We’ve all been there. You’ve made a solid start, but just can’t flesh it out into a full-on song.
Frustrating is it not?
Well, I’ve been making music for most of my life, and so I’ve got a whole bunch of tips that have helped me break through the blockage and get on with making sweet, sweet music.
Most songwriting articles focus on nebulous and wishy-washy techniques like - read a book, think about an emotion etc.
They try and make creativity sound unobtainable.
These are actual practical techniques that you can do right in front of your instrument, right now to bust through the mental wall that’s stopping your music getting out into the world!
‘Kay let’s get cracking!
1: Change Everything With Just One-Note Chord Changes
You can hear this a lot in music by MUSE, and it’s really useful and quick way to generate all sorts of weird and wonderful chords and inversions. If you’re stuck getting a cool chord sequence together this is an amazing technique.
It’s very easy to get started:
- Choose a chord. I find that this technique is easiest if you pick a triad, and work everything out on the piano/keyboard.
- Move one of the notes within this chord to another free note. It often works really nicely simply sharpening or flattening the note by one semitone. Keep experimenting.
- Once you find something you like make a note of this second chord.
- With this new chord pick one note and move that one to another note until you find something that works.
- Repeat this until you have a full sequence.
- Don’t forget to often play through your chords from the beginning to make sure they all work nicely together.
Example (in GIF form):
C | Caug | Fm | F
Pro Tip: Don’t just limit yourself to one note, the main thing with this technique is that at least one note is the same in the previous chord so that there’s a solid relationship with the transition.
Pro Tip 2: Most DAWs will tell you the name of a chord if you play it on a midi keyboard. Super handy for finding out what the chord is on guitar for example.
2: Make Melodies by Simply Going for a Walk
Yeah, this one sounds nebulous, but bear with me. This time you’re not just walking to clear your head.
This time you’re become your own human drum-machine!
So get your shoes on and follow these steps (see what I did there?):
- Start walking.
- Feel the rhythm!
- Start humming to yourself - This works great for basslines and melodies.
- Refine your new masterpiece as you walk.
- Don’t forget it! Check out my bonus tip at the end of the article for this.
Pro Tip: Once you get good at this, you can apply it to any activity with a steady rhythm - chewing your food, mashing potatoes etc. For the truly musically obsessed you can incorporate tonal noises you encounter in everyday life and harmonise with them.
Pro Tip 2: To mix things up, try a polyrhythm. This is easiest with a three against two - i.e. three beats for each of your steps.
3: Save Yourself Loads of Time by Listing Out Instruments
Every so often you hear some amazing music beautifully moulded instruments and sounds. By simply listing out all of the instruments and sounds, you’ve got a ready-made toolkit to start crafting your own piece of goodness.
Get started by:
- Get yourself set up with some note-taking technology such as a pen and paper, or a phone.
- Stick the track in question on, and make you’re you can easily pause it.
- Make a note of all the instruments that you can hear. Be as descriptive as you can. Describe the instrument and how it sounds in words that will make sense to you later on.
- Pause frequently to add more instruments to the list as you hear them.
- Winner winner chicken dinner, you now have a marvellous list of sounds that you know are going to work really nicely together.
- This should get the creative juices flowing, now start musicking!
Pro Tip: Identifying that particular synth sound can be quite tricky. Presets can often be your friend here. Just try cycling through a load to find something that’s close, and then refine it to make it exact.
4: List Out a Song’s Structure for an Instant Blueprint
This is very similar to tip number 3. Great music always has great structure, and there’s nothing stopping you from taking it, and creating your own piece that takes the same sonic journey.
Make sure you have a song in mind and then:
- Play it from the beginning, and note down the first section.
- Count along with the music and work out how many bars there are
- Pause and replay as many times as you need.
- Continue through the song and list down all the distinct sections and their lengths.
- Armed with this structure transcription, start making your own song with this as a blueprint.
Pro Tip: If you’re already closely following another song’s structure, don’t take too much else from it as you don’t want to stray into the realms of plagiarism. These are dangerous times we live in, where you can get sued for creating a song with a similar “feel” to an existing piece.
Pro Tip 2: Try adding a recording of the song to your DAW. Then you can split up each of the sections and label them up so you can see the structure really well
5: Hack Your Brain by Changing Instruments
This is an oft-mentioned technique, but it’s a really good one so I thought I should definitely mention it. Changing instruments forces your brain to use different pathways, and the different physical characteristics and limitations of an instrument can reveal new ideas.
There isn’t really a specific step-by-step technique here, just pluck, press, blow, and strike your way to success!
Pro Tip: If you don’t have a second instrument, use your imagination and make one! You can tap tables, boing rulers, use a coat zipper etc. I’m serious, this can yield some really good ideas!
6: Keep it Simple
Motown was a true music-making machine, and so we can learn a lot from them. They knew that familiarity within music was key, and so extolled the virtues of the "KISS principle" (keep it simple, stupid).
