Going for that IV-iv-I progression again, huh?
It can be easy to fall into familiar habits when it comes to writing music. We all have a personal catalog of chords, lyrical themes, and song forms we like to rely on. Consistency isn’t always a bad thing, but sometimes repetition leaves us unfulfilled and our listeners bored. If you’re trying to write better, more creative songs, try out some of these exercises to get your creativity flowing:
1. Write chord progressions over a fixed bass line
If you find yourself returning to the same chords over and over, try this out. First, write a series of eight notes. Maybe it’s a simple scale, or a weird, jumpy chromatic line. The exact notes don’t matter, though you’ll get a more interesting result if your line is chromatic and atonal. Above this bass line, create some chords! Each of your eight notes should be the root of a different chord. The challenge is to make a progression that sounds good without changing the original notes you chose. This exercise is a fun way to break out of your usual harmonic vocabulary, and maybe find some new progressions to use in your next song.
2. Shake up your form
Contrary to popular belief, not every song has to follow the standard “verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus” form. What if your song started with the chorus? What if there was no chorus, just verses? Could there be two bridges, each with different material? Experiment with different structures and think of all the possible ways you could rearrange and customize the sections of a song. Once you have a form decided, commit to writing a song around it and see what happens!
3. Free write
Another way to break out of stifling song forms is to forgo them completely (at the beginning, at least). Rather than worry about what the lyrics in your chorus are going to be, just start writing. No stanzas, no verses, just sentences and phrases. See if you can fill up two whole pages on your song’s theme or topic. Then go back and see if there’s anything you can fashion into a verse or bridge. Avoiding writing with couplets or stanzas can also help you break away from the need to rhyme everything. Rhymes add balance and a sense of completeness, but they’re not a required feature of a song. Sometimes they feel more limiting than empowering, and free writing can help solve this.
4. Grab the nearest dictionary
When making her third album, Florence Welch was explicitly told she was not allowed to write any more songs about water. It was a theme she had exhausted in her previous songs, and her producer wanted to push her to explore new lyrical ideas. If you find yourself relying on the same words and phrases song after song, make a list of them and challenge yourself to write three songs without using a single word on it. Once you’ve done that, write three more songs without your blacklisted words. After that, three more—and so on. Another challenge that will expand your lyrical vocabulary is to randomly select a word from the dictionary and write a song using it. This one can get tricky, so good luck!
If you’re looking for more songwriting tips, check out our other posts on improving your craft!