen to music you love and ask how and why it was made
When you hear an amazing song, investigate exactly what pulls you in. This exercise in curiosity will help you shape your own music in profound ways. It’s about nailing down why things sound the way they do, from the sound of a singer’s voice to the way chord progressions unfold to make way for captivating melodies. Listening critically and curiously will shape your music in incredible ways, but it takes work. When you hear music that moves you, dig deep and learn why.
Explore extremes and defy limitations
Extremes can be bad for music, and limitations are often helpful for giving us direction as songwriters. But one of the best ways to prioritize curiosity in music is by turning to extremes and breaking out of limitations. The idea here isn’t to necessarily write experimental music or work that doesn’t match your identity, but to unlock ideas and discover new paths. Slowing an idea way, way down could reveal melodies, chord progressions, and other possibilities you never would’ve thought of. Or, if you’re a solo folk musician, for example, trying a song with a full band could take your music places you couldn’t have gone to by yourself.
Like so much else in music, staying creatively curious takes work. But if you make the effort, it will help your music to thrive.
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.