Without realizing it, we’re vulnerable to being sucked into lazy habits, ruts, and unproductive routines as songwriters. When making music doesn’t feel exciting or challenging anymore, it’s time to add newness and risk back into your process. However, for a lot of songwriters, this is easier said than done. What we often forget is that falling into ruts isn’t just a single decision, but countless small choices designed to keep things as comfortable and predictable as possible while we write. If it’s time to blow up your process and start over, consider trying out these strategies:
Experiment with extremes
Songwriters in specific genres are known for embracing extremes, but most musicians veer away from them. But if you really want to reinvent your songwriting practice, experimenting with extremes is one of the best ways to do it. No, I’m not asking you to switch from rap to death metal here––although give that a try if you feel like it––, but instead to open your mind up to the countless musical possibilities you miss when you stick to a predictable range of tempos, tonalities, and musical themes. The idea with each item on this list is to get you thinking about music differently. Intentionally writing with extremes might not deliver the hit single you’ve been looking for right away, but it could put you on a new and exciting creative path that leads to better songs. We all know that the first ideas we toy around with when we write aren’t usually the ones we end up with when we finish songs, so think of this exercise as a starting-off point and a creative palette cleanser.
Write with an unfamiliar instrument/setup
If you really want to change up your songwriting practice, working with a completely unfamiliar instrument or setup is a way to do it. If you always start on a MIDI keyboard, try a live drum set or guitar. If the ukulele is your preferred instrument, start with a bass line. We’re often terrified of newness as musicians, but it’s exactly what we need to create fresh and compelling work. If you can’t get your hands on a new instrument, experiment with new tunings or different approaches on your current one at the very least.
Commit to writing goals
How can goals change the way you write music, you ask? Think of it this way: One songwriter who sets out to write five songs in a month is more likely to write more music than one that just writes whenever she feels like it. Goals and forced structure won’t work for every songwriter, but this tactic will be an incredible change for others. Goals can help you finish songs, write more often, and eventually create better music. It’s easy to forget that songwriting takes practice, and trial and error to get better at. The more you work, the better music you’ll make. If you know that you won’t write much without a set schedule and specific goals, incorporating them into your practice will deliver a powerful new sense of productivity and excitement to your practice.
If you’re used to piling on layer after layer with your music, this strategy will get you thinking about your work completely differently. DAWs can be great for creativity, but they can also be a detriment because the options they feature are endless when it comes to instrumentation and production. By peeling back the layers and simply focusing on one or two instruments at a time, your creative process will go from cluttered to clarified.
These are just four of the many ways to approach writing music differently. These tips can be used by songwriters who are starting out and needing direction, or those who are hitting a wall after working the same way for years. If you’re an experienced songwriter, implementing one of these changes might feel uncomfortable and unnatural. However, this sort of disorientation is exactly what we need as creatives when going through the motions results in stale and predictable work.
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.