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Sooner or later, even the most inspired and prolific songwriter will stumble into that dreadful and frightening abyss known as writer's block. To call it frightening is truly not an overstatement when one is attempting to land a writing deal, keep a publisher happy, or best-case scenario, keep the already lucrative royalties flowing. The voice of defeat stirs in every songwriter at some point, first as a murmur and then as a blood-curdling scream.
"You've lost it! You'll never write another song! The juices that once flowed have dried up like an arroyo in Tortilla Flats!"
Well, fear not. Below are ten methods guaranteed to help you delve into a song from an angle you haven't before. Just by making a change as simple as that, new fodder for your fertile and creative brain will roll in on a tide of musical genius. Breathing will return to normal and all will be right with the world again………until next time!
1 - Ask a Question
Take your time and come up with a question that turns the listener's ear in the direction of the radio.
"Have You Never Been Mellow?" This question-driven song written by John Farrar, and crooned straight up the charts by Olivia Newton-John, is a case in point. The fact that the question was not run-of-the-mill didn't hurt matters either. In this example, the question falls at the top of the chorus rather that at the top of the song. There is nothing wrong with writing the chorus first especially if you don't usually write in that order. Shake your methodology up a bit.
Starting your song with an interesting question at the top of the verse is very effective as well. Perhaps continue to do so throughout the song but repeat the first few words of the question end it differently. The partial repetition adds hookiness even if there is a separate hook in the chorus.
Take your time and come up with a question that turns the listener's ear in the direction of the radio. Leave the "Will You Marry Me"? lines in the proverbial dust where they belong.
"What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life" by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, is ever so much more interesting! Make the listener genuinely intrigued enough to stay tuned and hear the answer to the colorful question you have posed, even if you ultimately fail to answer it and leave it intriguingly unresolved.
2 - Use a Prop
One of George Strait's most unique songs was centered around a chair. By gently accusing a female of taking his in a bar, the singer reveals a brand new way to hit on a woman. Songwriters Dean Dillon and Hank Cochran took this method all the way to the having their co-written tune rated one of the 100 Best Country Songs of all time. Not bad for a common ordinary chair! The suave and playful deception makes the listener smile, especially when it is finally revealed that the fellow had fibbed and it never had been his chair. In this song the chair was simply a conversation starter that eventually leads to the promise of a relationship.
Perhaps the prop is your grandfather's cane, a tree where you carved your initials as a child, or a blond hair that wandered home on your jacket and caused all kinds of problems. The possibilities are endless. I like to take a prop, which I have no preconceived notions about, and see if I can make it work. Years ago I wrote a song about a dollar bill that had a note written on it for a child who had lost a tooth. The child in the song is distressed by his newly gappy appearance. Removing the bill from underneath his pillow, he reads:
"Something is missing. There's a big empty space. But time is gonna fill it. Just have a little faith. Keep on believing till then. Someday you will smile again."
Needless to say, the bill gets spent and travels into many different hands with its message having different significance for each recipient. In the end, it ironically finds its way back to the original fellow, now a grown man, who has lost the woman he loves. Far fetched? Sure, but who wants to hear about the mundane? It was a very enjoyable song to write and hit the yellow pages of my legal pad like a 747 on the runway. Good ideas often seem to know where to go on their own and we simply have to be the air traffic controller guiding them in for a landing.
3 - Address an Inanimate Object
Call your worn-out shoes on the carpet for being so restless!
This method is similar to the prop method, but in this case, the place or thing is addressed as if it has ears of its own. John Denver pleaded with country roads to "take me home" in his hit penned along with friends Bill and Taffy Danoff. Even the classic "Moon River" sung by Andy Williams and written by songwriting greats Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini, is a wonderful example of this technique. In a nostalgic mood, the singer speaks to a river about his hopes and dreams.
If this style is less used than it once was, it's time for resurgence. Call your worn-out shoes on the carpet for being so restless! Tell the wheels of your car to keep rolling to get you out of the place you're in. Accuse your eyes of wandering more than they should and ruining countless relationships. Better yet, come up with far more unique conversations of your own. Once you unleash this method, you will find yourself glancing around for things to address. A park bench, a red ribbon, a rusty nail, all can become new friends you had failed to engage until now.
A variation of this technique is to speak in the voice of the object. A co-writer of mine wrote a song in which he spoke in the voice of an old barstool and shared some of the things the stool had witnessed over the years. It is filled with rich and colorful images.
4 - A Moment in Time
The possibilities are as endless as emotions and situations.
When Stephanie Bentley and Holly Lamar penned the Faith Hill hit, "Breathe", they hit the nail on the head in terms of creating and immortalizing a moment. The song is stunning for its very rawness. Just the sound of her lover's breathing stirs the singer to the point of feeling genuine magic in one short moment in time. Times of heart-pounding love and attraction are certainly not the only sort of moments to consider though.
The possibilities are as endless as emotions and situations. The moment when a person first confronts their own mortality, the lonely feeling at midnight when rain is pounding on the roof, or the brief respite on a riverbank with a fishing line tied to one's toe are all evocative points in time to center a lyric around. Keep the revelation large and the space of time small. This method is about vignettes so vivid and singular that they are worthy of mention.
5 - Focus on a Single Repeated Word
I have always loved the Lionel Richie hit "Still." There is very little repetition in the song with all three choruses having different lyrics. At the end of each though, the single word "still" sits as elegantly as a bronze monument.
The sparseness of this one word hook gives it even more weight than it would have had as part of a phrase.