Sometimes the path of least resistance leads to magic, so you should totally follow it!
- Try to get into the groove.
- Don’t overthink things!
- When in doubt go for familiarity.
- Try to get into the headspace of your target listener, and assess whether the music would be instantly catchy to that listener.
Pro Tip: Simplicity is relative. Being too concerned about whether something is simple or not, is not keeping it simple.
7: Blast Your Way Through Difficult Sections by Playing One Note ‘Chords’
Branching off from the tip above, here’s a good way you can keep it simple. Sometimes chords can be a bit overwhelming, so instead of struggling and overcomplicating things, why not try a one-note ‘chord’?
This is simply a single note that works well with the preceding chord or section.
Have a go now by:
- Taking a partially finished piece, and think about where you’re stuck.
- Play the song up to that point, and then just play one note that you feel works. - I like doing this on the guitar or bass.
- You can string these single notes together. If it helps you can think of them as a sort of bassline.
- Remember tip 6 and keep it simple!
- Once you have something note it down and then use this as the basis of a full chord sequence
- It’s easiest to use these as if they are the root note of a chord. However, don’t feel that you can’t incorporate them as the third, fifth, seventh note, or an inverted chord.
- Make it as complex or simple as you need.
- Et voilà, you now have a chord sequence.
Pro Tip: This also works really well when you’re trying to work out the chords to a piece. The Specific chords might be difficult to identify, but one single note that fits is often pretty easy. This way you can go back to the more difficult chords later and work them out instead of getting frequently stuck.
8: Mangle a Chord Sequence for Infinite Ideas
So you’ve got a chord sequence that’s kinda ‘meh’... You’re trying to substitute different things but it. Just. Ain’t. Working…
If this is the case, fear not! For you can take what you have, or grab another sequence from a song you like and mangle it to make something completely new.
So have the chords handy and then:
- Write the individual notes of the chords out. I actually do this in the piano roll of my DAW as then I can see exactly what notes make up the chord.
- This is the time to experiment so here are some cool things you can do to the notes
- Make the highest or lowest notes the same across the sequence - sort of a pedal note effect.
- Highlight the top or bottom half of all the notes and try moving them up and down.
- Try moving notes up and down in an alternating fashion as you move through the chords.
- You can refine any dodgy chords that crop up as you go.
- Don’t be afraid to go crazy - I’ve just got the pencil tool and drown in a random mess of notes and got cool stuff before (after a little refinement).
Pro Tip: If things are sounding a little dissonant, you could try quantising the notes to a specific scale to keep them sounding sweet. In face changing the scales might change your seed notes into all sorts of nice (and very different) sounds.
9: Play What You Have Suuuuuper Slowly and the Rest May Just Write Itself
The brain is a very powerful thing. Given enough time it can work out pretty much anything you might want - so let’s give it some time! Simply by slowing down what you already have, you can often anticipate what might happen next.
Good music is all about tension and relief, and so what you’re trying to do here is all some sort of resolution to the tension you feel as you wait for an anticipated change. You want to sort or will your brain into relieving the tension.
All you need to do is get your music and then:
- Play it really slowly, duh...
- Go through the song until you get the the part you're struggling with.
- In the long gaps where not much is happening, allow your mind to roam free.
- It will hopefully feel the need to plug the gap with something.
- Seize this idea, it's probably a good one
Pro Tip: Opposites time! If you have something you’re not quite happy with, also try speeding it up. This can sometimes turn a boring song totally around. It can change the entire feel instantly, so it’s worth a try!
Bonus Tip: Record Ideas on your Mobile Device
You never know when inspiration may strike. Fortunately most of us now carry devices capable of recording ideas very easily.
So grab your phone and:
- Open up a recording or voice memo app - all new phones should have this as a stock app really. If not go find a free one!
- Name the file if you can, this will help you when you come back to listen to the recording later - but you can skip this if the idea seems fleeting and the process of writing may cause it to vanish from your mind!
- Hit record and sing, beatbox, or talk your ideas into the phone.
- Do a few different versions just for posterity.
- You can do ideas for different elements of the song like beats, basslines, and melody one after the other.
- Stop recording - your idea is now safe (unless you lose your phone).
Pro Tip: If you’re in a public place and worried about looking like a total weirdo, the microphones on most phones are really sensitive so you can just whisper. This should be enough to jog your memory later on when you get somewhere quiet. The other thing you can do is just not give a crap about looking odd - works for me! =D
BOOM! There we have it. If you’re not furiously writing music in this very instant, there’s no hope for you…
Seriously though, all of these tips can be done right now, so why not pick one and try it out?
If you know someone who’s struggling at the moment, be a legend and share it with them.
Also, if you have any other cool techniques for banishing the block, please share them with me in the comments below.
As always, shine on!