Having been a professional songwriter for 20 years, if experience has taught me one thing, it's that the best way to kill your songwriting progress is to stay in your comfort zone. I've had periods in my career where I've played it safe and stuck with what I know best, and it's led to some of the most painful droughts of creativity. For that reason, I've compiled six of my favorite ways to get out of that dreaded comfort zone, for anybody who needs a little boost with their songwriting.
1. Write on a New Instrument
Playing a new instrument can really help to shake up your songwriting. It doesn't matter if you're a multi-instrumentalist or not, if you can make sounds come out of an instrument, you can use it to write. I mostly play guitar, and I use that to write songs. When I need to step outside my comfort zone I'll try writing on a piano, accordion, ukulele or whatever I happen to have lying around.
This stretches the songwriting muscles, and forces you to think about musical ideas you would have otherwise never thought of.
2. Write in a Different Genre
You can be surprised by what comes up when you work in a genre you've never done before. Not only does genre research help you learn the basics of what makes that particular genre tick, but it gives you a new element to add to your songwriting arsenal moving forward.
To stay fresh, it is important to explore new ideas and even if you are firmly rooted in a specific genre, it's good to surprise your listeners by incorporating influences from other fields of music. Introducing yourself to new genres is a great way to expand your horizons and try out new ideas.
3. Write in a Different Order
One way to get stuck in the comfort zone is to always write things in the same order. This can mean a couple of things.
First of all, what part of the song do you usually start with? It's not uncommon for songwriters to start by writing a catchy chorus before moving on to the verses and bridge. For others, it is verse first and then chorus. Regardless of your approach, switching it up will make a big difference. It helps you get outside your comfort zone and it makes you think about how to do things differently.
Secondly, do you start with music or lyrics? Changing it up can make a big difference. I used to write music and lyrics pretty much simultaneously. The transition to theater was a huge change for me, as I found myself writing music to pre-existing lyrics. Now, I was limited to the number of syllables in a line, and had little control over meter or rhythm. This led to songs unlike anything I had written before and stretched my songwriting muscles.
So, switch things up. Turn your normal writing process upside down and produce something fresh.
4. Use Random Chords
If you write a lot of songs (and you should—quantity begets quality), you may find at times you keep reverting to the same familiar chords and progressions. However, when we need our comfort zone stretched a bit, it pays to try out something new. And that's where randomness comes in.
I've gotten some great ideas for songs by playing random chord progressions. There are lots of random chord generators online that spit out progressions to your specifications. All you need to do is click a button and try playing what the robot hands you. Here's a link to my favorite one.
Writing with other people forces most of us out of our comfort zones (except those who do it routinely). And as such, it's one of the best ways to grow as a songwriter.
Writing with another person will broaden your horizons and introduce you to new methods of writing that can be very useful down the line. And of course, it can be a wonderful method of networking, which is possibly the most important thing you can do for your career.
6. Set Yourself a Songwriting Challenge
A good challenge is probably the best way to push your boundaries and it can be incredibly rewarding. I enjoy setting challenging goals and working crazy hard to meet them. It has led me to some fantastic songs.
There are many different ways to set yourself a songwriting challenge. You can set a goal to write as much as possible in the shortest amount of time, or set very strict boundaries for the song (using only one chord, for example)
However, my favorite type of challenge is one that encourages regular songwriting. This is why I created a 4 week songwriting challenge that gives you a daily songwriting prompt, and challenges you to write one song every single day for those four weeks. That's 28 songs in one month! Furthermore, it’s based on specific songwriting prompts, so you’re pulled out of your comfort zone every single day. It’s a great way to grow as a songwriter.
7. Final Thoughts
If you want to write songs, then remember that you'll get better at it with time. The more you do it, the better you'll get. This is why you need to make a daily songwriting routine part of your life if you want to improve as a songwriter. But also, if you stop challenging yourself and getting outside that comfort zone, you stop getting better.
So, keep challenging yourself. Keep trying new things. Keep growing.
EYVINDUR KARLSSON is an Icelandic singer-songwriter who shares his tips and experience as a veteran professional songwriter on his web site, strongwriting.net. He has written music for award-winning musicals, traveled the world with his theater productions and currently hosts The Strongwriting Podcast, a podcast for songwriters of any experience level.