Have you ever been sitting at your keyboard or your DAW and find that you’ve got nothing? Or that whatever you write sounds like it’s been composed by somebody with zero musical ability? I have, and it’s not fun — especially if you have the pressure of a looming deadline!
One of the most important things we need to do as composers is learn how to overcome so-called ‘writer’s block’ quickly and reliably. If you ask any group of composers what their strategies are, you’re likely to get as many different answers as there are people in the group! Some may swear by things such as Brian Eno’s ‘Oblique Strategies’ app for example, which uses random phrases to inspire you. Whilst this works for many people, it’s not something that I’ve found reliable. The 3 tips I’m describing here (and the bonus extra tip) have all worked reliably for me, and are ideas that I use on a regular basis.
Tip 1: Restrict Yourself
The longer we composers work with DAWs, the more virtual instruments and sample libraries we tend to acquire. This can end up giving us too much choice, which can cripple us! If you’re fortunate enough to own Omnisphere, that alone has 7,000+ presets. Add that to something like the Native Instruments Komplete Ultimate, which has over 115,000 presets, and it’s easy to see how overwhelm can set in!
To overcome this, try to restrict yourself to a single library, or even to a single set of sounds within a library and see how that inspires you. You can add to it once the inspiration kicks in, but this is a great way to get started.
Recently, I was feeling blocked so made a decision to write an entire track using only Spitfire’s free LABS instruments, plus I allowed myself Alchemy from the stock Logic instruments. It’s was an incredibly liberating experience and I ended up creating a complete track in about an hour!
Tip 2: Change Things Up
As composers, we tend to stick with things that work for us. Often we’ll have a certain tempo that suits us, or a key signature that we gravitate towards. Maybe we even have a favourite chord progression that we use over and over.
Whatever it is, find a way to change it and see where that takes you.
I had a few examples where this really worked for me. The first one was when I was feeling particularly uninspired, and I realised that the majority of my tracks are in 4/4 time. I decided to try writing in 7/8 to really shake things up and ended up producing one of my best tracks to date!
I also found that I write most of my tracks in Dm, so when I was sitting at my keyboard one day getting frustrated that I was ending up playing the same chord progression as many of my other tracks, I decided to try something as simple as changing the key to Gm. Since this was less familiar to my fingers, I found it far easier to compose something new and fresh.
Ask yourself what common themes there are in your tracks, and consider what you can change to gain inspiration. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Tempo — try faster or slower.
- Key — if you write a lot of tracks in a minor key, try a major key, for example.
- Time Signature — 4/4 isn’t your only option! ?
- Instrumentation — Do you normally write for orchestra? Try something that’s entirely electronic.
- Genre — Try Hip-Hop instead of classical.
- Compose on paper instead of at the keyboard — old school!
Tip 3: Map Out a Reference Track
There’s a lot of great music out there that we can use as a reference for our own ideas. I’m not talking about stealing other people’s ideas, but if they have a formula that works, we owe it to ourselves to learn from that.
The idea here is that you purchase a track that inspires you and load it into your DAW. Set the tempo to match the track (most DAWs can do this automatically for you) and figure out what key it’s in. Next, go through the track and set markers at key points, such as intro, verse, chorus, bridge, drop, breakdown, etc. Also, make a note of the kinds of instrumentation they’re using — is it a string quartet, or is it an aggressive saw wave from a synth? Is it traditional drums, or something more cinematic (or no drums at all)?
Once you’ve done this, you have a framework within which you can start constructing your own track. You’ve got:
- Instrumentation ideas
With this, mute the reference track and write something original that fits within the framework.
This is a really fun exercise to carry out, and I guarantee you’ll learn a lot about the genre in the process, as well as inspiring you to create new music.
BONUS TIP: The 30 Seconds of Silence Trick
Of all of the tips I’ve shared here, this one sounds the most bizarre, and the one that I felt really skeptical about when I first heard it. However, I’m always open to new ideas, so I tried this and was amazed by how effective it is!
The idea here is that when you’ve been working on a track and get to that point where you know it needs something else, but can’t figure out what it is, do the following:
- Create a loop (a cycle in most DAWs) that starts from the beginning of the last section that you’ve composed, and extends about 30 seconds beyond the end of it. This will create a loop that plays your track, then is silent for 30 seconds, before repeating your music.
- Start the loop playing.
- Turn off the lights in your studio (or at least dim them significantly). This encourages your brain to rely more on senses other than your eyes — in this case, our ears.
- Lay down. Yes, even if this means laying on the floor! Trust me, this is significantly more effective if you’re laying down and totally relaxed than if you’re seated and alert.
- Let the music wash over you and allow your mind to wander (musically) during the silence.
In a surprisingly short amount of time, you’ll find that your relaxed mind will start coming up with musical ideas which you can accept or reject until you find yourself having a ‘Eureka!’ moment. From here, it’s a simple matter of getting back to work and translating what you heard in your head into your DAW.
I’d love to get some feedback on these techniques. Let me know in the comments if you try them and how you get on.