Writing and recording songs is one of the most hopeful things I can think of. Every new song is another opportunity to make your mark on the world, to express something completely unique about yourself and improve someone else’s life by doing something you love. If you’re reading this I’m sure you feel the same way. We all want to make the best music we can, and this desire can easily turn into an obsession.
But, weirdly, sometimes the harder we try to write great songs the further and further they slip away from us. A simple way of thinking about this problem is when an artist tries to force writing great songs. But a more honest and complicated way to describe it would be focusing on the wrong things and devoting energy to parts of your process that won’t yield results.
Great songwriting begins with intention
A healthy and productive songwriting practice with an open, curious mind and a willingness to experiment and hear what happens. When you start writing with this sort of a positive and free attitude, you have the energy you need to explore and develop promising musical ideas and resilience to bounce back and start again when you hit dead ends.
Forcing yourself to write great music (and failing) happens when you overlook the joy and magic of the writing process to seek out positive results instead of putting in the work. Do you want to make a bajillion dollars off your next single or earn widespread adoration and critical acclaim for your work? That’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be a successful artist. But you’ll end up being your own worst enemy if you focus on these desires more than your own creative intuition and the joy you get out of making music.
Think of a successful artist you admire. They make money off of their music, but it’s safe to assume they’re not trying to just pay the bills when they write new music. What got them where they are today is by tapping into the joy and excitement of expressing themselves through their songs. That magic happened first in their songwriting process, and the success was secondary. If you’re obsessed with trying to crank out a monster hit every time you write, you’ve got it backwards. When you set your intention to simply enjoy creating and see what happens, you’re on the right track towards writing something good.
Of course, you might be a songwriter with the purest of intentions who struggles not to force the songwriting process. Maybe anxiety gets between you and your songs, or you might be in a position of trying to match or outdo a previous success. At the end of the day, the details don’t matter if you’re a music-maker in a position of desperately wanting to make great music. There are distractions getting between you and your writing process, and they need to be acknowledged and removed.
There’s nothing more important for a songwriter than that instantaneous jolt of joy that happens when they uncover a new and exciting idea. This sort of magic has been behind every famous and beloved piece of music you’ve ever heard of whether the artists who made them were rich and famous or just teenagers exploring music and having fun. No matter who you are and what your goals are, it’s up to you to create the time and place in your life for these moments to happen. No amount of money can buy this, and you can’t plan for them. The best you can do is to make sure your heart is in the right place and write as often as possible. More time spent writing means more chances to discover and develop great ideas.
You can’t force yourself to write great songs, but there is a lot that is in your control. Resilience is also so important for this process. Will you be one of those lucky wunderkinds that find success in their first couple of songwriting attempts? That’s highly doubtful. However, if you keep at it day after day for years, you’ll get better at it and your chances of creating something truly great will go up dramatically. You can’t force yourself to write great songs, but you can do everything humanly possible to build a life where great songwriting is likely to happen.
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.