Songwriting Tips: Embracing Boundaries and Scarcity To Unleash Creativity

February 14, 2019

[Editors Note: This article was written by Patrick McGuire.]

Though most people know that more doesn’t necessarily translate to better in life, it’s a notion that still somehow weedles its way into the psyche of many songwriters. If you’ve ever found yourself waiting to create the music you know you’re capable of making, one of the reasons could be because you’re holding out for things to get bigger and better in your career.

“If I were signed to a label, had better instruments and equipment, had more time, I’d be able to write better music.”

But examine music a little more closely, and you’ll see that musicians of every age and experience level often make incredible results under conditions that are anything but ideal.

With streams now totaling well over 100 million, 19 year-old songwriter Clairo’s music took off when fans took notice of some tracks she’d recorded on GarageBand in her bedroom. Post Malone’s song “White Iverson” was written, recorded and uploaded in the span of just two days.

The truth is that we often rely on the excuse of needing more to hide the fact that making great music is hard to do and we’re simply not always up for the task. Believe it or not, embracing boundaries can help address this problem in a big way.

Why boundaries breed creative resourcefulness

Boundaries are good for the creative songwriting process, whether it’s in the form of limiting time, instrumentation, lyrical ideas or in committing to only working within a set framework. Having more musical choices doesn’t always translate to an increased ability to create meaningfully or effectively, especially when it comes to developing an initial idea for a song from scratch.

In music, when everything is possible, it’s very common for nothing to get achieved. And while excuses like a songwriter waiting for something big to change in their lives before the can meet their creative potential can be detrimental, other things like apathy, lack of focus, shame and fear can be just as damaging. Boundaries and rules can be used as powerful tools to combat these issues by inspiring music-makers and giving them a format for how to create.

Limiting time

If you’ve ever been unable to commit to developing an idea into an actual demo or song, writing with time limitations will help give you direction by forcing you to make choices. Forcing yourself to write and record a new demo with vocals and an acoustic guitar in 30 minutes can result in the makings of a song you can later develop into something you can use.

Or you might end up with an idea you don’t care to hear or work on ever again. Either way, you’ll be creating thoughtfully and meaningfully with a finished result at the end of the exercise to show for your work.

If you suffer from a tendency to question your musical choices and worth as a songwriter, this is a great exercise because it encourages creative urgency and leaves doubt for later.

Limiting tools and instrumentation

If you write, produce or record music digitally (that means the vast majority of musicians in 2019), then you’ve got access to a virtual endless arsenal of instruments, effects and production techniques at your disposal. This sounds like a huge asset, but it’s often a paralyzing problem for musicians.

Whether you make music in front of a computer or in a studio packed with instruments, narrowing down your tools can help generate ideas and direction. Something like trying to write an entire song consisting of just vocals and a drum beat is an example. Sure, you might not come up with an entire song you like, but something interesting like an interesting chorus or some memorable lyrical rhythmic phrases might emerge that can be used in a song later.

The idea here isn’t to find songwriting shortcuts but instead to develop ideas through minimalism you wouldn’t have come up with any other way.

Embrace scarcity first and develop ideas later

The music you make through boundaries and scarcity will rarely ever sound like the finished product you develop, produce and release, and that’s okay.

Limitations are great for developing initial ideas but don’t have to inform each and every thing about your process. But a deeper lesson musicians can glean from making music through intentional boundaries and limitations can extend through to inform everything they do, from writing an initial idea to producing it to presenting it to the world.

A minimalist songwriting approach highlights the strengths of an idea and discards the rest. Depending on your personality, this mentality will either drive you mad or help improve your work in a big way. It’s not for everyone, but every songwriter will learn a lot from trying it.

Patrick McGuire is a writer, composer, and experienced touring musician.

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