Header for 10 Creative Challenges to Get You out of Your Songwriting Rut

Have you ever picked up your guitar and couldn’t find the right chords? Or sat down at your piano and the notes just weren’t there? Of course. We all have.

Maybe you’ve found yourself returning to your comfort zone of a familiar chord progression or melody in an attempt to unblock yourself. That’s completely understandable! It’s natural for us to look to something we already know in times of doubt. But it’s not the only way to dig yourself out of a songwriting rut, or even full-on writer’s block.

The next time you find yourself stuck, try one (or more!) of these ways to find some inspiration and get your writing back on track.

1. Play the “20 Song Game”

Write 20 songs in 12 hours. Sound impossible? Hear us out.

The idea behind this challenge is to wake up and spend the entire day writing. A time constraint of 12 hours doesn’t sound like much until you have to write 20 songs in that time. To work within that limit, you can’t be picky about what you write. Do you labor over your songs and make tiny adjustments so they’re just right? This is the perfect way to get out of that habit, if only for a day.

What’s really liberating about this challenge is that the songs don’t have to be perfect, or totally finished, or even good for that matter. You’re not looking for your next big hit with this exercise, but you just might find something great when you least expect it.

You’re really just getting as many ideas on paper or tape as possible so you can sift through them later and find what might work for something bigger.

And because this challenge can be daunting, we encourage you to tackle it with friends. Organize a songwriting party either in person or virtually so you can share your successes and commiserate your frustrations.

2. Partake in FAWM

Timely for the publishing of this article, FAWM stands for February Album Writing Month. It’s an annual challenge that happens each February where participants write 14 new songs in one month.

Similar to the 20 Song Game, FAWM puts a time constraint on your writing. Since February has 28 days, the math works out to one complete song every two days. The longer limit means you can spend more time crafting each composition. Go ahead and be pickier about your choices! Labor over a chord change. Take some risks and experiment.

While you can organize a group for the 20 Song Game on your own, FAWM has its own online community. Songwriters from all over the world take part in this challenge each year, using the website to critique each others’ work, collaborate with other artists and share helpful songwriting tips.

Check out FAWM and join the discussion!

3. Try a 30 or 60 day challenge

Is writing one song every two days for a month not challenging enough? Try writing and recording one song every day for one month, or two!

This challenge is a nice mix of the “don’t think, just do” mentality of the 20 Song Game, and the larger community vibe of FAWM.

Like the 20 Song Game, the songs you write each day don’t have to be complete works. Heck, they don’t even have to be multiple bars of a song. They just have to be at least 30 seconds; just long enough for an idea or nugget of something that might be destined for greatness.

Like FAWM, this challenge is most effective in a community setting, so get 20 or 30 people to go in with you. Their support will mean the world when you’re struggling on your 15th song in as many days.

And you’ll need that support, because this challenge has a three strike rule. That’s right: if you miss three days of this challenge, you’re out! While you get Sundays off, this challenge will absolutely test your work ethic and compositional mettle.

As you make it further into the challenge, you’ll see more of your group drop off. What started as 30 may be down to half that by the middle of the month, and if you manage to make it to the end chances are it’ll be you and a few other diehards. Congratulations! You accomplished what 25 other songwriters couldn’t!

4. Cover an entire album from another artist

What’s your all-time favorite album? How about an album you love that’s completely opposite from your normal genre?

Take the time to learn an album front to back and record covers of each song. What’s great about this is that if the album you choose is one you already know well enough to have memorized, you’re almost halfway there! It’s just a matter of finding the tabs and putting in the work of recording each song.

This challenge also gives you an opportunity to expand your palette, especially if you’re a multi-instrumentalist. If you play guitar and piano and already know how to play your chosen album’s songs on guitar, try switching it to piano.

You can really expand your taste and cover an album you’re not familiar with. Pick something outside your normal wheelhouse and you could just expand your own songwriting by exploring someone else’s compositions. If you’re an alt rock artist, ask your metalhead buddy for a recommendation. You might just come out with a few new techniques that translate into your usual genre.

