Lost Password?

Songwriter’s Block: What Do Berklee & James Linderman Say?

JamesLindermanNot long ago, we received an email from a songwriter in response to the question of getting over “songwriter’s block.” But not just any songwriter… this particular songwriter is James Linderman, who lives and works at theharmonyhouse, a music lesson, songwriting and recording pre-production facility in Newmarket, Ontario. He teaches guitar, piano and theory as well as contemporary songwriting, in studio, as well as over Skype to students all over the world.

In 2006 James was selected for a 21 member, international, off campus, academic advisory board for The Berklee School of Music known as Berkleemusic Ambassadors focusing on adapting Berklee campus courses for online learning and representing and promoting Berklee at music events and conferences

James’ very succinct answer to the “songwriter’s block” malady was this: The old adage for writers tells them to stop writing and start reading (or, words in = words out). So for songwriters, applying that same idea would be to spend time learning other peoples’ songs (or, chords in = chords out).

According to James, “Writer’s block is a very simple thing to fix in this way and it is an unheard of condition in my students. It takes 2 hours of training to cure for good.”

So I asked James if we could interview him to give all of you some ideas for listening through your songwriter’s block and making your own time and efforts more fruitful in the long run!

Happily, James agreed to the interview – and here’s what I learned:

James, how would you recommend a songwriter overcome writer’s block?

Many songwriting coaches have historically recommend just writing your way out of writer’s block, but there is a trend now to consider this to be an extremely frustrating and ineffective solution. Many schooled songwriters are now being taught to put down the pen and step away from their instruments – and instead of trying to get more output out of the ideas they already have, they are encouraged to refocus by finding new ideas to intake. By refilling the idea tank we give ourselves the greatest chance to have new lyric concepts to write from, some new chords or comping patterns to inspire new melodies, new strumming patterns and fresh production palettes for top-lining. New in = new out.

However, if you feel like you just have to keep writing, you should try the way writer’s block is being eradicated at Berklee College of Music. The approach is based mostly on writing concepts being popularized by lyric writing professor Pat Pattison. Pat is unquestionably the worlds leading authority on lyric writing and is a founding developer of the songwriting department at Berklee. You can find out more about Pat here…

Pat’s concept is built on the idea that writer’s block is found primarily in artists with an internal or external expectation on the quantity and quality of their creative output. It seems the more a writer wants or needs to be great, and to have lots of elite work, the less they are able to produce that work. The pressure of having every idea that hits a blank page be great right out of the shoot is contrary to the whole process that got the writer to write in the first place. We usually start out with potentially interesting but poorly formed lines, incomplete concepts, and lots of missing content; and then we edit laboriously to get that fractured content into a more complete and consumable form.

The problem of writer’s block comes when we have pressure on us to write better right now. But our brain decides it does not want to go through the long and tedious edit stage and wants fully formed songs to come out line by line in an orderly and completely efficient manner. Our brain always wants to streamline the process. Writers feel that, as they become more seasoned and more successful, they have earned their ticket out of the edit process. What commonly ensues is a lot of blank pages and a lot of frustration. Professor Pattisons’ liberating phrase for anyone suffering from writer’s block is, “I give myself permission to write ‘crap.’”

By giving yourself permission to write ‘crap’ you assure yourself that you will write a lot. And from that quantity will come opportunities to become a more greatly skilled editor as you try to improve all of these low grade ideas. You will also find that occasionally, in all this quantitative writing, you will see a sudden and brief spike in quality. So it is sort of like the saying, “you cannot win if you do not play.” You cannot become a better writer if you stare at a blank page and do not accept the ideas that are at hand right now. The full quote is, “Crap makes great fertilizer and great fertilizer eventually grows beautiful flowers.”

How important is the song’s title?

Song titles are your listeners way of identifying your song. Like when we meet people and immediately want to know what to call them, songs use their title as a non-musical name tag. The title should hold all of the songs essential DNA (I think all DNA might be considered essential actually, but science is not my subject so… not completely sure). The best place to pick the title from is often the last line of the chorus. The second best choice is commonly the first line of the chorus.

