Writer's Block? Read This.

I’d like to lay out some tips on getting past writer’s block in all of its ugly forms whether it be apathy, procrastination, or just a frustrating lack of inspiration.  Staring at a blank sequencer timeline is one of the more miserable studio activities that I can think of, so let’s take a look at some ways to get back into the swing of things:

Drag a piece of music that you admire into your sequencer and take a look at the waveform, chopping the audio at major transitional points in the track. For instance, you’ll want a chop wherever a chorus or verse begins.  Of course, not all music is composed in such a traditional way but you see what I mean.  Once you’re done with this, go back through the piece and think about why you like it.  Pay attention to not only the structure but the sounds that were chosen to express the melodic and rhythmic ideas.  Are the sounds timbrally simple or complex?  Are there lots of modulation effects on the panning and levels, or is the mix relatively static?  Also consider whether the mix is well-executed to begin with:  There are countless pieces out there that are nothing special in terms of mixdown but absolutely brilliant as music, and this can inspire you to move forward with your writing without needlessly fretting over technical details.  As you ask yourself these questions, try mimicking the elements of the song by writing your own material underneath the original in the sequencer.  The most likely result of this process is that you’ll get inspired, going off in a completely different direction and ideally ending up with an original piece.

Take some time off from composition and focus on sound design. I find that my studio time is spent either composing music or designing sounds.  I’m usually only in the mood to do one or the other, so I just go with it and take the path of least resistance.  I find that I get far more done by simply doing what I feel like doing rather than fighting my writer’s block.  If you try this, you’ll end up with a library full of unique sounds which will further inspire you to write a complete piece of music.

Limit your palette of tools. Nothing kills creativity faster than unlimited options, and we now live in a time where those options are vast, indeed.  While we’re lucky to have so many wonderful tools at our disposal, this utopia of possibilities often leads to creative paralysis.  A question I’ve posed to my mailing list goes something like this:  “Do you really need 8 different delays?”  Your plugin folder can really benefit from a deep cleaning!  Keep only the synths and effects that truly inspire you to create.  I once made the decision to limit myself to only the native effects and instruments inside of Ableton Live for a whole year, and during that period I became proficient enough with those tools that I could achieve basically any sound I wanted.  Forget all the silly forum posts talking about how, for example, Live’s native reverb doesn’t sound “pro” enough and just go write some music.  If a lack of presets is what you’re unhappy about, see point number two above.

Turn your usual approach to composition on its head. For instance, why not try writing the transitions first?  Spend some time creating a drum roll with all kinds of complex ambient sounds building up to a climax underneath.  After you develop the transition into something that sounds good on its own, you may be compelled to write the parts that come before and after it in order to complete the musical idea.  This is similar to how cadences work in music theory, but instead of the V leading back to the I, the drum buildup leads into a particular rhythmic progression which can in turn serve as the backbone of an entire track.  In short, you can use this method to trick yourself into getting inspired to write a whole piece!

Forget useless or stifling expectations that you’ve created for yourself. This one is pretty personal for me, but I’m putting it out there because I believe many other people have experienced the same thing.  For a long time I struggled with an insanely limited idea of my musical identity, thinking that I had to write in a particular genre.  This was the result of an idealized notion that I set up for myself long before, a notion that was sustained by the people I chose to surround myself with at the time.  Rarely did I stop and consider just why I had this expectation of myself, and later I realized that my interest in the genre had faded long before I stopped (halfheartedly) writing it.  Once I figured out how I was sabotaging myself, I started to write what I actually wanted to hear.  My productivity increased tenfold and I even wrote enough material to release an album on a small label.  The lesson to be learned here is simple to acknowledge but often hard to put into practice:  Don’t hesitate to evolve your sound to match what you truly desire, leaving useless ideas about what you’re “supposed” to be doing at the studio door.

This is a topic that’s near and dear to my heart because writer’s block is a big problem for me.   I suspect that at least some of you will find something to relate to in this post, so feel free to write about your own experiences in the comments section.

Writer's Block? Read This. by

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5 Responses to “Writer's Block? Read This.”

  1. NeilFebruary 6, 2010 at 8:19 pm #

    Great post! If I could throw in a few more I’ve been thinking about:

    Forget writing “the” song — Having perfection as your goal can be totally paralyzing. Every piece of music you create is a learning experience, and makes you better. Even if you decide the song sucks, it’s not like you’ve lost anything — you’ll still be able to write something new tomorrow. Don’t get obsessed with the quality of production at the outset; if it’s a song that really grips you, you’ll be motivated to keep working on it.

    Taking a break — You’ve been working on a song for a while, and you’re starting to get sick of it. You know it’s good music, but it needs work, and you’re hitting a wall. Don’t force it; instead, force yourself to forget about the song for a few weeks (or months). Hide the project folder, and delete those bounces from your iPod. If you give yourself enough time, you’ll come back with fresh, objective ears, and you’ll probably find whatever musical idea it was that excited you in the first place.

  2. adminFebruary 6, 2010 at 9:35 pm #

    Great reply, Neil, thanks for taking the time to leave it. I couldn’t agree more that accepting nothing less than “perfection” while writing music or designing sounds will generally get you nowhere fast. Building up a skillset and a unique voice is something that takes time, occurring incrementally as you learn from your successes and mistakes. Each successive attempt will hopefully benefit from what was learned before, just as with anything else in life. I suffer from this issue now just as I always have, but little by little I’m getting to grips with just creating for the sake of honing the craft.

    Taking a break is a great piece of advice as well. Unfortunately, I see a lot of information out there that says “you must finish a piece of music within x days or it just wasn’t meant to be.” While there is plenty of value in trying to get something completed quickly, there’s a lot to be said for just shelving it until the time is right.

  3. NeilFebruary 6, 2010 at 9:47 pm #

    Yeah, there’s definitely value to the whole “striking iron while it’s hot thing” — gotta use the passion! But it’s also good to know when the iron’s not hot anymore, and put it aside for later, rather than just working it until you end up hating the song.

  4. DoronFebruary 8, 2010 at 5:44 pm #

    Excellent post and comments! Glad to know I am not the only one who suffers from the idea that “I need to finish my latest track in 5 days flat or else I suck”

    I find I often get stuck trying to create the perfect track or sound and I have more 8 bar loops – that went nowhere – then I care to admit.

    I guess we all need to remember why we make the music in the first place and try not become envious of the 22 year old DJ who by the age of 18 already released 150 Beatport no 1’s 🙂

    • adminFebruary 8, 2010 at 5:47 pm #

      I hear that, Doron. I think an important thing to realize is that while many of those people you referred to are quite talented in their own right, much of that success is down to a combination of having an ear for musical trends as well as the ability to forge new sounds that still retain enough familiarity for people to enjoy. A little bit of luck never hurt either 😉

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