Setting restraints around your songwriting workflow is always a great way to fuel creativity. It’s fun working inside a box and it can help with finding the right musical colors to paint inside or outside the lines. One such box that’s stood the test of time is the classic four-track tape machines that were popularized by TASCAM in the 80s and 90s. It’s essentially an analog DAW that makes it possible to record up to four tracks onto tape. Even today many artists use these simple vintage tape machines to flesh out demos and even get a lo-fi sound. Recording with one is easy if you play guitar or keys and have access to a mic and pre-amp. Start out by writing down your song structure, then decide on a chord progression to record onto track one, after that write out the harmonies, vocals and lead lines on the remaining tracks. Of course, if you don’t want to buy all that gear you could always use a free songwriting app, like Spire, on your smartphone—to me it really emulates that classic tape machine workflow and you can take it anywhere!
Diving into new music theory concepts is always a great way to stimulate your songwriting chops. As much as they’re useful, minor, major and pentatonic scales can seem stale and dry if you’re stuck in a rut. Why not try incorporating some lesser-known scales into your songwriting workflow? Do you know your modes yet? What about the whole-tone scale, or the microtonal world of Euler-Fokker scales? You don’t need to spend time learning how to play a lesser-known scale on your instrument either, there’s plenty of MIDI sequencing tools that make it easy to sequence notes to a specific scale.
Extended techniques are all about playing your instrument the “wrong” way. The concept was developed in the 20th century to help composers push the boundaries of what was possible with traditional instrumentation. The most famous example is probably John Cage’s notorious “prepared piano” that included forks stuck between the strings and objects placed throughout the mechanics. But extended techniques aren’t just for stuffy academic music. You might even consider Dave Davies decision to slash the speaker cone of his amplifier on “You Really Got Me” an extended technique. The rugged, distorted guitar sound set the tone for a whole new generation of music—that’s raw creativity! Get it into your songwriting with extended techniques.
Doesn't “thrilled” sound much better than “very happy?” Instead of relying on intensifiers, expand your vocabulary to use punchier word choices. Grammarly will flag weak word choices and make suggestions for more effective words.
What would it sound like if you tried to re-record Bohemian Rhapsody right now without listening to it to refresh your memory? Probably nothing like the original! That’s why making an imperfect copy can be such a great creative strategy. It certainly worked for Dirty Projector’s Dave Longstreth. The band’s excellent 2007 LP Rise Above is a full-length cover of Black Flag’s legendary 1981 album Damaged. Longstreth apparently hadn’t listened to the original tracks in several years and the results are a strikingly creative take on the classic album
When Brian Wilson was struggling with his own songwriting—among other things—he was reportedly rewarded with cheeseburgers for every song he wrote. Brian’s system was pretty extreme. But the concept is really smart. Writing songs is tough.
Reward yourself when you’re finished.
If there’s a piece of gear that you’re eyeing, or a new studio toy you want, tell yourself that you have to write 5 songs before you even think about buying it. This will give you something to work towards beyond the satisfaction of being finished with a song—which is a pretty great reward in itself.
Author William S. Burroughs created the cut-up technique to help with his own writing. Except he wasn’t writing songs. He was writing books. But his concept is super effective for songwriting as well. It’s pretty simple. Just write out a bunch of words that are on your mind, cut them out and rearrange them into ideas. It doesn’t even have to be words either. It can be chords, notes, melodies, pictures or anything else that works for you. David Bowie famously used this technique to write some of his biggest hits. He explained his own cut-up technique in this BBC Documentary:
Infinity exists. The only proof you need is a blank DAW. There’s infinite VST plugins, infinite effects, infinite processing. But infinity isn’t always a good thing. Sometimes the best way to better your songwriting is to set a gear limit. Start with a strict list of what you’re gonna use. Limit your ideas to your gear list. Ideas will take shape much faster than having to constantly decide between a million options. It might sound weird but limitations can actually make you more creative. Because you have to work with what you’ve got and bend it to your sound. Plus keeping yourself limited will give you a deeper understanding of the tools you work with because you’ll have to push them all to the limit.
Here’s a really good tip if you’re stuck: GET TO THE POINT. When it comes to songwriting simple is always effective. But it’s hard to pull off. You have to be ruthless with your approach. Just ask the Beatles. Their song ‘Love Me Do’ has exactly 19 unique words in it. But it’s still one of the most iconic songs of all time. Simple is a skill that every songwriter should master. It keeps your songs relatable, engaging and catchy. Who doesn’t like a good sing along?
My favourite feeling in kindergarten was grabbing a handful of crayons and scribbling all at once. To be honest, I’m not sure why I stopped. Well, I guess I didn’t really stop necessarily. I Just do it in my DAW now. If I’m stuck building a beat I often open my piano roll, load up an instrument, grab the pen tool and just start scribbling down notes. After I’m done I play it back and listen for the happy accidents. Most of the time it’s 90% crapolla. But that interesting 10% is super valuable for ideas. So grab your DAW and channel your inner 5 year old every now and then.