It’s a scenario that many songwriters, composers and producers will have encountered at some point in their careers – the clock’s ticking and all your efforts to come up with the right lyric, melody, chord structure or even the basic creative concept of a composition are simply eluding you. Of course, most people develop their own methods and find a way through. But it can be stressful. At such times it’s worth remembering that there are certain steps you can take to help you work through your creative block and get on with the process of creating great music.
1. Don’t wait for inspiration to strike
The first thing to establish is that there is no point waiting for inspiration to strike. As Picasso famously put it: “Inspiration exists but it has to find you working.”
Anyone who is serious about a career as a songwriter or composer must really work at it. The key is to dedicate yourself to the craft of songwriting or composing and put in the hours, even when you appear to have little to show for it at times.
This is exactly what Nick Cave does. “Inspiration is a word used by people who aren't really doing anything,” says Cave. “I go into my office every day when I am in Brighton and work – whether I feel like it or not is irrelevant.”
2. Just start and do something… anything
The key is to set a routine, just start doing something, anything, no matter how banal and uninspiring it seems – two lines of a lyric, a title, a motif, a sound, a melody.
Singer-songwriter and composer Emily Barker is all too familiar with the creative process. In addition to being a respected solo artist, she is also the writer and composer of themes such as the BBC’s hugely successful crime drama Wallander. Barker admits she has never suffered from creative block but says this is primarily because she only writes when she feels like it. That said, she points out that she always has “a trove of ideas” waiting in a notebook or on her computer to return to.
“I do think it’s good to just start and try not to put too much pressure on yourself, just explore and experiment and try not to let the critical side of your brain in too early in the process — editing can come later… I’m cyclical with my writing. In the lead up to recording a new album I can’t stop writing songs, trying to see if I can get another contender. It’s true what people say, that writing is a muscle. When I’m in that zone, it comes easily.”
After recording, Barker says she needs to step away from writing songs. “I’m exhausted. That’s when I turn into a collector: I whisper a melody into my phone in the middle of the night because it’s come to me in a dream, I scribble down something I’ve overheard on a bus, make note of an article I’ve read, a line in a poem, etc. I collect inspirations to return to later – usually a good few months or more after finishing an album.”
3. Stop and regroup
Implementing a set working routine with regular breaks will ensure you delineate between work and rest time. But if your approach on a new song, project or composition is getting you nowhere then the best thing you can possibly do is to stop, step away from it and do something entirely different, ideally something completely unrelated to music. It may seem like the most counter-intuitive thing to do, but taking a break of 30 minutes, an hour, a morning or even a whole day can bring real perspective and help you recharge your creative batteries.
Going for a walk has been the inspirational default option for musicians, writers and poets across the ages. At the very least, it will help clear your headspace and give you fresh perspective when you return to your place of work. The exercise and fresh environs may also spark some inspiration along the way.
4. Feel the fear and mix it up
Another way to tackle creative block is to completely change the way you write and push yourself out of your comfort zone.
If you are a lyric-led writer, try creating the chord structure and top line melody first. Try switching instruments. If you normally write on guitar, try bass, keys, cello, banjo – whatever you can get your hands on – or create some beats on a DAW.
“I think that’s a great bit of advice,” says Emily Barker. “I’ve mostly written on guitar but for the past couple of years loved working on piano. I find switching between them really interesting as they highlight strengths and weaknesses and can inspire new melody, a rhythm change, a tempo change, etc. I’m yet to try writing a song on a kazoo, but I’m game if you’ve got one!”
Limiting your options often yields results and prompts musicians to dig deeper, so if you do stick to guitar, try writing without using chords or take the top four strings off and see what you can create with just the E and the A. It’s also worth writing in a time signature you’ve rarely used before or in an unfamiliar genre.
5. Stream of consciousness approach
Lyrically too, it could pay to mix things up. If you normally write in the first person, switch the perspective and try writing only in the third person. Try writing around a theme for a change. As a creative exercise, set a timer and just write about that theme for ten or 15 minutes.
If you have an idea for a song, don’t focus on writing down lyrics at all. Instead, just hone in on what the song is about, how it makes you feel and aim for a stream of consciousness approach. Start writing everything or anything down that you can think of related to that subject and its emotional impact on you. Chances are that when you look at what you’ve written some key words or phrases may pop out.
“Some songs just aren’t as good as others you’ll write. I’m at peace with that and know that every song leads to another, informs the next” - Emily Barker
“In terms of getting started, overcoming blank-page syndrome, I find a stream-of-consciousness style brain dump on paper or computer is a sure way to kickstart something,” says Emily Barker. “Also, some songs just aren’t as good as others you’ll write. I’m at peace with that and know that every song leads to another, informs the next.”
6. Collaborate with other writers
Few things will stave off creative block more effectively than collaborating with another artist/writer. The other writer will inevitably have different styles, influences and strengths, and writing together with the right person will take you and your music in new directions. It may also spark a whole new change for when you return to writing solo.
“I'd encourage people to try writing different styles and experiment in the writing process with other people, where you can combine your strengths,” says Bishi Bhattacharya, a London-based singer-songwriter, musician, producer, composer and DJ. “When you are on the same wavelength, only good things will develop.”
Finding that person is key, but many collaborations now begin via social platforms such as Instagram. It’s well worth proactively contacting other writers, composers and producers on these platforms if you feel that a collaboration with them could yield results.
7. Revisit old demos
It might sound like a backwards step but it’s always worth dipping into old demos and smartphone recordings of ideas. There are obviously very good reasons why you didn’t develop some of them in the first place. But when you revisit these rough sketches years later, the chances are that one or two will shine out as real sonic gems in the making. They may even inspire other works in ways they didn’t at the time.
8. Go easy on yourself
For anyone struggling with the creative process, it’s worth focusing on the broader wellbeing aspects. As all musicians, songwriters, composers and producers know, creating new music is as much a calling and a compulsion as it is a profession. But as consultant and coach Andrew Armour explains, music creators must learn to be kind on themselves and maintain a positive psychology.
Armour has worked across the music, TV and advertising industries and has seen how infectious and stressful creative life can be. He advises people to take 15-20 minutes each morning alone with themselves, to quietly settle the mind, focus on the previous day and what they need to do in the day ahead. By doing this, creators will reassess their progress and recognise the positives, he says.
“Creative people are designed to face some storms and upsets that will come their way” - Andrew Armour
“Creative people are designed to face some storms and upsets that will come their way,” says Armour. “That may make it uncomfortable, but it does not stop people wanting to write, perform or play. In sport, you are going to lose, get hit, pick up an injury. Being resilient, means focusing on the small gains, the small wins, the steps towards where you want to go.”