Want to know how to sharpen your songwriting skills? Need a new creative direction or some fresh ideas to inject into your lyrics and melodies? Then look no further than a songwriting challenge!

What is a songwriting challenge?

Well, in a nutshell, it is a composition exercise with very specific parameters meant to challenge your creativity. This can be anything from limiting lyrical content, time frame, instrumentation, or trying to create a certain amount of songs within a day. Some songwriters like Jonathan Mann have become famous for their ability to come up with new songs on a daily basis!

Why should you even bother with a songwriting challenge?

Songwriting challenges have many hidden benefits. They will help you:

  • Create music outside the box
  • Man doing a songwriting challenge with guitarDevelop new skills
  • Produce a large amount of content
  • Generate good musical ideas that can be fleshed out into full songs at a later date
  • Earn exposure
  • Expand your song library
  • Unearth talents you didn’t know that you had
  • Connect you to other songwriters

Think Outside the Box

There are many different types of songwriting challenges, but the most effective ones will limit you musically.

And this is a good thing.

These types of songwriting challenges will actually help you think outside the box and exercise your creative muscles. For example, a challenge might be writing for a particular unfamiliar instrument like a banjo, in a style like the blues, writing lyrics about something you find in your fridge, or writing a song using only a specific scale.

You might find that you have a knack for writing bluegrass and country songs, are really good at writing silly lyrics for kids’ tunes, can write twenty songs in a week, or are a master at non-Western harmony. But you won’t know until you challenge yourself with something outside of your usual realm of experience. You quickly develop new skills as you force yourself to work within these parameters that have been set for you.

“The Twitter Song” by Ben Walker was created for the 50/90 Song Challenge:

Conquer Writer’s Block

When you force yourself to write music with certain constraints and under heavy pressure, you learn how you can conquer writer’s block, that bane of the creative professional’s existence.

You know it well –  when you stare at a blank page for hours, unable to jot down a single note. Learning how to conquer writer’s block not only helps you develop as a musician, it makes you much more marketable if you write music as a jingle writer, for TV/film, business clients, or other less inspiring (but paid) work.

A Personal Note: I developed incredible writing skills after creating dozens of tunes in a short amount of time for a music publisher. By forcing myself to write high quality work quickly I was able to conquer writer’s block by pushing myself through the dead times. Those skills have stayed with me throughout my career, and years later, I can pretty much write any tune in a few hours’ time.

Where to Find Songwriting Challenges

Spend some time on Google and you will find that there are hundreds of songwriting challenges available. Some are just individual challenges posted up on message boards and others are more collaborative challenges, where an online community shares and critiques songwriting based on the challenges.

An individual might post up a personal song challenge to share with the world. Some folks like to post their band’s song challenges on Facebook as a means of support and marketing. These can be challenges based on time, subject matter, instrumentation, a holiday, images, cover songs, and just about anything you can think of. Most are free, and all will help you hone your sweet songwriting chops.

Never checked out a song challenge before? Let’s look at some of the more common types of challenges…

Timed Challenges

Timed songwriting challenge with guitarSongwriting challenges that require you to write within a specific time frame suddenly force you to abandon your usual songwriting routine (and lots of writer’s block). You may have to write a song or a set of lyrics each day or a certain number within a week.

Some challenges have you produce the entire song, just post up the lyrics on a website, or create a super quick rough recording of the song. You might write music for one hour every day or even try to write 100 songs in 100 days. Some of these challenges can be quite difficult, but even if you don’t hit 100 songs in 100 days, you will most likely end up with some pretty great material to rework later on into more finished songs.

The 50/90 Challenge

A great example of a timed challenge is the 50/90 challenge.

In a nutshell, the 50/90 challenge occurs between July 4th to October 1st each year. Participants write songs at rapid speed; at the end of 90 days, they need to have written 50 songs! Some songwriters go with fully produced songs, others only write lyrics or charts. As you write, you share your music with the community for helpful feedback.

The 50/90 challenge is a free challenge. You sign up on the website. A countdown clock is available. Challenges are given every day. Set up an account on the website, upload your tunes and lyrics, then wait for the comments to start. In general, the comments are encouraging, with helpful critiques on your work. Sometimes a song becomes popular, winning some notoriety for the songwriter.

For example, this song was created for the 2015 50/90 “More Cowbell” challenge, where musicians needed to create a tune about, yep, a cowbell! Is this a great song? Probably not, but the catchy song received positive feedback from fellow songwriters for its humor.

Here’s “The More Cowbell Song”:

 

The Song-A-Week Challenge

This Reddit Song-A-Week challenge is pretty straightforward, with the following challenge:

“52 Songs, 52 weeks, 71 sleepless nights…”

Unlike the 50/90 challenge, the Song-A-Week challenge gives musicians enough time to come up with a good sketch and develop their musical ideas. Songs can be centered on themes like “minimalism” or “colour”, and any musician can participate in this freeform international forum.

Listen to Dallas Dwayne’s composition “Time” from the 50/90 Challenge:

Musicians are encouraged to write songs, submit original themes (regardless of musical genre) and listen to fellow songwriter tunes. To become a part of the challenge, you simply need to set up a Reddit account, then jump in. Musicians post links to the music, sometimes hosting their music on sites like Bandcamp (which allows musicians to set up albums for free or sale without a charge).

