Beige Shelter

Writer's block sitting at piano

How I get past songwriter’s block

Sometimes, the hardest part of the songwriting process is getting started. Once I’ve got an idea, I can hash out lyrics and music fairly easily. Getting past songwriter’s block usually involves coming up with a title and a hook to the song (Thank you, Nashville). More often than not, I’ll get blocked by wanting to come up with a metaphor for expressing an idea or emotion, but can’t land on the right one.

I’m a much stronger musician and composer than a lyricist. I can come up with grooves, interesting chord progressions and beats, and never attach a lyric to any of them. But I like to consider the “whole song,” so I opt to do the hard part first: some or most of the lyrics, then the music. I’ll be writing about getting past songwriter’s block in lyrical terms.

Where do my song ideas come from?

I’ve always espoused the notion that you can write a song about anything; I once wrote a song about a car accident taken from the point of the view of the brake pads of the car. It’s the development of a song that counts, drawing from your own life experiences and emotions to truly make the idea yours.

Inspiration comes from within. Ideally, we are constantly experiencing new things, seeing new things, and reading about new things. The trick to being “inspired” is to be mindful of these experiences, and finding the nuggets to turn them into songs.

Often, it’s helpful to write down in concrete terms what the idea is about. For example, I had a visceral reaction following the horrific bus attack in India in 2012, where a young woman was raped and killed, and her male friend was also violently assaulted on a bus in New Delhi. I jotted down some notes to keep me focused:

“This song is about the senselessness of the bus attack in New Dehli, and the irony of the violent reactions of the masses in India calling for capital punishment.”

Later on, I read news articles about the incident, and was moved by a quote from the deceased victim’s father who asked the media, “Don’t call her a rape victim. Please call her a brave daughter.

“This song is also about the ripple effect of victimization and the grief her family, friends and community experienced. It’s also about the fact that this young woman and her friend did nothing wrong, and their bravery shows the way forward in India.”

The idea became the song Brave Daughters. Read more

image showing the circle of 5ths

How to use the Circle of Fifths to write songs

I know many of you don’t care for music theory. It’s clinical, it’s boring, and it sucks the soul out of songwriting. Well, news flash: you’re using music theory whether or not you intend to. For myself, I know my theory pretty well, as I learned it at young age. I couldn’t tell you if I’m playing in a Mixolydian or Phrygian mode, though, except that it’s fun to throw “Phrygian” into normal conversation.

Case in point: the Circle of Fifths (the Circle). Download a hi-res copy here. I’ve been asked before if a certain chord progression is an example of the Circle of Fifths. The question is missing the point. The Circle of Fifths isn’t a technique like modulation or chord substitution. It’s a way of understanding the essential elements of western music: the notes, the intervals, the chords, and the relationships between them.

It’s the relationships between chords that make a chord progression. Referring to the Circle of Fifths can help you discover interesting chord progressions, particularly when you’re stuck for what the next chord wants to be.

Just like clockwork

The Circle looks much like a clock. Just like there are 12 hours on a clock, there are 12 notes on the Circle. (If you haven’t downloaded a copy yet, you’ll want to so you can refer to it as you read the rest of this article.)

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