Do you want to write songs but are afraid your lack of creativity will prevent you from ever writing a hit?
Do you believe that creative songwriters are born with the creative gene and that you are not one of them?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, I have good news.
Creativity is already within you, and it can be strengthened through practice, just like a physical muscle.
You already use creativity when you solve a problem, tell a lie, play a sport, plan your day, take an exam or drive a car, among many other things.
You’re not a creative songwriter because you haven’t yet put in the time to train your creative muscle to make music.
In this article, I’ll show you the four things you need to work on to develop your creativity for songwriting to the point where you can use it at will. (That is when won’t need to wait for inspiration to write music. That creativity is at your back and call and can be used whenever you want).
These four steps should not be carried out in any particular order.
Rather, all four are part of a lifelong process that allows you to keep strengthening your creative muscles.
1. Unlearn limiting beliefs about your creativity
Adults believe that necessity is the mother of invention.
Children invent things without waiting for a need, whether it’s stories in their heads, drawings on a sheet, dressing dolls, or sending toy soldiers to war.
Unlike many adults, children use their creativity for enjoyment rather than survival. As a result, they place no restrictions on it.
When adults allow their creativity to run wild, they are frequently accused of being immature, unrealistic, or daydreaming.
As a result, many adults start placing restrictions on their creativity to avoid being mocked, losing friends or their job, failing to find a partner, etc.
To become a creative songwriter, you must first abandon these limitations and adopt a childlike mindset in which anything is possible (when it’s time to write, of course, allowing free-flowing creativity when driving a car, or going to work, may have undesired consequences).
This may appear to be simple. What could possibly go wrong between just you and a sheet of paper?
Unlike dressing up as a unicorn for work, there are no consequences for chords that don’t match or words that don’t make sense.
Yet, dealing with self-doubt is the most difficult part of the process for many creative songwriters.
Here are some limiting beliefs that many songwriters encounter along the way, or even before they begin. Which of these limiting beliefs are you familiar with? And what other limiting beliefs, not mentioned here, are interfering with your creative songwriting process?
- I’m not proficient enough on an instrument to begin writing songs. (You can begin writing songs right away if you can play a few easy chords on a guitar or a piano.)
- I’m not a singer. (Coming up with a good melody and communicating it to others through your voice is a skill you should work on. However, it does not have to be a good or trained voice to sing it. Also, keep in mind that no singer will judge you based on your voice. The melody that you come up with is what matters. He is in charge of the vocal phrasing).
- I don’t know how music works. (It’s a limiting belief because, obviously, you can always learn how music works. Aside from that, you don’t need to have all of the puzzle pieces in order to begin writing songs. As you will see in the following section, the creative songwriting process entails assembling only a few pieces of the puzzle, even if you can’t yet see the whole picture. For instance, if you can play C, F, and G but don’t know what diatonic chord progressions are and how they work, you can still use them to write a song.
- People will laugh at my music. (No one is going to hear your music without your permission. It is only when you write a song that you’re confident in that you’re going to show it to anyone. You will write songs, think they’re ridiculous and throw them away. Every songwriter does this. The stupid songs you will throw away are not a waste of time but an important part of the learning process).
These are just a few examples of limiting beliefs. Keep in mind that these beliefs may evolve over time. “I’m not good enough” may evolve into “I’ve reached my peak and will never write a better song than the last one I wrote.” As a result, even some professional songwriters struggle with this.
When you notice a limiting belief, replace it with an empowering belief.
“I’m not good enough” can be replaced with “I’m good enough to begin and will learn the workings of the craft along the way.”
“I reached my peak,” could be simply answered with “Do I know everything? No, I can always learn new things. Then how can I say my peak has been reached?”
2. Learn the craft
While limiting beliefs stifle your creativity, learning the craft of songwriting will boost your confidence and allow you to unleash it.
The more you learn, the more pieces of the puzzle you acquire and integrate, the more options you have to write songs and the easier the process will be.
These are the 7 most important skills a songwriter should develop.
The more you learn and practice each of these skills, the more you’ll notice connections throughout the songwriting process.
3. Write songs
Every time you learn something new (ex: chord, chord progression, musical concept, rhythm, etc) write a song with it.
