8 Cures For Lyric Writer’s Block

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Lyric writing can be a frustrating, nail-biting, paper-crumpling experience.   Getting just the right words to conform to the cadence and rhythm of a musical piece is hard enough, let alone composing a gripping tale to woo the hearts and minds of your listeners.   Here are 8 tips to inspire and help you get through the roughs spots in lyric writing.

1.  Let The Music Set The Scene

For most of us the music (or some version of it) comes before the words.  Use this to your advantage.  Music is adept at painting complex emotional landscapes.  In fact, music often tells a compelling story without any words at all.  Even if all you have is three chords on a piano or guitar, record it (every songwriter should have a hand held recorder).  Try to listen objectively.  Listen to it over and over.  What emotions does the music stir in you?  A slow minor progression might conjure feelings of lost love: a romance.  An upbeat and major chord progression might produce feelings of vigor and challenge: a hero’s song.  Let the music reveal to you what kind of tale it has to tell.

2. Discover Your Story

Story is at the heart of any great song.  A great story is usually more engaging then fancy prose and rhyme (Bob Dylan often sacrificed the latter in order to tell his stories without compromise).  Fret not.  Stories are neither mysterious nor hard to find.  All you need is a character with desire, and suddenly the whole pantheon of fables, myths, and tales from across the globe are at your disposal.  People desire love, money, fame, safety, and many other things.  Story is created when a character wishes, dreams, risks, acts, or dies in pursuit of one of these things.   When you listen to the music you are working on, do you feel a yearning for something?  Then you’re halfway there!

3.  Fill a Notebook

In a TV interview,  the performer Sting said that he usually fills an entire three-ringed notebook full of lyrics before he’s finished a single song .  Don’t be afraid to write and write badly.  Write everything that comes to mind.  Write an essay about your song.  Write a letter to a character in your song.  Write about how you can’t think of anything to write about.  The more material you generate, the clearer the story will be in your mind and the easier it will be to condense the story into lyric form.

4. Listen to Your Favorite Lyricists.

Nothing helps me get out of a rut more than listening to my favorite songwriters do what they do best.   Listen with a notebook and pen at your side.  Write down what you think about.  Pay close attention to the words, phrases, and stories they tell.  Sometimes a misheard lyric can turn into a whole new song.  Don’t be afraid to beg, borrow and steal from your favorite songsters (without infringing on copyright law of course).  Songwriting and storytelling is an organic tradition that has been around forever.  Stories and songs are passed around, changed, elaborated upon, reinvented and modernized.  Don’t be afraid to draw upon this rich tradition.

5. Read Lots

Sometimes the best cure for writing is reading.  Read poetry.  Read mythology.  Read fiction and non-fiction and prose.  Many a great song has been written based on a poem or a fictional character in a book.  When what your reading moves you–take note.  This is what you want your songs to do.  Was it a character, a description, or an event that struck a chord? See if you can harness this element and use it in your song. If not, keep on reading and noting the moments when the art moves you.  I often find my favorite song ideas in the works of authors I love.

6.Remember The “I” is Not You

It’s easy to get stuck when you’re writing about yourself in the first person.  Ego has a habit of derailing good art.  It’s important to remember that the “I” in your song is a imagined version of yourself, a character.  Bruce Springsteen’s “I” is  a blue-collar worker down on his luck.  Ziggy Stardust’s (David Bowie) “I” is a benevolent space alien.  Johny Cash’s “I” is a lonesome gun-slinging cowboy.  While these characters exist within the artist, they are not the whole artist.

If you can step back from yourself and remember that your listeners may have no idea who you are, the emphasis is put back on the story, and you are forced to paint a picture of your characters.  Remember, it’s your listeners who will be identifying with the “I” in your song.

