Ever feel like you keep writing the same song over and over? Or you can't escape the cliches?
Here are my top 6 ways to quickly climb out of the rut and get some fresh juice flowing.
My own songwriting rule is 20 minutes a day, which usually gets squeezed in between the time I roll out of bed and my 4 year old pitter patters into my office. These are meant for busy people.
1. 9 Minute Exercise - Tap Into Your Unconscious Mind
This is a three part exercise I learned from the superb teachers over at SongTown.com.
Step 1: Titles - Set your timer for 3 minutes and brainstorm titles in a quick free flow. Don't pick the pen up. Don't try to be clever—just write the first thing that comes to your mind.
Step 2: Associations - Using one of the titles from the previous step set your timer for 3 minutes and free associate single words that come to mind.
Step 3: Rhymes - Using one of the association words from the previous step, set your timer for 3 minutes and use the poor man's rhyming technique (Run the first letter through the alphabet: bat, cat, drat, fat, gat, hat, jack, lap, mat, gnat, pat, rat, sat, tat, vat, zap). If you still have time left do another word.
This is from one of my 100 day challenges.
2. Object Writing - Crawl Out of the Cliche Quicksand
I learned this one from Pat Pattison, a professor at Berklee College of Music. You can take his accredited course for $1,500, or the free one (without an instructor) on Coursera.com, Songwriting: Writing the Lyrics.
He recommends his students do this exercise daily to start writing more relatable lyrics.
Watch Pat's 4 minute instructional video:
Set your timer for either 5, or 10 minutes. Use sensory language (Sight, Sound, Taste, Touch, Smell, Body, Motion) to describe an object. It doesn’t have to make sense. Let your mind explore. As soon as you start veering into internal dialogue turn back to the seven senses and keep writing. Don't stop until the timer goes off.
Choose your own object, or use: Sky
Timer set? Go!
Here is one of my old object writes:
Object: Blizzard (5 min)
Soft floppy snowflakes kiss the window before finding their place of rest, a herd of lemmings. Red tail lights glowing is the only color--just white, then shadowy grey, and pitch black. Hot air pounds my face, a rattle deep in the machinery of our car I just noticed. A lump forms in my stomach. Will we get home tonight? A light patter sounds like tiny feet, tiptoeing miniature elves swirling to their master's song.
3. Morning Pages - Pan for Gold in Your Own Trash
Disclaimer: Done properly, this one takes about 30 minutes. But you can modify it to your own time frame.
“Morning Pages” is a cornerstone writing exercise from the Artist’s Way. This is a classic book that creative people from all genres have been using to take their art to the next level. It is particularly helpful in breaking through writer’s block.
Step 1. Every morning free-write 3 full pages longhand in a notebook.
“There is no wrong way to do morning pages. These daily morning meanderings are not meant to be art. Or even writing. I stress that point to reassure the nonwriters working with this book.” –Julia Cameron, Artist's Way
“All that angry, whiny, petty stuff that you write down in the morning stands between you and your creativity.” –Julia Cameron, Artist's Way
Step 2. Without evaluating your writing, go back and highlight any juicy words or phrases that could serve as kindling for a song.
Even though the pages themselves aren’t meant to be art or song ideas, sometimes they contain phrases and words that sneak through your self-editing filter. It’s a great way to take out your emotional trash and pan for gold.
Here is an example from a recent morning pages. This one is a little dark, but who know there might be something useable...
4. Melody Iteration - Set Your Genius Free
For this one you will need a timer, audio recorder, and your instrument if you play (I use my iPhone’s Voice Memo app).
Step 1. Using your voice or instrument, come up with a 1-2 bar melody (or steal one from someone else...don't worry you're going to make it your own by the end).
In this example I used the hook from Lizzo's "Juice":
Step 2. Set your timer for 1-2 minutes and hit record. Repeat the melody 2-3 times until you’ve got it solid, then make a small change—either melodic or rhythmic. Repeat that 2-3 times, and continue iterating and repeating until the timer goes off.
Step 3. Stop your recorder and listen back through all the iterations. Which one do you like the best? Trim the clip down to just the one you like, and save it.