5. Play in someone else’s band

If you’re a solo singer songwriter or the main creative force in your band, you already know that role is its own challenge. So why not jam with another group where you’re not the main songwriter?

Playing in a band where someone else writes all the music — even temporarily — can be freeing. You don’t have to worry about writing for that particular project, so your creative attention can be placed elsewhere while still honing your playing chops.

These little moments of inspiration can come during a jam session, or especially soundcheck where each member is on their own when their instrument is dialed in. If you’re on guitar, noodle around while the drummer takes an hour to tune and then retune their entire kit before a gig. You never know what can happen when you’re just looking to pass the time and not overthinking it.

6. Copy your heroes

Even the biggest artist has an artist they look up to as a guiding light in times of doubt. We all have our heroes.

So why not try to copy them? We already do this instinctively when we first start playing. After all, someone had to inspire us to first pick up an instrument or write a song.

As we get more confident as artists and songwriters, we start writing our composition. That’s the natural progression for the budding musician. But we can still take a brief trip back to our roots and try to rip off our favorite artists when we’re looking for inspiration.

Here’s the secret: you won’t be able to perfectly copy the artist you love. The truth is that you’re not your hero. You’re you, with all your skills and faults.

If you try to copy your favorite musician, you’ll probably land somewhere else. That’s even better, because you’ll sound like you.

7. Destroy your heroes

We look to our heroes for inspiration. If you’re stuck in a rut, you’ll turn to your favorite artist for a little nudge to get unstuck.

But if you’ve gone that route too many times, try to do the opposite of what your hero would do. To quote Seinfeld, “If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.”

If you’re playing the same riff that’s too similar to your favorite artist, put down the guitar and fiddle on another instrument. Go against your normal direction your hero is heading.

8. Work with a co-writer

This is similar to playing in someone else’s band. The solo songwriting process can be isolating. Bringing in a friend as a co-writer invites an outside influence and a new perspective.

Maybe your collaborator makes a suggestion you wouldn’t consider if you’re working by yourself; or one you would normally veto even working with other writers. Just go with the creative flow and allow some ideas you usually wouldn’t try.

Co-writing is about letting go of ego and letting in someone else’s vision, at least for a song or two.

9. Co-write with someone who’s dead

There’s tons of stuff in the public domain by people who are long gone. Unlike covering a song, recording your version of a public domain composition doesn’t cost anything. It’s free for anyone to use as long as they credit the original composer.

Lots of artists do this. Rock bands use classical melodies to lend a song some gravitas; hip-hop producers take old jazz samples or spoken word clips and add them to their mix; country artists record 19th Century traditionals from the Great American Songbook. The songwriting is already taken care of, and you don’t need to worry about copyright!

And remember, just because someone is no longer alive, it doesn’t mean their music is fair game. Lots of compositions and recordings are still under copyright long after their creators pass on.

If you decide to use part of a composition that’s not public domain, make sure to purchase the license. And if you’re sampling a copyrighted recording, get permission from the owner. And always make sure to credit the original creator where applicable.

10. Try playing a different instrument

This doesn’t even have to be completely different. Do you normally play electric guitar? Try the riffs you’d normally play distorted on an acoustic guitar. Even a small change like that can provide a new perspective on simple chords you’re familiar with.

Changing instruments becomes even more drastic when you move from one type to something completely different, like guitar to piano. Every time you try playing the same notes on a new instrument, you learn a new approach. It takes time to figure out how to make the same chords work.

The perspective you gather from this experiment will provide new insight into your usual instrument when you go back to it. If you hear how a chord sounds on a piano, you might figure out something new to do with that chord when you pick up your guitar again.

Have you tried any of these challenges? Did they help you expand your songwriting? If you’ve tried these or are planning to try these, let us know in the comments how they worked!