7.  Take A Break

Don’t spend too much time staring at blank page or a glaring computer screen.  Take a walk or go see a movie.  When your brain is engaged in the creative process, it helps to give your attention a rest. Let your subconscious mind work out the kinks for a while. I can’t tell you how many times stepping away from a song for an hour, or even a day was just what my brain needed to fill in the blanks.  Don’t expect a song to just pop out in a single sitting.  Let your songs ruminate. Leonard Cohen spent years composing some of his most famous songs.  Don’t feel bad if the process is slow.  You’re not alone.

8.  Don’t Let Your Internal Editor Beat You Up

Enjoy the process and know that you’re honing your skills.  Don’t be too hard on yourself.  A rough lyric draft is supposed to look like a whole lot of nonsensical high-school poetry.  If it doesn’t look like that, you’re not doing it right.  And remember: lyrics are meant to be experienced with music.  Sometimes they look a little dry on the page without the spiriting rhythm and melody of song to lift them up.

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50 comments to 8 Cures For Lyric Writer’s Block

  • Really good info to apply. Thanks Much!!!!!

  • This is great! Keep it coming.

  • It always helps me to tell myself a story (no rhymes) with characters, content, and even a moral, like telling a fairytale to your kids. Then, I work through the story as a set-piece adding some clever rhymes. Lastly, I tweak the characters and other details to fit my songwriting style and then re-structure the rhyme scheme into a workable song form. Just let your imagination go nuts and never throw away a good seed such as “A man named Ishmael walked down to the river with an old paint can used as a bucket…..” then just let the story build in your head.

  • Some good basic techniques here. Another one that usually works for me is to do some sort of task that either takes your entire attention or is repetitive and involves some sort of rhythm like driving. There are rhythms in vehicle sounds that can start you humming, and humming often turns to snippets of verses etc… The title song of my last CD, Breathe, was written to the rhythm of the windshield wipers.

  • Some great ideas here. I would like to add another suggestion that I teach to my songwriting students. There are several techniques to actually craft you lyrics and depend less on your own creative ideas. One of my favorites can be found at http://www.patpattison.com/lyrictips/. Select the heading “making metaphors”. You can generate endless lyric material from a single idea using this method.

  • When I get stuck (or even when I’m not but need a break) I go out for a run. I get lots of ideas while I’m running (I slow down and record them on my phone) – and when I get home I’m energized and refreshed.

  • I have a lot of secrets to writing lyrics. Here is one that I’ll share this time. Imagine your song exists on a metaphysical plane, higher than you can reach from the ground. Get out a ladder and create each rung by writing a version of the song you’re trying to reach. Use each of these versions to step up to the final version that you can only see in hazy, fleeting outline from the ground. Don’t rush, the journey because with each step you should look around and take in the scenery from your new perspective. What you may find is that there are songs on each rung and that the vision of the song you are trying to reach is just a way for your higher self to get you up on the ladder. Think about it.

  • Jessie

    I come up with lyrics and music together. There will be a saying or something that gets my attention and then I start working on a story. I alway think outside the box. It your song you can write about anything you want to write about. Always keep that in mind.

  • I needed to read this today! I was a professional writer (journalist etc.) long before I started making songs, so some of the same advice applies across the board to writer’s block of any kind. I find it interesting that most songwriters apparently start with the music. I pretty much have to start with the lyrics or at least the first few lines, because it’s those lines that suggest the rhythm, melody, attitude, and everything else about the tune.

  • Rick Tindall

    There’s been many times over the years when I’ve been writing that I’ll simply come up with a song title, then write a song around the subject of that title!

  • Thanks for the article. I have been a songwriter/musician/artist by vocation for 25 years.
    Just recently released a book: “The Heart and Art of Songwriting” available at http://www.davidbaroni.com
    I give some suggestions in the book of how to “prime the pump” of song inspiration.

    Thanks!
    David Baroni
    Nashville TN, USA

  • Whenever I’m having trouble, I usually start writing about how much I hate to go grocery shopping. It’s weird, but somehow that loosens up the ideas. Although a couple of times, it only resulted in songs about how much I hate grocery shopping. Imagine that.

  • I appreciated the read, thank you!

