Few songwriters can access their creativity like turning on a faucet. But there are actions we can take that are conducive to getting our creative juices flowing. Let’s look at some ways to kick our imaginations into high gear.
Attend a Live Performance
During my first year in Nashville, I could be found at the famed Bluebird Café four or five nights each week. The Bluebird’s signature “Writers in the Round” shows featured successful songwriters playing stripped down versions of their hits and other original songs. Without the benefit of superstar recording artists’ vocals, and without the embellishment of backing tracks, instrumental hooks, background vocals, and other production elements, the songs were the stars.
Hearing the melodies and lyrics written by these exceptional craftsmen was a masterclass in hit songwriting. But in addition to the entertainment and educational value, attending these concerts provided an added perk for me. Invariably, song ideas would pour out of me during the shows. I scribbled these titles, concepts, and lyric phrases onto napkins, scraps of paper, and ATM receipts.
To be clear, I was not plagiarizing the songs I’d heard. In some cases, I re-imagined how I would approach a similar concept—what my unique spin would be. But in most instances, I was simply being stimulated by the creativity that sizzled through the room and my muse was super-charged to create something that had no connection to anything I had heard.
I virtually never drove home from one of those shows without starting a new song in the car. When I got back home to the attic room I rented, I would work on that song until the wee hours of the morning. Hearing guitar/vocal versions of superbly written songs unleashed my creativity. But attending any concert gives my muse a nudge.
Take a Drive
When I go to a cowriting session, I come prepared with what I call song starts. These might be recorded snippets of melody, titles, lines of lyrics, chord changes, or grooves. But while driving to meet my collaborator, I invariably get new ideas. In most cases, one of the starts that emerge while I’m driving to the session wind up being the one we write.
In one instance when I was tasked with creating the topline (melody and lyrics) to an existing music track, I drove around a parking lot at a shopping mall that was closed, listening to the track over and over until the melody & lyric revealed itself. Few activities get my creative juices flowing more than driving.
Switch Your Mode of Writing
If you typically write lyrics while typing them into a computer, try writing with pen and paper—or vice versa. If you are a multi-instrumentalist, switch the instrument you use when writing. For example, if you usually accompany yourself on guitar when you write, try using a keyboard, or write acapella—with no instrument at all.
Hit artist Colbie Caillat shared at the Hawaii Songwriting Festival that a collaborator tuned her guitar to an alternate tuning and inadvertently left it that way when their writing session ended. Strumming her guitar with that alternate tuning led to her writing her signature hit “Bubbly” (written by Caillat and Jason Reeves).
Any approach that is different from the way we typically write can stir up our creative juices.
Write in a Coffeeshop
I frequently visited a coffee shop a couple of blocks from Nashville’s Music Row, where I was virtually guaranteed to spot songwriters hard at work, singing melodies into their phones and typing lyrics into their laptops. I had similar experiences in Los Angeles and New York City.
Many writers report that the buzz and the chatter in a café helps them to focus on their task. They also appreciate being free of the distractions they encounter at home.
According to J.K. Rawlings, author of the Harry Potter books, “It’s no secret that the best place to write, in my opinion, is in a café. You don’t have to make your own coffee, you don’t have to feel like you’re in solitary confinement and if you have writers block, you can get up and walk to the next café while giving your batteries time to recharge and brain time to think.”
T.S. Elliott, Franz Kafka, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott Fitzgerald are among those who also frequently wrote in coffee shops.
Take a Break
Many of the strongest elements in my songs popped into my mind during a bathroom break or a walk down the hall to get coffee. In many instances, I took those breaks because I felt frustrated at being unable to find the elusive magical line of lyric or special musical moment I sought. When I stopped trying to force the creativity it simply appeared.
Go for a Walk
Whether I’m stepping to the rhythm of a big city or taking a gentle stroll while immersing in a natural setting, walking often opens my mind and allows melodies and lyrics to bubble to the surface. In some instances, these melodies keep time with the pace of my stride, as if I were stepping to a beat. Some writers find that jogging produces a similar effect.
I can’t count how many melodies, lyrics, or titles have come to me while I was walking in New York City’s Central Park, at Nashville’s Radnor Lake, and on my favorite Kauai walking path. Find those places that spark your creativity.
Visit an Art Museum
It might seem as if viewing paintings and other visual works of art would have little connection to writing music and lyrics. But there have been many times when the act of basking in the beauty of a Renoir or Van Gogh masterpiece has opened the door to a melody or lyric. Creativity begets creativity.
Take a Shower
When I asked my songwriter Facebook friends what sparked their creativity, I was surprised at the high number who reported that many of their best ideas have come while taking a shower. It reminded me of a routine I followed decades ago.
When I worked temp jobs to pay the bills, I typically dressed in a jacket and tie; spent an hour in bumper-to-bumper L.A. freeway traffic; worked at mind-numbing tasks for eight or more hours; then returned home drained and exhausted. There was no way I could be creative.
After a bite to eat, I would take a twenty-minute nap followed by a quick shower. In many instances, I found myself singing in the shower with original melodies and lyrics pouring out of me. But regardless of whether I worked on a song in the shower, I emerged refreshed, feeling like myself again, and ready to write.
Set a Timer
Like so many creative people, the voices in my head sometimes ask, “Don’t you know the odds of getting a hit are one in a million? What makes you think you’re so special?” When my muse hears these messages it retreats rather than risk failure.
One way to create a space in which our muses can safely appear is by setting a timer for five, ten, or fifteen minutes and limiting our writing to that amount of time. There is only one rule: no internal critics are permitted to comment during this time. As long as I allow words or music to come out of me—and do not allow the naysayers in my head to deter me—I have done the exercise perfectly.
It’s fascinating to see what my muse can bring forth when the fear of being judged is removed. Sometimes, I get strong ideas during these “safe” periods and before I know it, an hour or more has passed and I am still writing. But knowing that my session is time-ended—and that my work will not be criticized—puts out the welcome mat for my muse.
Read a Book or Watch a Movie
A well-written novel or movie script is sure to include strong dialogue, compelling relationships, imagery, detail, and challenges for characters to overcome. Many of the issues and emotions expressed in books and movies lend themselves to songs.
When I step away from my own writing and enter a fictional world, I am being moved by the tools other creators use to engage their audiences. Next thing I know, my muse says, “Hey, you can do that!” and I’m back to work.
All of the actions described in this article have something in common. In every instance, engaging in these activities gives our brains a break. When we remove the pressure and stop insisting that we be brilliant on demand, we give our muses a chance to do what they are meant to do—inspire us.
We cannot switch on our creativity like flicking on a light. But there are actions we can take to encourage our muse to emerge. Try some of these and find what works for you.
Jason Blume is the author of 6 Steps to Songwriting Success, This Business of Songwriting, and Inside Songwriting (Billboard Books). His latest book, Happy Tails—Life Lessons from Rescued Cats and Kittens (SPS/Blue Mountain Arts) combines his love of photography and cats. Jason’s songs are on Grammy-nominated albums and have sold more than 50,000,000 copies. A guest lecturer at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (co-founded by Sir Paul McCartney) and at the Berklee School of Music, he has been interviewed as a songwriting expert for CNN, NPR, the BBC, Rolling Stone, and the New York Times. To receive a free video, “3 Things You MUST Do for Success” and weekly tips to enhance creativity click on https://tinyurl.com/yckat6fc. Join Songwriting With Jason Blume on Facebook for free events and song critiques. For information about his workshops, webinars, additional articles, and more, visit www.jasonblume.com.