Choosing music composing as a job instead of a hobby suddenly means that you’re going to have compose music even when you don’t want to. 1 If you were a writer, it’d be called “writer’s block”, so “composer’s block” seems an appropriate enough term for us. There are many obstacles that can cause composer’s block.
Obstacle #1: I don’t know where to start!
Sometimes, just starting the song can be the hardest thing. First, try asking yourself the questions in Chapter 4: Starting a Song for a Client so that you know what kind of song you’re making. Second, set your metronome (called a “click track” in some composing programs) to an appropriate tempo and time signature.
Now that you’ve prepared yourself a bit, you have to actually record your first notes. What’s the best place to start? Well, there’s no one right answer, but there are multiple ways you can begin:
Melody. It may be that a really clear melody line is what starts this song, with the other instruments coming in after to support it. This isn’t as common as you might expect, though… I frequently have to start with a non-melody instrument so that I have something on which to build the melody.
Lyrics. Even if you’re making completely instrumental piece, sometimes a few lines of lyrics will just pop into your head, and making an instrument play that rhythm will start the song for you. This can work for melody or harmony.
Bass line. This is my usual weapon of choice. I choose an appropriate instrument with a lower range, and record a bass line. It may only be a few bars long, but it’s always how I prefer to start. A house needs to start with a good foundation, and for me, even if I don’t know what the rest of my “house” is going to look like, the bass line is the best foundation. Plus, if you come up with a really fun bass line, the melody is more free to improvise to it.
Percussion. While I’m big on the bass line, the true foundation of most songs is found in its percussion section. Thus, many musicians will prefer to start with a percussion line and build up from there. There is nothing wrong with this approach, and many times I will start this way. However, if the clicking of my metronome is enough of a percussion track to begin with, I still prefer to start with a non-percussion instrument.
Obstacle #2: I’ve started my song, but I just feel creatively drained! What now?
Believe me, I’ve been there. I don’t know how many times I’ve sat at my keyboard for an hour with absolutely nothing useful to show for it. This is a true composer’s block, but if you’re on a tight deadline, that song’s gotta be made no matter what. The solution? Get away from that computer for awhile and do something.
Go for a walk! A twenty-minute walk in your neighborhood can be a great way to compose… if you can time your footsteps roughly to the tempo of your song, your brain can be actively composing music even when you’re nowhere near an instrument.
There’s another benefit to stepping away for awhile, too. When you come back to the song, you can listen to it with “fresh ears”; in other words, you can listen to it as other people will hear it. Too often, after a few hours of composing, you can get to a state of not really hearing the song because you’re paying too much attention to individual instruments. Listening to it after an hour of being away from it will let you listen to it in a way you hadn’t before.
Obstacle #3: I’ve tried those things, and I’m still blocked. Any other suggestions?
Well, for starters, are you being distracted by anything? Say, a game that happens to also be on your computer? Or one of those Internet sites that you just HAVE to check every five minutes? Yeah, those can kill your creativity.
Last but not least, maybe you really just need to scrap the song and start over. My song “Monkey King” was scrapped and restarted from scratch four times. Take the advice of Thomas Edison… “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
- Reality Check: Yes, there are times when you won’t want to compose music. Every job, no matter how amazing it is, has days when you don’t want to do it. ↩