Twelve Keys to Unlocking Writer’s Block

Posted by Paul Baloche, Jimmy & Carol Owens on 17 June 2014

We all have times when music flows freely. And we all have times when “the heavens are as brass” and we just can’t seem to break through spiritually. Or maybe we’re in a rut where all our songs are beginning to sound alike, at least to other people.

How do we get the juices flowing again? It depends on what’s causing the blockage. If it’s because we’re spiritually dry and don’t have anything fresh to say, the answer is obvious—we need a fresh drink of Living Water. But if we’re just musically dry, maybe we need to listen to some music. Especially when we try to write in an unaccustomed style, we need to soak ourselves in that particular stream for awhile. We don’t want to copy other people’s ideas; we just want to prime our pumps and refresh our memory of the characteristics of the genre.

The Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy, “Stir up the gift that is within you.” He was referring to a spiritual gift, but the same principle applies to the musical gift. Warm-up exercises stir athletes and singers to top performance,  and they work for songwriters too. Try some of these ideas to get the creative flow started:

Chord changes. Find a collection of good songs and look for unusual chord changes.These may spark fresh melodic ideas that might not have occurred to you otherwise. The chord change you started with may not appear in the final version of your song—but it’s served as a jump start when your battery was low. 

Rhythm patterns. Select a groove and start singing some lyric ideas over it. New riffs may spark new melodies. Lots of today’s music, including many modern worship songs, incorporate the use of drum machines in their creation. These modern tools can inspire you with subtle rhythmic influences you might not have thought of. 

Another key. If you’ve fallen into the habit of looking for melodies in keys like C, D or E-flat, where the tonic lies near the bottom of the staff, try playing around in F, G or A-flat, which put the tonic closer to the middle of the range.This will force you away from melodies that keep ending up high or low. You may get an entirely different feeling from one of these keys.

Or try experimenting in keys you don’t normally play in because they’re too difficult. Work at them until they become easier. This will not only make you a more complete musician, it may even suggest new melodies to you by keeping your fingers from falling where the ideas may be all fished out. Maybe you need to try some different fishing holes for a change.

Writing A Cappella. Try searching for a melody without using an instrument. The problem is that our fingers tend to develop habits of their own, and when we let them do the walking they tend to walk to the same old places over and over. When we take them out of the process, we may find ourselves freed up to head in some new directions. We can harmonize our melody later.

Another mode. How long has it been since you’ve fished around in a minor key? Don’t forget about them; they can take you to a whole new place.

Experimenting with scale tones. Play them over and see what ideas come. For example, start your melody on the 3rd degree of the scale. Then try starting on the 6th degree, or the 2nd.

Matching chords to lyrics. Look closely at your words—what is the overall feel of your message? What kinds of chords does it need? Try putting appropriate chords under certain key words or phrases, such as:

* Ringing triads for a triumphant line

* An add 9 or 6-9 for a lush, beautiful scene

* A major 7th for a peaceful and serene thought

* A triad with no 3rd ( a C5 or a G5 chord) for a Celtic, anthemic quality

  • *A iv minor 6 for a nostalgic feeling
  • *A flat 7th for a serious statement or a classic rock feel 
  • *A discordant alternate bass note for an ominous part

See what melodic ideas develop from them. Then work backwards and forwards from there to flesh out your melody.

Detuning your guitar. Tune your low E string down to a D and experiment with “Dropped D” tuning. Or tune your high E string down a half step and every chord will sound different. E will be Emajor7, etc. It may create a different mood, full of new ideas. Perhaps try using a “cut capo.” 

Playing along with a recording. Is this cheating? Of course not, as long as you don’t actually steal something. You’d be surprised how many successful writers do this. What you’re looking for is a jump start—something to get you into a genre and a feel that have already proven successful. After you’ve played along for a while, turn off the recording and improvise your own stuff. You may find you’ve turned a corner and the new material coming out of you now is your own. Something in there may spark the beginning of a song. But when you’re through, listen again to the recording to make sure that what you’ve wound up with really is yours. It’s sometimes hard to remember whether what you find yourself singing or playing was your idea or someone else’s.

Remember though, in all these attempts—don’t create a mechanical melody. Use these devices only as a starting point and let your own creativity take over. When you’re experimenting, you may want to turn on a tape recorder and forget about it. If something good comes you’ve got it. If not, you haven’t lost anything.

Take a break. Relax. If you’ve been working long and hard on your song and ideas have ceased to flow, you’ve probably worked your creativity into shutdown mode. Move around and get your mind on something else, something enjoyable that doesn’t take too much thought. A little R and R can literally re-create your ability to think and solve problems. When you come back you may have a breakthrough. Paul likes to go out and mow his lawn when he’s stuck.

Sleep on It. Apparently there really is something to that old adage. There is a stage at the edge of sleep, coming or going, during which our creativity is said to be at its highest. Just before you go to sleep, run over in your mind a song you’re working on. When you wake up, check it again and see if anything new has developed.

Pray About It. Sometimes, even in spite of our best efforts to prime our pumps, we still draw a blank, and if we’re up against a deadline, we find ourselves in trouble. That’s when we need extra special help from the Source of our creativity. (Of course this doesn’t mean, “Wait until all else fails—then pray.”)



Reused with permission

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