  • NeNe

    Great Tips! Words are very intersting to me because I write songs. I listen carefully to everything around me and everybody around me. If I hear a word or phrase from someone who is speaking that is interesting to me, I use it in a song. It’s just a new idea to come up with something new. I like to use unique words and phrases. I also like to use different techniques to come up with different ideas for the songs I write!

  • Keep a pen/pad or recorder nearby as you try some of the following ideas. Try eating different foods in different restaurants, go get a facial/pedicure/massage or chiropractic treatment, drive a different way to work, watch a styles of movies or listen to songs that you don’t normally go for, listen to instrumentals of your favorite songs and test new lyrics, try writing music at a different time of the day, try writing a style of music that you don’t normally do… When I break some monotonous daily routines, my creative juices start flowing again. Acting differently can lead to thinking differently. Also this may seem counter-intuitive, but embrace the writer’s block and just concentrate on doing something else for a while. Sometime you just need to have many new experiences or new life perspectives before making new songs.

  • Joe

    “A great story is usually more engaging then fancy prose and rhyme…”

    Yeah, I think I’ll not be taking writing advice from this person.

  • 3 more fun things to do:

    1.) Take a story, like Sleeping Beauty, take the position of one of those characters and write a story from their perspective. Don’t be afraid to take a story from the past and bring it to the hear and now, or even the future.

    2.) So you you’re at the last verse, or maybe the chorus – change direction for a plot twist. Go the last place you think your character would go. If it’s a love song about the object of your desire – try just letting the object go at the end.

    3.) In your notebooks, or pool of words, find a line or some words that you really love. Maybe it’s a turn of phrase or just a juxtaposition or something. But something that you can point to that you really think is some great little bit of genius. Write your whole song around that. Even if it wasn’t what you were thinking originally or the direction you had in mind – take your best and make it even better. There are lots of songs that were inspired by just one lyric.

  • Love these tips! Last night a blank page stared at me for the 3rd lyric rewrite but I remembered a TV Nature program the night before and got to work. Also, a bike (bicycle) ride works wonders for my lyric writing.

  • Morgan Ganem

    Very good advice. I’ve found almost all eight of these things to be helpful in the writing process. Thanks for posting!

  • although this is probably useless for everyone else I findthat songs either come to me or they don’t … the key is DO NOT fret about it, don’t put yourself under pressure, you’ll just end up a drunk or in hospital like I did … keep your mind active and creative and songs will come …

  • Chris Bolton

    Thanks for all your ideas, comments and suggestions. Keep them Coming!

    One of my other techniques is to make sure my lyrics are dressed in the same things that a new bride should wear:

    Something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue.

    Chris

  • One of the most successful songs I ever wrote – I looped the verse-chorus sequence on my computer – Listened and sat with headphones a mic for about 3 hours, making sounds – didn’t matter whether they were words or not. When a sound phrased well I turned it into the word/s it most closely resembled, recorded it and kept going. The words built until I had about 80% of a song built up. I then listened to these words and found to my surprise that most of them actually worked together to tell a story – after a small amount of editing the other 20% of the song wrote itself. The song’s story was one I would never have arrived at through any “rational” process with pad and paper. It was a great technique and I’m keen to try it again some time.

  • […] Chris Bolton adds his ideas for overcoming writers’ block in this CD Baby post. […]

  • Mary

    Wish horseplaying was that easy:) But songwriting really isn’t that much easier than horseplaying.

  • I loved the statement that if your lyric scratchings DON’T look like a high school prose attempt, then you’re not doing it right. I always write lyrics on paper, and the visual cacaphony looks like some of Beethoven’s tortured scrawlings on his original scores. I don’t go to the computer with words until after I feel like the lyrics are nearly complete.