There are interesting non conventional choices for titling your song like a name of a person, place or thing (noun), when that word does not actually appear in the lyric content or is perhaps buried in the verse content somewhere. This can work well if all of the other content of the lyric, can then be framed by the listener, to appear to be all about that person, place or thing. The best way to find the obvious and not “over thought” title of your song is to play your song for a small child and ask them what they would call it. Another way is to play it at your next open mic night and then see what people call it at the end of the night as you are packing up.

Is there a way to “calculate” the marketable merits of a song?

Some songs seem to spring out of nowhere and become incredibly popular with little evidence as to why. I think this is a phenomenon where the contemporary use of the word “viral” seems to fit most appropriately. However, like most viruses we should be compelled to see where they start, and maybe even more importantly, how they spread.

All popular songs share 3 traits that can be seen from a theoretical or clinical view.

The first is that the song has been written for a specific listening demographic instead of the writer attempting to make the song generically likeable. When a writer decides to (or is built to) write for a particular market, the fans of that kind of song see that their needs and wants have been considered and they are now conveniently listening to a piece of art that has been crafted specifically to meet those needs. When a middle aged person bemoans that the music on the radio is dreadful, I can’t seem to help myself from reminding them they are no longer in the demographic radio is trying to engage. Figure out who you want to like your song. Write backwards from your image of that person. Then you will have earned a fan even before the pen hits the page.

The 2nd trait all popular songs share is that they all have groove… we could even call it swagger. They have all been written and recorded to inspire listeners to tap their toe or shift their hip bones to the first and third or second and forth beats of the bar. By getting a performance to have an infectious and style appropriate “pocket,” the listener can be transported from being a discerning critic of the other elements of the song to becoming a blissfully unaware interpretive dancer or air drummer. A song with perhaps very few other merits gets a lot of love because of it. Make sure your songs are performed and recorded in the pocket (in time), and to generally grow this skill taller, make friends with a metronome.

The 3rd element that all popular songs share is not just good time but also good timing. All songs find their listeners… some songs find a few fans and some find a lot – but if they are listened to at all, they are always the next step for the artist and the listener. When a post punk band takes the world by storm it is commonly because there is a fairly large demographic of listeners who have just gotten tired of, say, emo singers with acoustic guitars and hair in their eyes. Those listeners, at that very millisecond, are desperately craving the sonic awesomeness of a big juicy power chord from a Les Paul guitar out of a Marshall amplifier. Not to scare all purveyors of Emo folk, most of those listeners will be back 6 months to a year later to cry into their pillows over any song about how you don’t feel good about yourselves. In my generation that song was “Yesterday” by The Beatles. It encompassed all the regret I could muster as an 11 year old boy. Timing was, and still is, everything.

What are some common mistakes you see beginning songwriters make? What advice do you have for avoiding these mistakes?

Many seasoned music creators refers to beginner songwriter syndrome as, “Songs in the key of me.” And so the biggest rookie error is to write all of your songs displaying your personal inner dialogue and using songwriting as inexpensive but also somewhat indulgent therapy. Generally, songs stand a much better chance to be likeable if they are more about life than strictly about the writer’s life.

Rosanne Cash stopped writing from her inner dialogue and suddenly produced some of the best songs she had written in a long time. She merely found elements of life around her that were more interesting and engaging than what she was experiencing within the context of her own emotions — and her emotional history had already been well documented in her previous recordings. Some writers get writer’s block from simply running out of opinion. They still write from an emotional response, but not always from a purely singular experiential perspective. It is also good to remember that a library has 2 sections: fiction and non-fiction. So when wanting to break out of the beginner phase of writing, it is good to consider that great artists never let the truth get in the way of stating a fact, but they also never let a fact interfere with telling the truth. This perspective tends to mature writers quickly and is another one of Pat Pattison’s core concepts.

