If I asked you to paint a picture on a blank canvas, what would you paint? The potential is literally limitless, but so is the outcome. You could sit and stare at that canvas for hours and never paint a single stroke. But if I said to you…”Paint a picture of a nature scene.” Suddenly and instantly, you see birds, and clouds and trees. Maybe there’s a lake, and some people. Maybe it’s late afternoon and there’s a beautiful golden hue from the sun as it’s about to set behind the mountains in the distance? See what I have done? Just by limiting the painting to a nature scene, your imagination can suddenly thrive and creativity can flourish. Music is exactly the same. Here are 5 things that can help you unlock your creativity by simply setting some basic rules for yourself.
1. Picture your vision - What are you writing today? What’s the outcome? Are you writing for yourself, for pitching to artists, to film and tv? Now that you’ve built your creative box, and set your expectations, you can envision the end result. What are you trying to say? What are you trying to emote? Is it sad or happy? Use lyrics, chords and melodies to punctuate your purpose. A little trick can be as simple as writing positive songs in major keys…sometimes sadder songs are in minor keys. To quote the movie Spinal Tap…”This song is in D minor..the saddest of all keys.”
2. Pick your brush - Again…defining the direction of the song as early as possible, helps you know which brush to use. If you are writing to pitch for (let’s say) Doja Cat…breaking down the tone of the lyric and the delivery of the vocal is crucial to the pitch-ability of a song. But Ariana Grande or Post Malone have their own unique language both lyrically and musically. When you are writing to pitch, it’s also crucial to listen to the competition and be kind but critical with yourself to make sure that you are competing on every level.
3. Choose your colors - Try writing a sad song on a Ukulele…very tough. Choosing the tone and instruments to support the narrative is a big part of communicating the intention of your song. Is the vocalist telling the heartbreaking story of a love lost? Or does the instrumentation make it feel like the party it’s supposed to. Sometimes the first thing you should do is pick a tempo. Something as simple as the bpm can have an incredible influence in helping you stay within the limitations you have set for yourself.
4. Stay in the lines - I know it’s always fun to do the coloring. That’s when it really comes to life. The truth is that most of the work needs to go into the planning. Imagine building a house and putting up walls before you have a blueprint, or worse…no foundation. Every song needs a foundation and blueprint. It needs the basic bones, and then we can color the song. Maybe you stashed away the perfect title to start the fire? Or perhaps you have a great melody line ready to go? A word of advice, don’t obsess about a kick drum sound before you have the blueprint.
5. A picture is worth a 1000 words (or streams) - Every song tells a story. Regardless of if you are writing for yourself as the artist, or pitching to other artists (or film and TV), honesty is SO important. The reason we relate to music so viscerally is that it connects to us on a fourth plane of existence. It can’t be touched or tasted or felt. It just is. Unexplainable. But when we feel it, it can literally transport us back to a high school dance or a break-up…or a moment in time that has long been forgotten. Regardless if you are listening to Cardi B or Bob Dylan, you believe that you are gaining insight into who they are by simply connecting your earbuds. True songs and artists resonate by allowing a listener an emotionally connective link. Even if you’re not quite there…you will get better by doing more and more writing. Trust me…your favorite artist/songwriter/band started with some pretty crappy music. Keep writing.
Bonus #1: You’ve written the first verse, but you’re stuck on the second verse. Try flipping the perspective. You’ve now written the second verse, but need the first verse. How do we evolve the story? So many times Verse 1 is so descriptive that we get stuck on where the story goes. But by using V2 to guide the narrative, verse 1 becomes easier to write.
Bonus #2: Write too much, and edit later. If you get too bogged down in trying to write the perfect line at this precise moment, you could stifle the outpouring of creativity that’s to come. Even if the idea or rhyme isn’t perfect for this moment, it often makes sense as you go further down the path of writing that song. Always keep every idea readily available…you never know when it will come in handy, and re-spark creativity.