"Writer's block" can be a very frustrating experience. Staring at a blank sheet of paper with no idea where to go next can be very discouraging and the very thought that you can't come up with anything makes it even more likely that you won't. Both for me and the songwriters I work with, overcoming it is a crucial skill in creating a steady output of good creative work. So in this article I'm going to discuss how you can turn pretty much anything into songwriting material. Having a reliable creative process that you can turn to every time you need to get some material written will cure writer's block every time. This is mine, and one I've taught to my students to great success.
01. Get Your Inspiration.
Here's a question to ponder what is the difference between a good song and a bad song? Is it technical? Not necessarily. There are a lot of technically unsophisticated songs out there that are nonetheless good songs, and there are plenty of complex, highly technical songs that are boring, or even "unlistenable". As I see it, the difference comes down to emotion. A good song is one that conveys strong emotions from the artist to the audience, a song that makes us feel something joy, sorrow, anger, love, or of dozens of others. So to write a good song, you need to start with emotions.
So your inspiration, your subject matter, should be something that causes a strong emotion within you. It doesn't matter if it's mundane, using lyrical detachment you can pull most of the original subject matter out of the song anyway, but it has to make you feel strong emotions. Take note of all the ways you feel about this thing. The best and most interesting subjects for songs are those things that make you feel conflicted emotions, or make you feel initially one way, then another.
As an example, I wrote a song a few years ago about a friend of mine who joined a very fanatical religious sect and tried to convert me. This made me feel a great many emotions I was sad at losing a friend to something so stupid, but I was angry as well, both at the leaders of that sect and at my friend for trying to ruin my life as well as his. I also felt frustrated that I wasn't able to talk him out of his self-destruction. I made a note of how all those feelings interplayed in my mind, then I was ready to write the song.
02. Write Your Music To The Emotions.
With an emotion, or combination of emotions, in mind, it's time to write some music that expresses those feelings. There are three different approaches that you can mix and match together to achieve this, each requiring a different musical skill to use effectively:
Improvisation get out your guitar, fill your mind with the emotions you have decided upon (using the subject matter to fuel those feelings) and just let loose. Improvisation is a skill like any other and improves with practice.
Aural skills think about the subject matter and listen to the music that plays in your head when you get into the mental and emotional zone created by it. Then get out your guitar and figure out how to play it. I find this is great for writing riffs I literally start by banging my head, then working out what music I am banging it to!
Music theory understand how certain intervals, scales and chord sequences convey certain feelings and integrate them into the song.
For the song about my friend, I used all three techniques. The verse riff was improvised, themed around the emotion of anger with its quick bursts of double-kick drumming. The chorus riff came from aural skills; I composed it in my head when thinking of the waste and pointlessness of my friend throwing his life away. The bridges were a combination of improvisation and music theory by writing them in double-time I hoped to convey the frustration I felt by speeding the song up and then slowing it down, though the riff itself was improvised. The string parts were also written with an off-center rhythm to make the song more unsettling and tense, the way I felt when I thought about the subject matter.
03. Write The Lyrics.
I've written more about lyric-writing in a previous article, but the important point here is that once you have a strong emotional structure to the music, the process of writing the lyrics becomes much, much easier. You're not starting with a blank sheet of paper because you've spent the music-writing process filling your mind with the thoughts, feelings and images that the subject induces in you. The lyrics should concentrate on those feelings and images, as those are the things that will induce those same emotions in your audience. Avoid dry storytelling as that will have no emotional impact.
After our singer and I worked on some suitable lyrics, the song about the religious cult was named "Shadow" and appeared on Winter's Eve's 2010 album "Shards". You can download "Shadow" for free by signing up to my mailing list (if you already have, I'll send you a link in the next newsletter) so you can see how the process worked. I've also put together a more detailed guide on turning subject matter into great songs, with more of an emphasis on lyric writing, and that's also available for free for mailing list subscribers.