the power of limitations in songwriting

We have all looked with great trepidation into the proverbial blank canvas of songwriting, arranging, and/or composition from time to time. Sitting in front of a blank page, anything is possible – but with no lyric written and no notes played, it’s easy to just feel lost. If we could just find the right line or musical phrase to begin with we would be off to the races – but these initial lyrics or musical ideas seem impossible to find! Where do these gems hide?

Limitations Are Prompts

The answer, counterintuitively, is in limitation. It is often because the canvas is blank that we have nothing to say. If we have something which we must respond to – a limitation to work with – then many ideas can easily start flowing.

Think about what makes you want to create lyrics or music – it is not the absence of anything. It is experience of something in particular you feel strongly about – a lost lover, a political lie, a personal struggle with a friend, an explosion of joy, etc. These are all particular things to write about. Once you start writing about them, they tell you what else might fit in your work.

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Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony

The same is true in music. Every great piece of music is at its core built from just a few very simple ideas that limit what the rest of the pieces of the music can be.

Think about Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. It appears to be one of the most intensely complex pieces of music ever written – and it is in many ways – but not when it comes to its building blocks. In writing this incredible piece of music, Beethoven limited himself to a motif made out of four notes! Only four! This motif is stated at the beginning of the piece and then used to create almost EVERYTHING ELSE in the piece!

Try limiting your songwriting to a very simple motif or phrase and see if you can base an entire piece around that. You might be surprised with what you can come up with!

Paul Simon’s “The Sound of Silence”

The songwriting greats do this too. Think about Paul Simon’s “The Sound of Silence”. The musical motif in the phrase “hello darkness, my old friend” is also used for “I’ve come to talk with you again”. He then changes some of the melodic content of the motif when he sings “because a vision softly creeping” but he keeps the rhythmic content the same. Then at the end of almost every verse, he quotes the title of his song – another limitation used as a creative structure.

Throughout the entire song, almost everything is pulled from the initial motif or is a response to it. This is very intentional. Almost all the great songwriters and composers (whose music sticks around in our heads) do this. Almost every memorable musical statement you have ever heard has a simple but profound structure which is explored and supported.

Final Thoughts

Learning music theory is fundamentally important to learning to see and create effective musical limitations for yourself and your songwriting, but finding a good music theory course that contextualizes theory in modern contexts can be really hard. That is why myself and Dave Kusek created Check it out and see if it might be useful for you.