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Create more by using less

Constrain yourself

Sometimes it’s hard to get started because there’s just so much you could do. When you’re in that space, think about eliminating possibilities.


Progression variation

For instance, you might have two chord progressions that you really like. You’re thinking of using one for the verse and the other for the chorus, but it doesn’t seem to be working. They simply don’t flow together.

Just eliminate one. It doesn’t matter which one. Tell yourself you’ll use the other one in another song.

Now take the one you’ve kept and explore the possible chord sequence combinations. For instance, the following chords – G Am Em D – could be combined as a progression in the following ways:


  1. G Am Em D
  2. G Am D Em
  3. G D Em, Am
  4. G D Em Am
  5. Am G Em D
  6. Am Em D G
  7. Am D Em G
  8. Am D G Em


Use the same process starting the progression with Em and then with D. At the end, you’ll have 16 progressions you can use. Some will be similar to others, but some will be different enough that they can be used side by side. In other words, one can be for the verse and one can be for the chorus.

Stay open to adding an extra chord if you think it’s necessary. Constraining yourself should be about generating ideas. This means that, when appropriate, you get to step outside of the box you’ve created.


Chord Duration

Another technique is to determine how long each chord can be. To keep it simple, stick to either 2 beats or 4 beats.

For instance:

G / / / | Am / / / |Em / / / | D / / / | can become


G / Am / | Am / / /|Em / D / | D / / / | .


If you repeat portions of the progression, more possibilities present themselves.

For instance,


G / Am / | G / Am | Em / / / | D / / / | or


G / Am / | G / Em / | G / / / | D / / / |


Combining progression variation and chord duration helps you generate a ton of possibilities. The work is always to find variety in a small amount of material.

When you do this, you find yourself writing more stuff. That other progression that you wanted to use for the chorus now becomes a completely new song.



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How to start

Sometimes it’s easy to write. Sometimes it’s really hard.

When it’s hard, you need a way to get started. Try this.


Rip someone off

Everyone does it. Some people do it consciously. Others unconsciously write something they’ve heard before. This is really common when you just sit down with the guitar and start noodling. That usually leads to playing something you’ve played or heard before.

Of course, consciously taking a big chunk of someone’s work is shitty. But it’s perfectly fine to take a fragment.

For instance, you could take a single bar somewhere in the middle of the verse (or wherever), and build some ideas around that.

And remember, we’re talking about a first draft here. By the time you finish polishing the whole song, the bar you borrowed will probably be miles from where it started. It often changes as the things around it changes.

Borrowing people’s stuff is meant as a starting point, not the end. And if it doesn’t change a lot, then it acts like an homage to the other artist.

That’s a nice thing. Especially because 99% of the song is yours.


Beyond the fragment

Listen to your favourite song, and ask yourself why you like it so much. Is it the hook, the bass line, the arrangement, the lyrics? Does the chorus do something dramatic like lose the bass line, go to double-time, use a lot of silence?

You could use any one of those elements as a general idea for inspiration. The point is to really listen, and consciously list the things you like. Keep notebook for this. That way you collect a set of ideas and tools that you can use in any number of songs, not just the one you’re working on now.

The notebook becomes a place you go when you feeling stuck.


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How to make sure your next song doesn’t sound exactly like your last song

At a certain point, this becomes a real concern. It’s particularly difficult for a singer whose only instrument is an acoustic guitar, and whose only tool-set is open string chords.

If you’re in a band, you have more options in terms of sound. But if all you know is verse-chorus-verse form, you’ll start to feel like everything you write is the same.


The fix

Of course, there are ways to counter these problems. One is to simply learn more chords, or pick up a book on song form.

Another is to look for inspiration. This means listening.


Listen widely

If all you listen to is the type of music you write, then it makes sense that all you’ll write is music that sounds like that.

But if you listen to house music (say), you’ll hear a different way of approaching form – extreme repetition of a limited amount of material, some of which stays the same from beginning to end, some of which repeats and varies. (I’m over-simplifying in order to make a point).

No verse-chorus-verse.

If you’re a folk musician (or rock, or jazz, or whatever) how do you incorporate this? Maybe the verse takes the house approach, and the chorus breaks into your regular way of doing things. Or vice versa.



Sit down and make a list of everything you use when you write songs. This includes materials and techniques.

Materials include things like:


  • Chords
  • Melody


Technique includes things like:


  • Strumming
  • Fingerpicking
  • Flat-picking


Add anything else that you know. Then list things that you know about, but don’t actually know. This might be 7th chords, hammer-ons, etc.

These are things that you can add to your abilities when things feel stale. This often breaks you out of a box, gives you fresh ideas.


What do you hear?

Then make a list of what you hear when you listen to unfamiliar music. Or any music. This doesn’t have to be accurate; just list impressions.

For instance, if you listen to jazz, you might hear that the piano player doesn’t play all the time, or that the overall feel is looser than other types of music.

Just try to describe whatever you hear. The point isn’t necessarily to add to things that you can do (although that’s good, too). The point is to generate a fresher way of thinking about what you do by stepping off the path you’re on once in a while.


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