Writing song lyrics is, somehow, the best and worst part about being a musician, depending on how things are going for you that day.
When you take everything else away (the touring, the social media, the promotions, and so on), being a professional musician is just about creating art out of nothing but ideas. It’s wonderful but it’s also incredibly daunting, and when things aren’t going well and the muses aren’t favoring you, it can have some people thinking about a career change.
Writing song lyrics can be particularly tricky, as they need to fit the music, be heartfelt, be original, and also catch the audience and never let them go. If you pen the perfect tune, it will stay with your listeners for the rest of their lives and soundtrack some of their most important moments. If you weren’t intimidated yet, I suppose you are now.
So, what’s a musician to do when writing song lyrics doesn’t work out as-as planned? Thankfully, there’s a lot you can try, so don’t get down on yourself!
This is a dilemma even the most seasoned, successful hit-makers face, and below are some thoughts on what you can do to start thinking in new ways, playing with other formats or styles, or perhaps even move on to something else for a little while.
If you’re already writing songs, chances are you’re a huge music fan, and you probably have been all your life. Therefore you’ve been listening since you were young, and at this point, you already have favorite songs, albums, artists, and even genres. You are perhaps working to make a name for yourself in your chosen genre, and you may be studying the songwriting structure and process of some of the greatest who have ever made music.
All of this is wonderful, and it’s a great place to start as a songwriter, but if you want to switch things up and try something new you’re going to have to…switch things up and try something new. Instead of looking to those musicians whose discographies you can already sing by heart for inspiration when you have none, go in a completely different direction.
Love the lyrics of Bob Dylan? Try reading and listening to Tupac, Dolly Parton, or Britney Spears. Don’t just press play on what they’ve released—listen critically to the words, the rhythms, and the melodies, and think about how even just one small piece of what they’ve created could work for you and your art.
I’m not suggesting you should completely change who you are as an artist, but you can’t argue with success. Don’t switch from singer-songwriter-style rock to electropop (unless you really want to)—instead, learn from the greatest and apply their musical teachings to your own future creations.
Instead of looking to those musicians whose discographies you can already sing by heart for inspiration when you have none, go in a completely different direction. Love the lyrics of Bob Dylan? Try reading and listening to Tupac, Dolly Parton, or Britney Spears.
The messages and stories behind songs should come from the heart . . . but the words themselves can come from books if you need some help. When you can’t think of how to finish a line, a word to rhyme, or even where to begin when it comes to a new composition, pick up a thesaurus, a dictionary, or better yet, a rhyming dictionary, and begin perusing.
It may sound silly and actually somewhat lame, but if you think some of the greatest songwriters in any genre haven’t looked online or to a dictionary for some help from time to time, you’re incorrect.
Maybe you’re looking for just one word that will complete everything or change things up a bit and make the tune a bit more interesting, or perhaps you need more help than that. Browse through words you’d never think to use in a song and think anytime something grabs you.
Inspiration may not come in this way, but it never hurts to have this knowledge, and even if the exercise doesn’t end up in a song at the end of the current session, it will be helpful to you at some point in the future…in music, or other parts of your life.
Despite their best intentions, a lot of artists often fall back on the same structures, melodies, rhythms, rhymes, themes, and so on. This is even truer if they have found some form of success with one particular factor or detail. It’s natural to want to stick with what works and not change up a winning formula, but if you’re not careful, things can get stale and boring very quickly.
When you’re stuck attempting to make a new piece of music work, try fitting lyrics you have, ideas that are only in the beginning stages, or even just words you know you want to use into formats you’ve never played with before. These can be strict guidelines which you cannot deviate from (a fun exercise from time to time), or perhaps the plan can just be a starting off point for whatever comes to mind next.
When you sit down to write a song or at least part of a song, it can be very frustrating when it can’t happen easily. It’s a good plan to stick with it for a while, at first giving yourself time to think and play around, and then later, to try some of the ideas and exercises I’ve outlined in this piece. When all else fails, there is one thing you can, and believe it or not, should do: walk away.
That’s right. When you can’t find the inspiration to put together even a few lines that seem interesting, much less an entire composition, get up and do something else. Read a book. Go for a walk. Exercise. Go see a friend. Go to a museum. Go see a band you’ve never heard of before. There are a million different things you can do, and pretty much all of them are better than racking your brain for creative inspiration that simply won’t come.
In some ways, you can kick off the process of songwriting and do a lot of work without inspiration, but once you get to a point where you can go no further until you feel something special in your heart, put the pen down and move on. You can always pick it back up and finish later when your mind is refreshed and when you have some top-notch ideas.
As I mentioned before, it’s easy for songwriters at all points in their careers to become stuck in a pattern, and suddenly, before they realize what has happened, they have written the same song several times. It happens to the best of them, and it can be tough to avoid.
If you find you’re stuck in the middle of a piece of music eerily similar to something you’ve penned before, or perhaps just stuck entirely, try looking at your song from a different angle. Are you writing about that girl who dumped you? Why not try putting pen to paper and coming up with what she may have been thinking at the time.
Maybe the dance song you’re writing should be from the eyes of the audience watching you dance, not you telling everyone how great you are. Perhaps there are different viewpoints you should consider, or maybe you want to rewrite history entirely. It’s your song, so maybe you broke up with her instead.
One of the issues with creativity is it is literally limitless, which means there can sometimes be too many options and too many roads to go down.
When you can’t find the inspiration to put together even a few lines that seem interesting, much less an entire composition, get up and do something else. Read a book. Go for a walk. Exercise. Go see a friend. Go to a museum. Go see a band you’ve never heard of before.
When it comes to almost any form of writing, starting at the beginning and ending at the actual end is rarely how things go. Most of the time, articles, books, and even songs are pieced together, with a lot of moving items around and editing in between when the process kicks off and when it wraps.
Keeping this in mind when you lose your inspiration writing a piece of music can be a great relief, as it means you can start anywhere and see what happens.
Having a difficult time finding a place to begin? Think of how you want your latest cut to end. Maybe you have a brilliant idea for a pre-chorus, or perhaps you’ve gotten lucky and come up with the perfect chorus that will have people singing along? If so, don’t write it and down and forget about it—build on it! If you have even one piece of a line or a section that interests you, run with it and see if anything else comes from this one special item.
If not, see if you can start in an odd spot. If you typically kick off the process at the chorus, try your hand at beginning a new piece with a verse, or vice versa. There are many ways to approach this suggestion, and at some point, you should give all of them a try.
If you’ve never tried putting together a new song with another writer, it’s an experience worth having. Most of the biggest hits these days are a result of the talents of a handful of people, and co-writes have become the industry standard.
If you have something very specific in mind, you may want to be very careful when it comes to who you reach out to and invite into your creative process, but if you’re stuck and are going this route simply to try new things, you can be a lot more open with your invitations.
You never know who might become your new favorite partner, or perhaps when something won’t produce anything worth saving. There’s no telling until you give it a try, and if at this moment in your process you can’t make anything work, perhaps everything is worth a try.