Making Music After a Major Life Struggle

[Editors Note: This blog was written by Patrick McGuire. Patrick is a writer, composer, and experienced touring musician based in Philadelphia.]


I used to admire how some of my favorite artists could seamlessly convert the most difficult challenges of their lives into incredible songs. But I found it nearly impossible to do just about anything, let alone write music, in November 2016 after my right elbow was shattered in a hit-and-run biking accident. Realizing that the process of pulling potent lyrics and memorable melodies out of my sudden intense pain and turmoil was going to be anything but easy and straightforward, I’d stare at my computer screen for a few minutes and retreat back to bed after using my good arm to set up my small MIDI keyboard that I planned on writing melodies and bass lines with.

Yes, making and experiencing music can be a powerful agent of therapy and comfort in all things – not just life’s unexpected traumas and setbacks – but it can be hugely difficult or downright impossible to keep writing songs after experiencing death or loss, or any other significant trouble. After undergoing the first of two surgeries I’d eventually need to bring full functionality back to my arm, I soon defiantly returned to songwriting in a percocet-induced haze, but the ideas I managed to eek out seemed uninspired and forced to me.

‘I’ve got plenty to write about,’ I thought. Why isn’t this working?

After a major setback, we’re often eager to make something good come out of a horrible experience, but that’s not always the way it works. For me, I couldn’t make meaningful music again until I was able to fully process and cope with what had happened to me. Yes, I needed and still need a consistent songwriting practice to feel happy and fulfilled, but I was woefully preoccupied at the time with more pressing matters like simply staying afloat as a human being.

Depending on your situation, you simply might not be able to find the time, energy and resources to make music after the trauma you’ve experienced, and that’s okay. That’s not a failing on your part or representative of you as a person. This can be a really difficult thing to accept if you’re a person who uses music-making in your life as a means to stay sane and creatively productive; but like with most things, the passing of time is the only thing that can get you back to doing the things you love.

It took me months before I was able to start making music again at full capacity. The most obvious challenge in writing and producing music after my accident was the temporary loss of my right and dominant arm –– I play guitar and keys –– but depending on your unique trauma, you’ll face an entirely different set of hurdles that need to be cleared.

If you’ve experienced the death of someone close to you, the act of creating music might be something that loses its meaning for a while.

For someone experiencing financial trouble like the loss of a job or an unforeseen medical expense, you might be forced to choose between finding time to make ends meet and making music.

But like with everything after experiencing a huge setback, it’s paramount to keep trying to get back to a sense of normalcy. Maybe you’ll be able to make some incredible music after your trauma about what you’ve experienced, but a more realistic goal is to return to your usual songwriting process whenever you’re able to. This way you won’t have to deal with your problems while facing pressure to create a masterpiece out of them at the same time.

Some musicians are able to completely immerse themselves in their work as a means for coping with life’s struggles, but you shouldn’t be discouraged if you’re someone without the means and inspiration to do the same thing.

Stories of how artists make music inspired by death, breakups and other traumas are good for dramatic bios and press releases, but they don’t reflect the often tedious difficult work of songwriting. If the music you make after a life struggle isn’t emotionally raw or moving, that’s okay. It might take a long time for you to make compelling music again, but you should do everything you can to be kind to yourself and to celebrate your songwriting efforts after experiencing hardship no matter what sort of music you manage to create.

It’s coming up on the 12-month anniversary of my accident, and my songwriting isn’t the same if I’m being honest. But how could it be? I’m a little better after what happened to me in some ways and noticeably worse in others. That’s life for you, right? All I can do is move forward the best way I can and be grateful that I still have the desire and means to still be making music.

  • Luke Skyscraper James

    Wonderful article, thank you Kevin. I’m 3 months into recovery from a bout of pneumonia that almost killed me. I have chronic fatigue syndrome and can’t beathe well enough (yet) to sing. Your article gives me hope and perspective. Best of luck with your music, you deserve it!

    • tunecore

      Thanks for reading and sharing your personal experience, Luke!

  • Francis Nicholas Driscoll

    The Francis Struggle and Progress:
    In the year 2008, I moved to Las Vegas to pursue my dreams as a Professional Musicologist and Producer. I built a studio and tried my hand at Producing other Artists, when that didn’t work I decided to start writing and recording myself, and I wrote and produced my Debut Single Necessary!
    The following year I went to see Prince again at The Garden! Over all the years, he had been that one singular Artist that was so influential, he made me want to be an Artist myself! I first saw him at The Garden in 1986 with his original Band the Revolution, then twice on the Lovesexy Tour, again at The Garden and then the Tour Closer at Nassau Coliseum in Strong Island! A few years after that, I sustained a Spinal Cord Injury that left me Wheelchair Bound for Life, but that didn’t stop me! After years of extensive Rehabilitation, I got to see Prince in ’97 at the Oakdale Theater and then again in ’98 at The Garden, then 2 more times in ’04 on the Musicology Tour, in Continental Arena in New Jersey and the Civic Center in Hartford! Following that I moved to Las Vegas…..
    The Prince Concerts I attended in my youth, plus everything I ever saw or heard him do, literally taught me how to be a Musician myself, so in the fall of 2014, I released my first Professional Intellectual Property: THE FRANCIS SOUND (EP)! Right around that time, I caught 3 more Prince Concerts at the Hard Rock, I was picked to perform Gin and Juice with Snoop Dogg one night there also, and having recorded one of my Tracks in Public Enemy’s Terrordome with their original DJ Johnny Juice, with all these great things that happened to me I amassed the courage and confidence to move forward with my Recording Career!
    I started going to the Art Institute of Las Vegas in 2015 to learn the Pro Tools Recording Program, which is the Standard Program used in the Recording Industry! I didn’t graduate due to circumstantial issues, but the wealth of knowledge I gained in College was a Life Experience, and all the years I spent here hanging around at Concerts with bands like Purple Reign, Santana and Public Enemy gave me the wherewithal I needed to jump start my own Career and release my First Full Album Vegas Dayz independently! Which is where I am at the present time with regard to the current way Music is prominently consumed:
    The Music Business has changed, and Prince, right before his sudden death, recently showed me the way. I signed a Digital Distribution Deal with Tunecore, which puts my Music on the High Fidelity Streaming Service TIDAL! Which I believe Streaming in High Definition protects the integrity of our catalogs, as Artists. Tunecore also distributes my Album VEGAS DAYZ to other Streaming Services such as Spotify, YouTube, GooglePlay, Napster, Amazon Music, Shazam, and Pandora! To say that I owe it all to Prince and the other Artists I follow, would be a gross understatement, I’ve done Prince and 2Pac Tribute Shows Locally amongst performing and promoting my own Material, and plan to do more while also recording in my own Francis Sound Studios, Located conveniently in the Sam’s Town Section of East Las Vegas! The sky’s the limit, and I’m shooting for the stars!