The four mistakes that hold your songwriting back

7 December, 2013 in Features, Tips & Techniques

Playing piano

Ryan Buckner looks at some common mistakes made by songwriters, why they hold you back and how to avoid them

ntil you learn an effective method of continually coming up with great ideas for writing a song, you will struggle in your songwriting and experience a lot of frustration. The truth is, many musicians have a hard time thinking of good songwriting ideas on a consistent basis – so if you struggle with this, don’t worry, you are not alone!

Fortunately, thinking of a lot of song ideas isn’t as hard is it may seem. Chances are, you may just need to correct some very common mistakes that are limiting your creative musical potential. Here are four of the most common…

Mistake #1: Overcomplicating your song ideas
In some cases, songwriters struggle to come up with great ideas while writing songs and decide that the solution is to ‘add more’ on top of whatever ideas they already have. These musicians get into the unfortunate habit of adding on more and more until everything becomes a big mess of lacklustre ideas. Songwriters who make this mistake usually take a ‘spray and pray’ approach – hoping that something will ‘stick’ and randomly sound good. Although it is certainly a good thing to experiment by combining different kinds of musical ideas together, this approach will not bring you much results.

Don’t underestimate the power of writing simple musical parts (I’m not talking Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star of course – you don’t have to go that simple). Write your music beginning with a very basic idea that sounds pretty cool without worrying about how complicated it sounds. For instance, a short, but cool-sounding chord progression or ‘motif’. Later on, you can add to this idea to make it more complex if you like, but at  least if you start off with an idea that sounds good you can always go back to it if you start to dislike the direction it’s going in.

Taking a more simple approach will give you a major boost in momentum that will help you along in your quest to come up with tons of great ideas for songwriting.

Mistake #2: Having nothing to say
If you do not already have ‘something to say’ in your music, it will be increasingly hard to think of ideas for writing a song. There is an endless amount of musicians who have never really thought about what it is that they want to say in their music – they only think about writing cool melodies, guitar licks, etc. In the long run, you MUST have something to say if you want to be able to consistently come up with awesome songwriting ideas.

“Invest some time in thinking about what you want to express”

Inspiration is the foundation for musical creativity and without something to say you will quickly find yourself struggling to think of new ideas for songs. Of course, you can come up with some good ideas for songwriting by thinking only from the ‘musical’ side of things. However, when you take the time to think critically about what it is that you truly want to express, you will come up with countless more ideas and directions to take in your songs.

Whenever you are about to begin a songwriting session, invest some time in thinking about what you really want to express. Make sure NOT to skip this important step! You will find that you can quickly gain inspiration by simply knowing what you want to write about – this in itself will help you generate many new songwriting ideas.

Mistake #3: Writing on just one instrument
When you are trying to think of new songwriting ideas, are you accustomed to only using a single instrument? Most musicians are – but this approach is actually quite limiting. Why? When you only use one instrument to write your songs, you limit your creativity because you gravitate toward the usual licks, scales and phrases that you play. Additionally, your songwriting is limited based on the fundamental limitations of the instrument itself (ie, the specific sounds a particular instrument can make).

Rather than using ‘only’ a single instrument to come up with ideas for writing a song, try using a minimum of three at any given time (this may require some research on your part). This will not only help you build your skills and write more high quality music, but it will give you an even greater pool to draw from in terms of creative songwriting possibilities.

“You don’t have to write a whole song in order to improve your songwriting”

Mistake #4: Not practising your songwriting
So many musicians never improve at songwriting because they don’t think to actually ‘practise’ or measure their progress. For some reason, the majority of songwriters falsely think that creating music is a skill that one doesn’t practise since it has to do with creativity/self-expression. This thinking is totally backwards! Just as you would construct a routine for practising your main instrument, you must also ‘practise’ songwriting and consistently measure your progress in order to get better.

That said, you don’t have to write a whole song in order to improve your songwriting. Target the exact areas you would like to get better at in your songwriting and focus on improving only in those areas, whether its writing melodies, verse lines or choruses. When you use this approach, you will quickly become much better at coming up with ideas for writing songs because you will be in the habit of writing in different musical situations with different musical elements.

Now that you know what mistakes will limit your musical creativity and reduce your ability to think of new ideas for writing songs, get tons more great songwriting ideas and learn how to create music that sounds exactly how you want it to by studying this free songwriting resource on how to make better music.

Words: Ryan Buckner


Ryan Buckner is a songwriter, shred guitarist and guitar teacher in the Oklahoma City area. He runs an instructional songwriting website that helps musicians learn how to use creative songwriting techniques, write song lyrics and writing and express themselves through music.

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