8 Cures For Lyric Writer’s Block


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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