There are technical elements to breaking beyond the rookie realm as a songwriter. One valuable technique is to use imperfect rhymes (moon/room) primarily in the verses, and perfect rhymes (moon/June) in the choruses. This helps make the verses more conversational and the choruses easier for the listener to sing along with… a prominent feature in the literal definition of the word “chorus.”

Beginning songwriters should determine what element (lyric, melody, harmony) is their strength, and what are their weaknesses. Then they should strengthen the weaknesses with instruction. They should also seek out collaborators that are strong in their weaker areas so they can get better work out earlier in their development. As well, you can learn from those writers who have those elite skill sets and talents already in place. Collaboration should be more complimentary than competitive and novice writers can gain a great deal of ground by adapting to that.

So, what are some key tips or advice you have for songwriters?

Everyone seems to love to passionately tell artists to be themselves, and in the same breath also impress on them that they have to be insanely great (the second statement often made in direct contrast to the reality of the first). How to be great, is to not be so attached to the concept of always being yourself. Or more precisely, to grow a broader sense of yourself and what you are capable and willing to try, artistically.

All great art includes some element of risk and part of that risk is to expand how you define yourself today. The Beatles got tired of being The Beatles and so became Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and made a pretty good album. Artists like Sting, Elton John and Pink do not even use their own names and yet all we hear is the constant mantra of “be yourself… be yourself… be yourself.”

Also, I find it bewildering when artists tell me they feel they need to “go and find themselves.” I will often reframe that as “ you should stay right where you are and work on continuing to create yourself.” Being an artist is a blue collar job. So to become better at it, the qualities of being a hard worker, being diligent… but also patient… need to be self defining. Do the hard work of making you.

Being willing to build yourself rather than believing you can somehow locate yourself in an exotic remote setting seems like a valuable perspective shift. Writing is an investment-based activity; so if you primarily write lyrics, you should read a lot since “words in = words out.”

If you work mostly on the music part of songs, learning theory and becoming proficient on your instrument is essential. Paul Simon was, and still is, a great songwriter with a formidable skill at playing the guitar. And yet he has taken guitar lessons his entire career.

Writing should be fun. But it often isn’t. So the last tip would be to consider writing like any job with good days and not so good days. But consider making yourself sit at the desk and do the work set before you, regardless of how you feel, regardless of where the process leads you, and regardless of the outcome.

I’m glad James shared his insights with us at OnstageSuccess! His credits are extensive. James co-wrote a song in 2004 that was on hold for Bonnie Raitt called Completely Yours, and co-wrote Lead Me There for Stephanie Israelson which received airplay in the UK and the US and on Canadian Christian radio, ranked in the top 50 songs for overall airplay in 2006 and stayed in the top 10 through most of 2007. James wrote Life is Made for This for recording artist Andy Taylor which charted consistently across Canada in the top 10 through 2007 and 2008. In 2010 he wrote the single “I Run to You” for Miranda Fox. James also co-wrote Home with Katie Workman which was signed to a single song publishing deal with Next Number One in Nashville.

In addition, James is an internationally known guest speaker and featured columnist throughout the industry. To contact him directly, you can email him at theharmonyhouse@rogers.com or jlinderman@berkleemusic.com.

Tom Jackson

Tom is uniquely talented and skilled at transforming an artist's live show into a magical experience for the audience; helping artists at every level create a live show that is engaging and memorable, teaching them to exceed their audiences' expectations and to create fans for life. Tom has taught indie and major artists of every genre. He has worked with Taylor Swift, Le Crae, Home Free, The Tenors, Shawn Mendes, The Band Perry, Francesca Battistelli, Jars of Clay, & many more. Tom also teaches at colleges, conferences and events worldwide.

More Posts - Website

Follow Me:

Greenroom Comments

  1. Steve Bent says:

    What a fantastic article.

    I have been studying ferociously for the last 3 years and this is one of the best articles I’ve read.

    Will be following both you and James from here on!



  1. Linderman, a repeat SongStudio guest who will be with us again at SongStudio 2014, discusses songwriter’s block, among other things.  Food for thought, especially if you’re

Step Up To The Microphone & Leave a Comment