Every songwriter has been in the unenviable position of loving a specific musical idea but not being able to take it anywhere. A dead-end idea can be as simple as a synth riff or as packed as an entire song. This situation happens when you come up with something you really like, but feel like it’s not going anywhere. When you’ve got a dead-end idea stirring around your brain and taking up room on your computer, do you pull the plug or forge ahead? The answer completely depends on your specific idea and goals. But if you’re leaning towards keeping your idea alive by giving it somewhere to go, these suggestions might help you make meaningful progress:
Experiment with radically changing your idea while maintaining as much of it as you can
To give your idea life and direction, you may need to experiment by changing it in huge ways while maintaining the parts of it you like as much as possible. This means major changes in tempo, rhythm, melodic contour, production, and lyrics potentially. Remember, you can always go back to where you started with your idea if you have it recorded, so it’s crucial not to be precious in this process. Ask questions, experiment, and change what you need to unlock a path forward. Doing this might lead to completely new ideas that were even better than your original idea. If this happens, don’t be disappointed. There’s never a single path towards making great music, so keep an open mind. By tweaking your idea to the point that it sounds completely different, you might be able to forge a new creative path you couldn’t have found by sticking with your original idea.
Try changing the before or after context of the idea
It’s frustrating when we stumble upon ideas that are musically disjointed. It could be an idea for a chorus that comes out of the middle of nowhere, or parts of a song that you like that don’t fit with the rest of the music. In these situations, your best bet is to either write or revamp the context of the idea. If you love the chorus but are iffy on the verse, experiment with writing new verses or a bridge. Or, you can start with the chorus at the beginning of your song and open your mind up to where it could go next. By completely changing the context in which you hear your idea, you can unearth different musical directions to take. To do this, you’ll need to keep an open mind and embrace the idea of changing your ideas in order to give them direction and purpose. It’s not always easy to do this, especially if you really like the idea you were working with. But if you’ve accepted the fact that you’re stuck, you need to either give the idea up or make it workable with your music.
Keep looping it until a way forward reveals itself
If you feel like you’re on the edge of a musical breakthrough but just can’t get there, this exercise will help. Loop your idea over and over again whether it’s with a band or you sitting alone with your instrument. If you can, record the idea on your computer, loop it, and start experimenting. Note that this works best with specific rhythms, melodies, and chord progressions. Over time, new directions, nuances, and textures will start to reveal themselves. By leaning into these and using your intuition, you’ll be able to find a path forward. Note that doing this for a couple of minutes probably won’t work. You might need to experiment with your idea for hours in order to move it forward. This means that if you’re not super into your idea, don’t waste the time.
Not being able to finish a musical idea is one of the most frustrating parts about being a songwriter. The harsh truth is that you could try each suggestion here and still get nowhere. If this happens, try not to be too disappointed. It’s just one of the many unpleasant and unavoidable parts of being creative. Ideas come and go, and while some aren’t destined to become finished pieces of music, others are.
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.