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 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 to make creativity sound unobtainable.
These are actual practical techniques 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!
You can hear this frequently in music by MUSE, and it's 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 can be an amazing technique.
It's easy to get started:
Choose a chord. 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 well by simply sharpening or flattening the note by one semitone. Keep experimenting.
If you discover something pleasant, 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 beautifully 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.
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?):
Feel the rhythm!
Hum 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 every two of your steps.
Every so often you hear some amazing music with exquisitely moulded instruments and sounds. By listing out all the instruments and sounds, you've got a ready-made toolkit to craft 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 sure you can easily pause.
Note down all the instruments 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 periodically to add more instruments to the list as you hear them.
Winner winner chicken dinner, you now have a marvellous list of sounds you know will work together.
This should get the creative juices flowing, now start musicking!
Pro Tip: Identifying that particular synth sound can be 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.
This is like tip number 3. Great music always has a 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, make 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. You can split up each of the sections and label them up so you can see the structure.
This is an oft-mentioned technique, but it's amazing, so I thought I should definitely mention it. By changing instruments, you force your brain to use different pathways. The different physical characteristics and limitations of an instrument can reveal new ideas.
There isn't 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 excellent ideas!
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!
Start feeling 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 or not something is simple, is not keeping it simple.
Branching off from the tip above, here's a good way you can keep it simple. Sometimes chords can be overwhelming, so instead of struggling and over-complicating 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 enjoy doing this on the guitar or bass.
You can string these single notes together. If it helps, you can think of them as a simple 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 well when you're trying to work out the chords to a piece. The specific chords might be difficult to identify, but one individual note that fits is often easy. This way you can go back to the more difficult chords later and work them out instead of getting frequently stuck.
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 new.
So have the chords handy and then:
Write the individual notes of the chords out. I 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 a few cool things you can do to the notes:
Make the highest or lowest notes the same across the sequence - somewhat 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 drawn in a random mess of notes and got cool stuff before (after a little refinement).
Pro Tip: If things sound a little dissonant, you could try quantising the notes to a specific scale to keep them sounding sweet. In fact, changing the scales might change your seed notes into many nice (and very different) sounds.
The brain is a powerful thing. Given enough time, it can work out pretty much anything you might want - so let's give it some time! 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 add some resolution to the tension you feel as you wait for an expected change. You want to sort of 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 happy with, also try speeding it up. This can sometimes turn a boring song around. It can change the entire feel instantly, so it's worth a try!
You never know when inspiration may strike. Fortunately, most of us now carry devices capable of recording our ideas.
So grab your phone and:
Open 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 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 super 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, you can do any of these tips so why not pick one and try it out right now?
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!