Here’s a tune from the album I wrote for the 50/90 Challenge:

Song Challenges Based on a Theme

Besides timed challenges, a common song challenge type is based on themes. The theme could be anything from romance to holidays to nondescript items. For example, one challenge I encountered in college involved picking up a science textbook and writing a song based on the first paragraph that I found. This resulted in the very strange avant-garde work called “Rellerisms”, dedicated to composer Paul Reller, that detailed the radioactive damage caused by atomic power:

Rellerisms, a song created from text in a science textbook, for a song challenge

These theme-based songwriting challenges are sometimes created within the context of a time-based challenge. They can be seen as a creative prompt to help songwriters overcome writer’s block and develop an original musical idea around an idea they wouldn’t otherwise think to write about.

Thing-A-Week Challenge

Musician Jonathan Coulton developed the Thing-A-Week Song Challenge after ditching his job to pursue a musical career. Over the course of a year, he developed 52 original songs on a very unique variety of topics, from brains to a blue raincoat to pizza. Check out the complete list of songs!

Here’s Jonathan singing “Today with Your Wife” from his Thing-A-Week Challenge:

Your Own Thing-A-Week Challenge

You can develop your own Thing-A-Week challenge by using sites like the Random Word Generator or a Title Generator to give you creative prompts to write a new tune. There are hundreds of these sites online – some based on genres like fantasy and science fiction, others based on musical styles or pure randomness.

A particularly fun title generator is the Heavy Metal Name Generator, which will provide you with dark, heavy-hitting song titles like “Malicious Chapel” and “Alchemist of the Beyond”.

Here’s how to create and complete your own unique songwriting challenge, whether it is a song per week or month:

  1. Go to a random word or title generator
  2. Use the generator to come up with at least three different themes/titles
  3. Set a goal to finish at least one complete song based on a generated theme
  4. For an additional challenge, add a time-based goal of one song per day or week
  5. Write your lyrics and melody
  6. Record it
  7. If you feel really creative, use the generator to make an entire album of songs
  8. Share your songs online using a site like Bandcamp or YouTube
  9. Challenge your friends to do the same!

Now For A Different Type of Challenge…

…covering an existing classic! While the musician doesn’t have to worry about coming up with a great melody, lyrics, or even musical style, the challenge is to make a convincing cover that does the tune justice. This is much more difficult than it seems.

For example, Orange County Weekly challenged its readership to write songs based on a random selection of hits. The musicians needed to do a cover in any style. As an added challenge, they added the stipulation:

“There aren’t many rules: The artist/band will be given a song to cover. They will have no say in the matter, and the choice cannot be appealed.

This particular challenge gained notoriety for its “Phil Collins Challenge” where thirty-five cover songs based on the work of Phil Collins attempted to musically dissect what made a Phil Collins tune so unique. They ripped into the rhythms, tonalities, and melodies. They realized that doing a Phil Collins cover was no easy feat.

For your listening pleasure, here’s another piece that resulted from the Orange County Cover Song Challenge… Cougar Bait’s Version of “Keep It Dark” by Genesis:

Take Some Cues From the Master…

A musician who has mastered the songwriting challenge is Jonathan Mann. He boasts on his official website that:

“My superpower is that I can take any idea, no matter how complex, and distill it down into a short, catchy memorable song.”

Jonathan Mann is most famous for writing a song each day! His talent for creating catchy tunes has translated into international fame and real work writing songs for clients, with accolades from everyone from Steve Jobs to Anderson Cooper.

To date, Jonathan Mann has continued this song-a-day challenge for over 3,100 days! That’s over eight years of coming up with original tunes.

Feast your ears on his cosmic hit, “Kittens in Space”:

While most of us don’t have the time and creative energy to churn out thousands of tunes consecutively like a hyperactive songwriting machine, musicians like Jonathan Mann can provide inspiration, encouraging each of us to push ourselves to our maximum musical limits.

Start a Challenge Today!

Hundreds of songwriting challenges populate the Internet. If you have some time, challenge yourself to create music. You will be amazed at how a songwriting challenge can improve your overall musicality, make you a much more experienced musician, expand your song catalog, and even gain you a little musical marketing gold.

Here is a shortlist of other songwriting challenges, besides the ones mentioned already in this article:

  • 10 Mini Songwriting Challenges to Sharpen Your Writing Skills: Here you’ll find everything from challenges asking you to write about that special loved one in your life, to 15-minute time crunchers that test your ability to write a melody under pressure!
  • Speed Songwriting’s Story Hook Challenge: 176 Popular Hooks for Songwriting: For this speed songwriting challenge, use the periodic table of storytelling to write original lyrics with a strong hook.
  • The Google Image Challenge: Input any word into Google Images. Use the resulting images as a prompt to write a new song. Be creative. For example, typing “ear butterfly elephant ballet shoe” might have more interesting results than “dog”, like an African elephant with blue butterflies for ears or unique tattoos.
  • Reddit Writing Prompts: The Reddit community is rife with writers and musicians sharing creative ideas. Here is a very long, and sometimes quite bonkers, list of writing prompts for both songs and stories.

Songwriting Inside the Box

Whether you’re in a songwriting rut, or just looking to expand your palette of lyrical themes and genres, it’s incredibly liberating and refreshing to dip your feet into a whole new way of writing tunes. You might discover a penchant for polka, or a fondness for writing about fresh fruit you never knew existed!

Now that you’re familiar with the perks of taking a songwriting challenge, take the time to write some music, share the results with your friends, and challenge them to do the same!

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