  • Usually i come up with the best stuff through life experiences out of struggles, sadness, happiness, good love, bad love, deaths, friendships, God etc. but sometime times you have to just go into imaginary land. I like to try many ways to get inspiration. I like to write with a feeling and grove. I may try writing on my acoustic or banjo or electric with a bunch of gain on it, or a mando or a loop and some keys, a bouzuki, different combinations of these things. Different instruments and sounds can spark new ideas, thats if you can play them. i love all the comments above and use a lot of those ideas as well. Keep your mind body and soul heathy, it will give you the endurance you just may need to go the extra mile.

  • Anthony Pittarelli

    Nice article, I find that just the process of just actually sitting down to write everyday makes it so much easier

  • Gerson

    Great message on writer’s block.

    From Ngola

  • I always have a pen and notebook with me as ideas and lines can come at anytime.

    If I’m having a dry spell or want to come up with something different to my usual style, I will write a song with specific person in mind, I once wrote a song for Otis Redding (20yrs after he died) not a good career move, but I got a good song out of it.

  • One of the songs in my album LOVE TRACKS available on my website http://www.josephadebayo.co.uk was occasioned by two events: Firstly I was just passing by the British heart found charity shop and saw a notification for help/support. I instantly felt I needed to write a song about HEART and donate it to the foundation. Then the Haitian disaster cropped in; it grieved my mind/heart that this magnitude of devastation could happen to the nation. It then occurred to me that I should write a song on giving and helping, caring and charity to the disadvantaged; then I remembered my previous intention to write about heart. . It was here that the song title: – A LOVING HEART came. It took me three weeks of writing, joining and chopping sentences, phrases, voice clips and words to arrive at the present lyrics and the mood of the song. I used my mobile phone as my primary recording instrument, I recorded 32 voice clips of different phrases, sentences, tunes, rhymes, then transferred them to the computer software where I joined cut and paste the clips till it began to make sense. It was from this voice clips that I rewrote the words. I then played and sang along to the rough track until I knew it. Then I started fine tuning it afterwards.
    Other songs I wore arose out of my life experiences as a minister of the Gospel, Counsellor, Citizen and Vicarious experiences in relating with the general population.

  • Excellent suggestions! Here’s a digital story of how I dealt with writer’s block:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fAG_FaELRbk

    Keep up the good work everyone!

    Paul

  • Great article, Chris. And thanks also to Taylor, Linda Connell STudley, Taylor Sappe, Len Jennings, Matt Henshaw, Pete, Rico Thomas, Anthony Pittarelli and Dave W. for sharing their ideas.

    I seem to have a lot of music running in my head all the time but I can’t seem to find the lyrics to go with the music. But like Anthony Pittarelli said, it may be good to just keep writing every day.

  • excellent tips for songwriting. I have used many of these techniques and in my experience have found them to be extremely useful. Thanks!

  • It’s a very good article with valuable suggestions, and the comments are equally helpful and inspiring. I was just thinking yesterday that I hadn’t written much new material recently, so now maybe I can do something about it.

  • Bryce

    Most of my songs start out with one word or phrase that jumps out at me as being memorable or funny or profound. I say, now that’s a song waiting to be written.

    I write most songs while driving. I start out by sort of chanting the word or phrase. The natural cadence of the phrase suggests a rhythm. I play with the words and rhythm and a tune usually starts to emerge. If all goes well, I remember the tune when I get home and can pick it out on the piano and figure out a chord structure.

    Sometimes I pull over and frantically jot down the emerging words before I forget them, and wish I had some kind of recording device with me to catch the tune. Other times, I decide to have faith that if this song is meant to be, I will remember it. If it is not meant to be, it will mercifully not be remembered.

    Sometimes, when operating on the latter theory, I come up with what I think is a cool song and then forget it… for a while. Sometimes I remember it later, and it has been evolving in my subconscious mind while forgotten…

  • That is soooo true… I am definitely a witness… I’ve recorded a lot of songs and they are only in rough draft form… But after proofing the song over and over, and making the right adjustments to get your message across.. Then you have the final draft, which may be your money maker… Thanx again for the information.. Its been in my mind but it does good to get confirmation… God Bless

  • Thank you so much for the wonderful ideas about getting ideas. The story about Sting I find quite intriguing. I worked out of Julia Cameron’s “The Artists Way” a couple of years ago, and she is the proponent of the “morning pages”, where you sit down first thing in the morning and fill three pages of longhand totally stream of consciousness. I find that helps get some things flowing. That and, strangely enough, driving with the radio on, without consciously listening to the lyrics.

