First published in Victory Review, July 2000.
One of my students was a gifted singer-songwriter and guitarist who felt
she was in a musical rut. Although she was quite skilled on the guitar,
she felt that the guitar accompaniments she'd written for her more
recent songs were boring, too familiar and predictable, and that she was
spinning her wheels. This frustration was affecting her songwriting as
well. She wanted to explore new musical territory but was uncertain how
to go about it.
One of the things we worked on was rethinking the role of the guitar
in her songwriting process. Like many songwriters, she had two main modes
in which she wrote songs: writing words then putting a melody to them,
or writing a melody then putting words to it. Either way, the guitar accompaniment
would come last, almost as an afterthought, and it always played a subordinate
I encouraged her to spend time simply noodling around on her guitar,
letting her innate musicality come through on this instrument rather than
through her voice. This was a new idea for her. She was used to letting
herself explore when she sang or wrote, and she was used to having songs
emerge from that process. Yet she didn't feel the same freedom on
the guitar, despite her ability.
Like this student, many performing songwriters feel a sense of doubt
or distance when it comes to their instrument, and they don't spend
much time just playing their guitar or piano or whatever it might be.
As a result, they have difficulty finding their own "voice"
on their instrument, and this difficulty reinforces their self doubt.
Of course, there are many performers who don't have this trouble,
but for those who do, it's very frustrating, and it's often
the hidden cause behind a persistent case of writer's block.
As a songwriter, it's good to spend time exploring and creating
on your instrument, away from the voice, away from words, away from the
notion that your instrument is only for "accompaniment." Explore
it on its own terms. See what sorts of little musical ideas might come.
Beautiful chord voicings. Interesting textures. Infectious grooves.
Find a way to save and collect these little instrumental ideas, just
as you collect the catchy vocal and lyrical fragments you think of. Keep
a stash of these instrumental ideas. Return to your instrument regularly
and run over them, developing and refining them. You'll find that
some will have an almost hypnotic power, an inherent beauty and fascination
that prevents them from becoming tiresome. You'll find yourself playing
some of these ideas over and over again, like a musical mantra.
This is actually one of my favorite things to do. It really is a kind
of meditation for me, and an important part of my songwriting process.
I have many little solo guitar and piano grooves and patterns, musical
seeds waiting to sprout into songs. If you cultivate these ideas, you'll
find that words and melodies will come, which, in turn, will spark further
instrumental refinements. Each element works in synergy with the others,
and the songs that emerge will have a different quality from those written
using your habitual process. Not only will the songs be different, but
the instrumental parts will be much more developed, with an independent
life and identity of their own — a second voice.
A variation on this process is to see whether any of the instrumental
fragments you've collected work well with any of the fragments in
your melody and/or lyric stockpiles. You'll be amazed how two previously
unrelated elements from totally different spheres fit together perfectly,
as though they were made for each other.
For songwriters who feel caught in a musical rut or who doubt their instrumental
abilities, exploring their instruments in this way can be liberating.
And if your habitual songwriting process always begins with your instrument,
try playing with words and melodies first. Learn to approach songwriting
from any angle. Enjoy!
Copyright 2000 by Richard Middleton.
All rights reserved.
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is a songwriter, musician, teacher, and writer based in Seattle. He is the author of "Reading Rhythm"