(Optional) Step 4. This one requires a bit of music theory, but if you have the know-how figure out the chords that support the melody and write them down. You may find that when you add chords, new melodic ideas come as well. Keep the flow going!
5. The Melody Hidden in Words - Song is All Around You
You will need an audio recorder for this one.
Step 1. Find a short phrase from any text 5-10 syllables and record yourself saying it out loud.
Example: “The melody hidden in words”
Step 2. Write the phrase out by hand. While listening back underline the accented syllables.
Step 3. Listen again and draw the melodic arc over the words. If you listen closely you might even be able to identify the exact intervals.
Step 4. Sing it back by interpreting the drawn melodic arc, and add chords (optional).
6. Steal and Combine - What Nobody Talks About
If you bristle at the idea of stealing I invite you to read the book Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon.
This exercise will be more, or less time consuming depending on how much experience you have transcribing music by ear.
Step 1. Find two songs that are very different from each other. Mix genres if possible.
I looked up the top Pop songs from 2018 on billboard.com. #1 was "God’s Plan" by Drake, and #2 was "Perfect" by Ed Sheeran. Couldn't have planned that more perfect! Haha! I digress.
Step 2. Take the song with the stronger rhythm and find a 4-8 bar section with a repeating pattern. Recreate that rhythm by tapping it on your knee while counting “One and two and three and four and…” Here is the rhythm to "God’s Plan" tapped on my knee:
Step 3. Take the other song and figure out the chords and repeat them until you’ve got it down. Here are the chords to "Perfect" played on my keyboard:
Step 4. Combine the Rhythm of the first song with the Chords of the second song.
The next step is extra credit. It also requires a bit more musical ability. Give it a try!
Step 5. Use rhythm and melody elements from either song to come up with a new melody to sing on top of the combined rhythm and chords you just created.
You Don't Have to Do it Alone
That's it! Now you've got six great exercises, or maybe six more because you collect them...like me.
Are your ready to put them into action?
I promise you, if you do one tiny act of songwriting a day for 100 days, even if it's a C+ effort—even if you stumble along and hit and miss and hit and miss—you will start to see major changes.
The best thing about our group is you've got a bunch of friends doing it right alongside you!
–Rigel Thurston, Guide
Notebook full of ideas and completed songs
I highly recommend the 100 Days of Songwriting group led by Rigel Thurston.
I participated in last summer’s 100 Days, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. You can set your own personal goal for the 100 Days, and I set a goal of spending 10 minutes a day on my songwriting. By the end of the 100 Days I had a notebook full of ideas and completed songs, several of which I am currently recording with my band.
This group stands out over a lot of Songwriting groups I’ve participated in. Instead of getting a constant barrage of publicity, ego-posturing, and bickering in my feed, I was inspired by the diverse approaches that other members took toward their songwriting, and I felt completely safe sharing my creative process with the group. After the 100 Days were over, Rigel hosted a fun Live Meetup where we were able to give each other creative feedback on our current projects. I even met a few new friends.
I am so excited to start another 100 Days! Come join us!
It got me songwriting again
I did the 100 days that started about a year ago. The great thing about it is it got me songwriting again, I hadn't written anything for several years. I kept it up for about 60 days, then got sidetracked by the holidays. But the main thing was it got me back in the writing process, and seeing that I could still do it. My writing has continued off and on since then and I've finished some songs I like. So it worked for me...looking forward to the next 100 days and hoping I can stay with it to the end!
The key to our craft
Participating in the 100 Days of Songwriting has been inspiring to me. I'm crazy busy and I have all kinds of excuses, but writing EVERY day, is the key to our craft. I didn't feel the pressure to be perfect, in fact, I rarely posted things I actually wrote. However, I watched posts, enjoyed commenting and got a good dose of guilt (in a good way) when I was slacking in my own writing ... which was most of the time. I'm releasing my first album "Gypsy With Me" that I co-wrote last year. I've done very little writing since and I'm feeling the hole that it leaves when you don't do it. I'm looking forward to the next 100 days for inspiration, camaraderie and productivity!!