[Editor’s Note: This article was written by Patrick McGuire.]
When we think about how incredible music gets made, we typically focus on a musician’s talent and inspiration. A life-changing circumstance inspires a gifted musician to craft a song that goes on to change the world, the story goes.
But a major part of the stories behind great music that we never hear about are the unsexy details that were crucial in allowing an artist to transform a vague idea into a powerful and enduring musical statement.
As much as we’d like to think creating amazing music is as easy as recording down ideas the second we feel inspired, most artists build productive songwriting routines into their daily lives to give them the best chance at creating consistently solid work.
Here are four tips for creating your own productive songwriting routine:
1. Carve out time in your weekly schedule exclusively devoted to making music
Many songwriters don’t like the idea of seeing their music-related work as a job, but the truth is that you’ll end up making better music more consistently if you work on a set schedule, not just when you feel like it.
Writing during set weekly hours is one of the absolute best things you can do for your music career, because it takes emotion and the need to feel inspired out of the equation. Great music is rarely completely formed out of the gate. Like everything else, your songwriting will improve with time, and making an effort to put in a certain amount of hours every week is one of the best ways to do that.
Similar to the focus you’d be required to give to a conventional job, sticking to a set songwriting schedule means shutting out everything non-musical during the hours you’re committed to making music. This means that you can’t make music and watch TV or hang out with your boyfriend at the same time.
2. Maintain a clean music-making space
Keeping a clean space with easy access to instruments and recording gear can be a big help in making music consistently. Cleanliness isn’t a huge deal, unless your space is so cluttered that your instruments and gear aren’t accessible.
The idea here is that if it takes you 30 minutes to get your music space set up and rolling every time you want to write, you’ll inevitably end up writing a lot less music. The space devoted to music-making doesn’t have to be in your home, but it does need to be easily accessible and would ideally be available for use at all hours.
This will obviously be a challenge for those living in shared situations like small apartments or dorm rooms, but no matter where you live, try to keep access to your instruments and recording gear open.
3. Give yourself what you need to record ideas quickly and easily for reference
A solid songwriting routine will help you develop ideas into structured, shareable music. But how do you capture musical inspiration when it comes out of nowhere?
Every music-maker works differently, but we all can relate to the experience of stumbling on an idea for a song while out on a walk through nature or stuck in traffic. The basic recording gear that’s most likely installed on your smartphone is ideal for preserving an idea that you develop away from your music studio quickly and easily.
Musicians who tour frequently or travel for their non-musical careers should consider bringing along small instruments to play with on their trips, like ukuleles and miniature guitars. You won’t always have the opportunity to record your ideas, but making an effort to record them will give you a better chance at having an incredible song not slip through your fingers.
4. Make room in your routine for risk, randomness, and spontaneity
A strong routine is crucial for making music seriously, but, confusingly, too much predictability can actually be bad for your creativity.
Embracing risk and spontaneity in your work is crucial, whether it takes the form of writing with an unfamiliar instrument or experimenting with musical extremes. Sticking to a regular songwriting routine can be a huge help in accomplishing something like writing an album, but it also can lead to boredom and feeling uninspired.
How do you strike a healthy balance? Build opportunity for newness and risk within your routine.
This looks different for every musician, and could be as simple as listening to new music or as challenging as blowing up your songwriting process and starting over completely. As a rule of thumb, if you find yourself writing the same sorts of songs over and over again, it’s time for a creative re-think. A healthy songwriting routine leaves plenty of room for change, risk, and creative failure. This means that dead ends and false starts are actually indicators of a healthy, challenging routine.
Your routine might result in lots of music, but that won’t mean much unless what your produce is meaningful.
Patrick McGuire is a writer, composer, and experienced touring musician.