Have you ever had a song breakthrough? Do you know what I mean by that? I’m talking about a song that somehow stands apart from your usual fare…something that doesn’t seem at all your “normal” style of writing. How does it happen, and when it does, do you fight it or do you welcome it?
First of all, the “rut” we all get ourselves into once in awhile often creates a kind of frustration that is actually very useful. I relate it to what happens to children when they are small…just before they have a growth spurt, they go through a small period of restlessness and discomfort. As a parent, you KNOW that when they start getting restless, it’s because a change is coming! If, as a songwriter, you try to view your ruts as the frustration before the breakthrough, this might help you to get through them.
So what do you do to get to the “breakthrough” part? This should be treated exactly the same as when you are simply low on inspiration, which is pretty much the same thing. Many songwriters discuss the idea of listening to other music, something completely out of your normal realm, as being helpful in this cause. Trying other instruments can also bring about a musical epiphany. If you’re stuck on ideas for song topics, read a book that you would not have chosen before, go to a place you haven’t been before and people watch, or read some lyrics from your favourite lyricists.
I’ll tell you something that recently worked for me. I sat down with my guitar and started to pretend I was a completely different singer…I was basically “acting”. And for some reason, this brought out a very unusual (for me) chord progression, melody, and a kind of phrasing I hadn’t tried before. What is “phrasing”? In musical terms, it’s a grouping of words and melody. For instance:
Mary had a little lamb
Little lamb, little lamb
The first line has one phrase, the second has two. I’ve separated the phrases with commas. Do you write in long phrasings, or do you create a series of short ones in, for instance, a verse?
But I digress 🙂 The point is that pretending I was someone else just put me in a completely different head space, and out came something quite new for me. This is what I would consider a “breakthrough”. I could have just laughed at it and moved on, but instead I allowed myself to explore it a little. Don’t throw anything away too quickly! If you’re not sure about it, record it on your trusty little digital recorder and then listen to it later with fresh ears. Then again, you might be extremely excited at what is coming out and have the drive to finish it right then and there. The opposite could also be true…you could finish it and then when you’re listening to it later, it could sound like complete garbage. Oh, well 🙂
In the beginning, as you’re honing your songwriting craft, you might have quite a few breakthroughs. A learning environment almost always inspires. As time goes by, you’ll likely find that you fall into more predictable patterns with your writing as well. This is not necessarily a bad thing…hey, maybe it’s just your style! But if you feel stagnant, then it’s time to do something really different in your life that will change your perspective and help you to find a fresh path. Changing your songwriting environment may also help. Have you ever tried to write something in the great outdoors? On a beach or under the stars?
Another point: don’t be afraid to explore this breakthrough with several songs. Sometimes painters will draw a number of sketches of the same subject before they focus on one perspective and paint that. If you’ve come up with something really different for you, let it develop a little by writing a couple of songs in the same style. Breakthroughs don’t come along very often…so make the most of it!