It portrays a love that will not end regardless of circumstances, simply and memorably.
On a lighter note, Brad Paisley's hit "Water" examines the singers' lifelong love affair with H20 in all its diverse glory. Writers Paisley, Chris DuBois, and Kelley Lovelace used it to convey everything from lust to fishing. Here the method makes for a fun and adventurous romp across the airwaves.
In the aforementioned "prop method" of songwriting, the name of the prop is not necessarily repeated or recurring at the same point in the song. It may only be mentioned once or twice. Therein lies the difference. The prop is simply a subject to center a song around. The placement of the repeated word is key, however, when using the repeated word technique.
6 - Employ the Use of a Sequence
What if the first verse of a song begins with mileage marker 58, verse two with marker 83, and verse three with marker 104? The sense of a passage of time is created giving the listener a feeling of being along for the ride. The song may be three minutes long but several hours, and the changes that go with them, are implied. Perhaps, in this scenario, the singer is determined to leave somebody but as the distance grows, the resolve weakens.
For another example, days of the week work well. Monday will find most of us in a far different mindset than Friday, with Wednesday marking the beginning of the downhill slide into the weekend. The changing of the seasons can be evocative in terms of memories. The height of a tree can mark time in a stationery location. Less obvious examples are pages in a diary, chapters in a book, or familiar landmarks along a country road that remind us of our childhood.
A sequence of songs heard on a jukebox could be used to mark the highs and lows of a relationship.
"When I Was Seventeen" is part of an old song that uses age to paint a wistful picture of the stages of a man's life in terms of women. Ivor Davies wrote this song by beginning each verse with the same phrase followed by a different number. The song remains a classic to this day.
Regardless of the specific sequence used, placement again is key to helping the listener feel and experience the movement along with the singer.
7 - Throw the Listener Off
Channel your inner novelist and give it a go.
This method is a bit more challenging to execute well. The first examples that come to mind are rather overdone so I won't mention specific song titles. In these cases, what appears to be the description of a car is later revealed to be the description of a woman. Offensive? Could be!
Perhaps a phrase like, "I've had it with you" with its usually negative connotation, actually turns out to mean something positive. The verses could be used to make statements that could be taken either way but would lean toward the negative. The chorus then reveals all the good things the singer has ‘had' with the person being spoken to. Start the chorus with "I've had" to pull it all together.
Who doesn't love a novel where the author leads you down the primrose path, making you feel certain of where you are heading, only to find out that you were completely off? Channel your inner novelist and give it a go. It isn't easy, but sometimes you only have to make a start and the muse will guide you toward the perfect resolution.
8 - Laundry List
If you try your luck with this method, be outrageous and gregarious.
Paul Simon's "Fifty Way to Leave Your Lover" is one of my favorite examples of the laundry list. These songs are easier to write than most because they rely on the fun of a colorful list to exemplify the story.
At the other extreme, I have grown woefully tired of songs where the chorus is filled up with long lists of the names of cities. I even know of one where the list has virtually nothing to do with the lyric of the verses!
The brilliant Gary Burr wrote a killer list song for Patty Loveless. The song is called, "Think About Elvis" and the title is just the first of a long, crazy list of diversions that the singer employs to distract herself from the object of her affections.
If you try your luck with this method, I would encourage you to be outrageous and gregarious. What your song may lack in depth can be made up in pure colorful craziness.
9 - Drop Into a Conversation
Let the conversation dictate its own destination.
"Operator", recorded and written by the wonderful Jim Croce, is a fine example of this method. The song opens with him addressing a telephone operator and requesting her assistance. She has little to do with the story of the song, but the phone call helps to give the story a perspective and creates a visual.
I especially enjoy songs where the verse begins by giving an answer to an unknown question. Imagine a dialogue between two people, serious or playful, and simply start with an interesting line somewhere in the middle. Let the story develop as you go and don't feel the need to know in advance. Let the conversation dictate its own destination.
10 - Break Out of Your "Mold"
If you are a staff writer in Nashville, you may do a lot of your writing in a writer's room at your publishing office. After a while it is about as inspiring as the moldy, old sofas that typically dwell therein. Hit the road and take your business elsewhere. Park your carcass next to a river, tote your legal pad to a crowded playground, or take in the energy of a big city sidewalk.
I love to write to the beat of my windshield wipers while driving down a two lane on a rainy day. I speed them up or slow them down as needed. Kris Kristofferson's "Bobby McGee", recorded by Janis Joplin, always comes to mind when I employ my gas-driven drummer. The goal here is to remove yourself from your comfort zone and awaken some less familiar feelings. It is hard to imagine writing a great song about a wistful day at the ocean while sitting in landlocked Tennessee with the blinds closed.
Another great awakener is to employ a different instrument than usual. Piano players so often get locked into ballads. Learn a few guitar chords. Pickers should pick up a harmonica now and then. I have also found that an extremely freeing element is to write in your mind using no instrument at all. I love to do this while taking long hikes through the woods by myself. Be sure to bring a small recording device or at least a pen and paper though. Songs have a way of evaporating and it can be devastating when memory doesn't serve us well.
Undoubtedly, you can come up with more variations on this theme than the ten suggested here. The point is to do what you do differently and thereby get different results. Just as a good prose writer varies his sentence structure within a paragraph, so should a good songwriter vary his methods within his or her catalog. Dry spells in one's creativity can spur periods of wandering and that can be a positive. In the words of the venerable J.R.R. Tolkien,
Not all who wander are lost.