All songwriters get into ruts at times and write in the same grooves, keys, and vibes repeatedly, sticking with what is familiar without even realizing how narrow their catalogs are becoming. Here are seven tricks to start a new song and step outside of your comfort zone.
1. Fly by the Seat of Your Pants
To be quite honest, this is nearly always the method I use. You would think I would have learned my lesson by now, but left to my own devices, my brain is always set on default: I simply noodle around and see what happens. The muse will usually show up eventually and the distillation process will begin.
The pro aspect of relying on momentary inspiration is that the process is very organic and artistic-feeling. I am a sucker for feeling artistic about myself. Over time I have learned to open up my receivers at will and allow creative thoughts to roll around in my brain. I can absolutely state that this ability improves the more you use it. It is not based on any particular song element so none are excluded from possibility.
The negative aspect of this method, and there are many, is that your strong suit, whatever that may be, tends to trump your weaker suits. I’m not a groovester, but I’m not especially fond of ballads either. Folky, alternative patterns tend to emerge from me and bully everything else into submission. I can play them better, sing them better, and focus more heavily on lyric-heavy writing when I allow myself to resort to type. My confidence is high in this arena, but my catalog has limited pitches when I don't police myself and use other methods.
I have many session guitar player/songwriter friends who not only rock everything, but tend to write at the same metronome speed over and over again. Their available pitch opportunities are different from mine, but still narrower than they need to be.
Here is a typical scenario that has jolted me back to reality on quite a few occasions: I am sitting with a publisher trying to score a new staff writing deal. Comfy in my fantasy world, I am supremely sure that my chosen CD of songs represents my abilities from A-Z, only to be told that I have L-P covered nicely. Naturally the company has enough of that genre already and I leave the meeting with my proverbial tail between my legs.
There is nothing wrong with having a signature, recognizable style, but until you’re an A-list writer, it’s better to write more broadly if you have any hopes of scoring a writing deal. Too much of any good thing is just that anyway.
2. Start With a Melody
What songwriter hasn't been graced with a snatch of melody that torments him or her until they bring it to fruition? One caveat about melodies that fall into our laps like manna from heaven, is that they may be from someone else's song.
My husband used to think up a sequence of numbers and then try it out on his phone. (back when phone numbers had notes.) This produced some strange intervals that with a few changes could become quite interesting as melodies.
Leaving chords out of the picture and composing in your head helps too, especially if your chord repertoire is at all limited. I can hear a lot of cool chords in my head that I would never just up and play. Coming up with a proposed chorus melody and then changing it to the verse melody—and vice versa—shakes up your style. I have even tried reversing the order of notes.
Even existing phrases raised by one scale tone or a third can produce interesting results. The biggest breakthrough for me in this regard, was to take a walk and leave my guitar behind. I am much better at mental air guitar, anyway.
3. Start With a Progression
Writing from a chord progression is a very common method of starting a song. A writer like John Mayer, with enough chords to sink a ship, has it all over a hacker songwriter like myself. I do believe it is possible to get so creative that all memorability is lost, however, so proceed with caution if you are as chordally-gifted as John.
There were songs created in the fifties and sixties that were written almost entirely over a four chord repeating progression. Typically they began with the root major, followed by a 6 or 3 minor, then a 4 or 2 minor 7 and of course, the 5. They were catchy to be sure, but eventually they all began to sound the same just like songs written over certain blue riffs do.
To be sure, many songs can be written over one progressions, but the trick is to observe and learn what works, and then change and embellish it. Alter genres to create new genres. Try patterns where there is very little in the way of chord movement. Follow busy with less busy. Starting a song with a chord you wouldn't usually begin with forces unique melody structure. Whatever you tend to do, catch yourself and try something else.
4. Start With a Groove
Over the years, I’ve found this method to be more useful than any other in rescuing me from my songwriting rut. When I wanted to write in a groove that I was incapable of playing, I wrote over a drum track as a starting point and varied from there. Even using an inspiration song as a jumping off point is fine as long as you add plenty of your own uniqueness.
Better, yet learn to play some new grooves. Even a few can launch many new, fresh compositions. Each of us brings our own unique flair to the songwriting table so our pairings with less familiar grooves yield countless interesting variations.
The degree to which a new groove can free a songwriter cannot be understated. Co-writing with more of a groovester can really open up one's horizons. Many a lyricist has found songwriting success by co-writing with a smokin' guitar or piano player. Change what you can, and supplement what you can't, in other words.
5. Start With an Intro
To be honest, I have been known to write from the intro of an existing hit song and then, of course, ditching the intro. It's kind of like jumping off a cliff from someone else's backyard. I won't splat quite like the resident would have, but I shared the launch.
More things to try:
- Take a failed chorus or verse melody and try it out as an intro
- Create an intro with only one or two chords
- Try a progression that will never be repeated in the song as an intro
The possibilities are endless.
6. Start With a Form
Songwriting students, still learning to use form as a tool, are often encouraged to write from a pre-determined one.
One such form might be a four line A section of a verse, followed by a two line channel, and a four line chorus. This structure would then be repeated, followed by a two line bridge, and a final chorus with tags.
Once an understanding of form is established, and for many it is automatic, a songwriter can break the rules and branch out, trusting his or her more seasoned instincts.
During my first year in Nashville, I was still trying to get a grip on the country genre. I used to take long walks out at Radnor Lake wearing my headphones and dissecting hits. Along with baseline, progressions, intros, grooves, and melodies, I studied the heck out of form.
The main thing again is to deviate from the forms you tend to write in repeatedly.
7. Start With a Mood
Nothing is more evocative than a mood. Whether the memory of a newly broken heart, a blue rainy day, the awkwardness of a first junior high crush, or the heady freedom of flying down the highway with no strings, mood propels creativity more than any other element. It is strange how we often shut down to business mode when we write, eliminating emotion from the equation. When we feel, we use words, grooves, and melodies, that our stern, overly analytical brain often won't permit. We become vulnerable and increasingly believable when we give them free rein.
Trying to write about hard times on the family farm when you grew up as the big city child of a hospital administrator is not a natural thing. It can work for sure, but it is pretense. Tapping into an emotion that is at least relevant helps.
Some writers claim they can only write when they are heartbroken. That makes for a pretty gloomy life if one hopes to be prolific. Having empathy for the moods and issues of others can help us capture the essentials for creating and using mood in our songwriting. Every girl dated at least one jerk that really ticked her off; every guy has longed over a girl he doesn't have the nerve to speak to. Every human has known the desolate emptiness of loneliness in the bitterest, coldest time of year. Like pulling on a familiar scarf, wrap your heart in a past, present, or vicarious emotion now and then before you sit down to write a song. You will really notice a difference.
Hopefully, these ideas will add a few more tools to your songwriting toolbox.