The song may end up in the trash bin, or it may become a song you want to keep, record, or perform.
In either case, you would have achieved the goal of training your mind to creatively turn that concept into music.
This is what creativity in songwriting is all about: Using concepts, tools, and techniques that exist, to create something that doesn’t exist.
You don’t need a lot of these concepts, tools and techniques to start writing songs, though you should keep learning them as you go along, to become a better songwriter.
A few elements that you can combine together to bring a song into existence can be:
- A chord progression. There are many common chord progressions you can choose from. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel here and it’s very unlikely that you’ll ever use a chord progression that has never been used before.
- A rhythm. Your chords should be played in a way that makes rhythmic sense. Start with a simple rhythm first, you can always make it more intricate as you go along if you think it suits the song.
- A melody is played over the progression. This is the part where you must be the most creative. You can “steal” a short motif from another song and change and develop it into a completely different melody, or you can create an entirely new motif. But you can’t steal a tune and claim it as your own.
This is the place to be a child again and let your imagination run wild until it finds a melody it likes. It can be difficult to come up with a catchy melody at first, and they may come to you only once in a while. The more you practice, the easier this will become.
- Lyrics: Every song has a melody. This can come from a guitar, a piano or a violin, but the musical instrument that “gets the job” of providing the melody most of the time, is the human voice.
One thing that gives the human voice an unfair advantage over other instruments is that it can make use of words, which give a clear referential meaning to the music. For instance, the music can show you the composer is sad, but you need words to know if the sadness is coming from grieving a relative or getting over a relationship.
Thus, the other thing that you need to create is the lyrics. Once again, you’re using things that exist (letters, words, grammar, etc) to bring something new into existence, which is what creative songwriting is all about.
4. Intelligent listening
There’s a reason why you sometimes hear a tune and can’t stop humming it for weeks.
Similarly, there’s a reason why sometimes you read a lyric that, when combined with the tune and the rest of the song, makes you angry, or cry.
Songwriters, whether consciously or unconsciously, have used techniques to achieve the desired result of changing people’s emotions.
When you listen to music, particularly music that moves you emotionally, start noticing these techniques.
Then, as you improve in the seven skills linked in point 2 above, you will begin to understand why these emotional effects occur.
And here is where it gets beautiful. When you understand the reasons why something works, you can replicate it at will.
When you understand the principles that underpin a good tune (chord progression, rhythm, lyric, and so on), you can apply these principles to create tunes that are completely unique.
Though you should start writing songs even if you don’t know any music theory, every time you listen to something you like, listen carefully and then, dig up the theory behind it. Why does this chord change sound so good? What makes this melody stand out? Why does this rhythm make me feel like dancing?
This way you’ll be building an arsenal of things you like and can use in an infinite amount of variations (things that don’t yet exist).
The same is true for lyrics.
Unlike in music theory, I never received formal training in lyric writing.
But I do study clever lines in the songs that I like.
For instance Rush’s line “The stars aren’t aligned or the Gods are malign” from the song Freewill is, in my opinion, the most clever way to describe the concept of free will.
Thus, after studying the principles behind writing such a line, I can replicate the process to lyrics that have nothing to do with free will and use completely different words.
Such as the line: “There’s a hundred ways to tell a truth, and they’re all lies but one”, in a song called 99 Lies, I’m still in the process of writing.
Though there’s no similarity between the two lines, my line only came into existence after studying the principles behind the line in Rush’s song (and other songs by Rush and other bands, though no band influenced my lyric writing more than Rush. If you’re into Rush, make sure you’re not missing out on the lyrics, and if you’re not into Rush, and want to write good lyrics, you may want to check them out).
When listening to music, keep an ear for anything that has an effect on your emotions and keep digging until you find out the principles behind those words, notes, chords, progressions and rhythms that made you feel that way.
The Creative Songwriting Process
Though children are creative because they haven’t yet put limitations on their creativity, they (usually) lack the techniques that turn something that doesn’t exist into something that exists.
This is why most songwriters are adults, in spite of children being more creative.
Thus, the secret to becoming a songwriter who can create at will is removing the barriers you have created as an adult while learning the techniques you didn’t have as a child.
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