  • Damn…I can’t think of a comment!!

  • Lots of good advice above. I teach a songwriting class at a dulcimer festival in Michigan in July. I usually Wright about things that are true and I experienced. Sometimes I’ll Wright a song as a discipline, just to Wright a song, with no initial inspiration. I find the songs are best when starting with the words, because they are the reason for the music. First I’ll jot down the lyrics on paper, guitar in hand. Then when I type the song out on my computer, it’s like the slow process of picking at the keys gives me time to correct and improve the song. Sometimes I’m surprised how much better the song becomes as I type it into the computer.

  • I just have visions, then I write stories and compose songs. The tips and comments are all wonderful, but my problem is that my Muses give me too much to do. So several projects are always active. And, their storylines link.

    Finished an eight CD “Goddesses” cycle in January, had a new vision last month about extinction, shape-shifting and whooping cranes, but got distracted by a short story and its music based on my CD Ylla that was a score for Bradbury’s “Martian Chronicles.”

    The fountain never stops flowing, but some days I need a break!

  • all i can add is keep a pen and notebook by your bed. lyrics often develop in the subconcious realm.

  • Boyd

    Most of the Songs I’ve churned out in the last 2 years seem to have one of three themes, no matter what genre or style I choose. I am often chastized for overly simplistic lyrics (Telephones & Souls & Crosses & Poles-CD Baby) for the 2008-2010 offerings, but this criticism has done nothing to quell my desire to keep trying new sounds and continue developing as a writer. The tips contained herein are helpful. If you listen and observe when you’re out and about, you can get a lot of ideas.

  • For writer’s block, I listen to music I have never heard before for inspiration. Or art. Depending on the song, I may write the music first, or the lyrics first. No method.
    For this song, “The Day After, ” I was in a very imaginative space after spending some time with friends. Check out the results…

  • Cathie Fredrickson

    Most of my songwriting has been more person story telling and in the Folk genre, but I was watching Free Speech T.V., Amy Goodman about depleted uranium , and was inspired to move out of my self focused songs, and write a rock protest song and then video to go with it. This has switched my whole direction of the new songs I am writing now. Can be heard at http://www.youtube.com/user/cathiefredrickson

  • katie

    This helped me get a few more lines but then I was stuck again,I tried doing the steps over again but that sort of made me second guess myself whch contradited one of te tips… do you have anymore th can help with a severe case of the Writer Killer?

  • Chris Bolton

    Hi Katie,

    I think it’s often our critical mind that causes the problem–the second guessing. Being critical is important when you are polishing a draft, but it can be a burden when your still creating.

    For me, I will sit down for an hour and maybe end up with two or three lines of interest. When I begin to get frustrated–I stop.

    I just keep doing this, over a period of weeks-once or twice a week. And in most cases, by then end, I have something I’m fairly happy with.

    But never have I found it an easy process.

    Chris B

  • George West

    If you have friends who also write lyrics, take advantage of each other’s ‘shortcomings’ to shake writer’s block. My sister creates beautiful lyrical imagery but she’s not good at putting it all together in viable song form.

    I began to salvage her ‘throw-away’ sheets and sculpt what she had written into songs that we were both proud of. Of course, she got full co-writing credit.

  • George West

    Remember, too, that lyrics need not be complicated. If you get blocked, just think about your most routine activities for inspiration.

    Remember Paul McCartney ad HUGE hits with the simple lyrics:
    ‘Woke up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head…’ and ‘Someone’s knocking at the door, someone’s ringing the bell. Open the door and let them in.’

  • robie barnett

    Was wondering if there are any guitarist or other muscians out there that can help me put music to a song that I have written ?

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