A songwriter recently posed an intriguing question: what can we do when we have a strong idea for a song, but realize that the song we’re writing is not turning out nearly as well as we hoped? How do we change direction? How can we switch gears when we have grown accustomed to our melody, groove, chord progression, and lyric?
First, give yourself credit for recognizing that your song is falling short of the mark, and for being willing to explore alternate approaches. These are not easy things to do, and they get even tougher as we invest more time and energy in a song. But there are actions we can take to break out of our current mindset, get unstuck, and approach our lyric and/or melody from a fresh perspective. Here are some of the things that I—and some of my students—have found helpful.
- Record what you have written and listen back. We can be more objective and hear things differently when we are not performing the song. Sometimes, while listening to our recording, what is working—and what needs a new approach– becomes apparent.
- Those who play multiple instruments might try writing on a different instrument. If you’ve been writing while accompanying yourself with a keyboard, see if your song takes on a new direction if you switch to guitar or vice versa.
- Guitarists might try an alternate tuning. At the Hawaii Songwriting Festival, Colbie Caillat shared that her #1 breakthrough hit, “Bubbly,” (written by Caillat and Jason Reeves) was written when she began strumming a guitar that someone had left at her home tuned to an alternate (open “D”) tuning.
- Try harmonizing your song differently. A new chord, or chord progression, might just be the ticket to deliver your melody to the next level.
- Experiment with different tempos. Maybe the mid-tempo song you are writing would come to life if it were up-tempo. Maybe the driving rock song you’re writing would take on an entirely new dimension if it were a tender ballad.
- Explore various time signatures. For example, check out how the song you are writing in 4/4 time sounds with a 6/8 – or other – time signature. Even if you don’t prefer the new time signature or tempo, hearing your song this way can sometimes help you change gears and head down a different path.
- Try writing a capella. It’s tempting to revisit the same familiar chords and progressions. By stepping away from our instrument, we can sometimes shake up our creative process and escape from a rut. Without the confines of a chord progression you might land on a melody you would have never otherwise found.
- If your roadblock is a lyric issue, ask yourself if your song might be better served by a different lyric approach. Maybe telling a story (instead of describing how you feel) or incorporating additional details is the ticket to a stronger song. Or if you are already telling a story, you might explore different scenarios that might lead more effectively to – and support –your title.
- Might your lyric lend itself to a “list” technique? How about incorporating simile, metaphor, or hyperbole? (See my articles “How to Use the List Technique in Your Songs” and “How to Write Non-Visual Lyrics That Engage Listeners”)
- Think about the artist whom you would most like to record your song. (If you are a performing songwriter or recording artist, the perfect artist for your song might be you.) Visualize that artist performing the song in front of a cheering crowd. “Hear” the melody, the groove, the instrumentation. Pay attention to the words. Allow your imagination to show you how your song might sound when it is a hit. This suggestion might sound a little odd, but it has worked for me.
When you’ve tried some of these actions, go for a walk or a drive, take a bath, read a book, or watch a movie. Focus on anything other than your song. Stop trying to force creativity, set your song aside, and allow it to marinate. You might be amazed at what emerges.
Try some of these tips and don’t stop working on your song until it is as strong as it deserves to be. Stick to it and I bet you’ll get unstuck.