9 Ways to Overcome Writer's Block as a Musician

by Erin Barra, Spire Contributor | August 21, 2018

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Writer's block is the worst. Sometimes it can feel like you’re incapable of finding the right way to say what it is you mean, other times it’s as if you just don’t have anything to say at all.

For some of us, these feelings can stick around for long periods of time, preventing us from writing for weeks, months and sometimes even years. This blog will outline several tips and tricks you can use to turn that frown upside down and put you back on the right path.

1-3: The Artist’s Way

The Artist’s Way is a self help book written by the amazing Julia Cameron who is the preeminent voice on how to overcome creative blocks. Many songwriters are disciples of Cameron’s and swear by the techniques she outlines in The Artist's Way and the many other subsequent books she’s published such as The Vein of Gold, The Right to Write and Letters to a Young Artist. Her approach to breaking through to the other side lies in deep personal reflection and an investigation into the root cause of your troubles. Here are a few highlights from Cameron.

1. Clean out the morning cobwebs

Life is complicated and we’re constantly bombarded by it’s complexity. A lot of times we walk around all day worrying about this and that, our heads stuck somewhere in the past or future. Cameron suggests that you wake up every morning and begin your day by writing three pages full of all these thoughts, in turn cleaning out the cobwebs in your mind so you can get back to living in the present moment. It’s like journaling, but then again it isn’t. After you’re done writing the pages, you throw them away. This repetitive action of downloading all your thoughts via pen and paper (or digital device), and them letting them go is very powerful and can be the thing that gets you back into the flow state.

2. Take your inner artist on a date

Cameron says that our inner artist needs to be treated like someone we’re in a committed  relationship with and that we need to take them out on dates. The idea is to take your inner artist somewhere where they might find inspiration or perhaps just even to a place where you can be alone with them. Maybe you go to a local art store, grab your inner artist some chalk and spend the afternoon drawing on the sidewalk with them. Perhaps you take them on a long walk to a pond and just sit there with them silently. This might seem silly at first, but give it a try and you’ll likely be surprised at how profound these experiences can be.

3. Write a letter to an older/younger you

In the book Cameron ask you to write a letter to 80 year old you and to 8 year old you. It’s an interesting exercise that uses the past the future to bring your squarely into the present. Not to mention, it will unearth meaningful things to write about.  

Tech
Laptops and mobile devices are writing tools too

4. Write in a DAW

Technology is a treasure chest full of tools and ideas that will spark your creativity. Most DAWs have a built-in loop library or digital drummer that will establish a groove you can write on top of. If you’re used to being at an instrument, writing along with or on top of a groove can be a great way to make things feel fresh again.

If you’re more of a mobile person there are a TON of music making iOS apps out there which will do the trick. Some good choices are Noise by ROLI, Figure by Propellerhead, and of course the old standard, Garageband by Apple. Figure costs $0.99 but the others are free and in addition to helping you to keep the ideas flowing, they’re a ton of fun to use.  

Collaboration
Joan Baez and Bob Dylan making beautiful music together

5. Collaborate (carefully)

There’s nothing quite like being accountable to another person to help you with the follow through. Whether you just can’t seem to make yourself sit down and write or you are having a hard time moving forward with your ideas, scheduling a time to collaborate with another human being will solve both those issues. Sometimes just having another musical voice in the space will spark ideas and excitement that wouldn't otherwise have been there.

Word to the wise here: be careful who you choose to write with when you’re experiencing writer's block. In a way, you’re inner artist in injured, so you want to make sure you collaborate with people that have a positive energy and that you’re excited to write with. Steer clear of writers that you know to be negative or might bring the bad vibe.

6. Change point of view

The point of view we choose to use in our songs has a huge impact on the role we play as writer. If you tend to write in first person (I, me) you are an active part of the storytelling process. The lyrics are about how you feel about things that are happening to you.

Second person songs (you) have more of an inclusive feel since you can easily swap out “you” for “we” and all of a sudden there’s “us.” Lots of protest songs are written in second person.

Third person (he/she/they) allows you to stay at arm's length from the narrative and tell someone else’s story, which gives you a lot of options that don’t exist in first or second person.

Writing too much in first, second or third person can be exhausting and quickly become stale. Take a look at your songs and notice if you’re using one POV more than the others, then write in whichever one you use the least.

Swith Instrument
Putting your hands in new places will spark new ideas

7. Switch instruments

If you usually write your songs on a guitar, switch to piano. Or if you’re a piano player, pick up a guitar and see what happens. Even if you don’t know how to play whatever it is you pick up, you can still get a song out of it. Play a single note in a interesting rhythmic pattern and start humming melodies over it.

As they say, less is more, and your instrumental restrictions can actually create more opportunity to focus on the tools you do have at your disposal, such as melody. The timbre and tone of the instrument you write with has a big impact on the type of song your write, so put your hands where they typically don’t fall and see what happens.

Workflow
Do you always write your songs the same way? Time to try something else.

8. Change your workflow  

Are you the person who always begins by writing lyrics? Do you like to sketch out melodies acapella before settling on lyrics, or harmonies? Whatever you typically do first, save that for later. Writing your songs the same way every time can lead to writers block very quickly and is one of the main causes of stagnation. By switching up the order of operations you not only spice things up but you give yourself an opportunity to focus in a place where you might not have previously been focused. Ever written the lyrics to a song last? Give it a try and see what type of new ideas it brings.

Stealing
Daniel Webster stealing from Henry Clay.

9. Steal   

As people are apt to say, “the best writers steal” and they’ve been doing it for centuries. If you look back on the titles of classical pieces, you’ll find that many of them start with the words “Variation on a Theme by” preceded by the name of another composer. Anytime you’re looking for inspiration, look to those who inspire you, take the parts you love the most and find ways to incorporate them into your own writing.

Whether it’s a chord progression, a song concept, or a story, it’s totally acceptable and smart to borrow from others, not to mention a great way to put yourself in a new frame of mind. Just make sure that when you’re stealing, you only take pieces and parts of another song as opposed to the whole kit and caboodle. A really great exercise is to do a deep analysis of another song, looking at the form, melodic contour, rhyme scheme etc and find out what makes it tic. From there, you can write your own song based on those intrinsic qualities.

Conclusion

Not being able to write is a terrible feeling. Hopefully one of these nine techniques resonates with you and helps you to move past whatever it is that’s keeping you from making music. Know that writer's block is a temporary thing and soon enough you’ll be back at it, humming a brand new tune.