So I’ve been writing about getting band members, using social media, and fliers, but, like most music marketing bloggers, I’ve neglected writing about the most important element: writing music.
Of course, everyone has their own way of writing music. The following tips and tricks are just ways I’ve been approaching it. Especially when I’m tired, uninspired, and have little time for it. I thought I’d share how I get over being blocked from writing, and how I eke out riffs that can end up being full songs.
Turn off all distractions
Turn off the TV. Close your e-mail. No FaceBook. Turn off the cell phone. Tell your friends, roommates, or significant other that you can’t be bothered, right now.
Set aside time with NOTHING to distract you. Is it completely silent now? Anything distracting your eyes? No? Good. Keep it that way until you are done.
Now that everything is quiet, and you have your instrument of choice in hand; a problem can set in: the quest for the perfect song. The result is usually the same: Paralysis. In that quest to write the next, most mind-blowing tune, your brain locks up because you’ve set the bar too high.
To break this “perfection paralysis”, just do the opposite of perfection: write a shitty song. Choose three arbitrary chords. Close your eyes and pick a random note. Just start plucking away and don’t worry if it sounds good. Just start! If it sounds like something else you’ve heard, that’s okay. Just keep going and don’t stop.
Start with a song you already like
Another way to get the creative juices flowing is to start with a song you already like. Start playing that song and make minor changes to it. Add a chord. Add a note. Add a break. Or remove something. Change the rhythm or tempo.
Better yet, rewrite the song. Change the genre or style completely. Make that Metallica song into a sexy, lounge tune. Have fun with it.
The result is your brain starts producing new material. The problem with writer’s block is just moving forward. If your brain is stuck trying to write something new and unique, the best way to get un-stuck is to start from material you already love. The important part is to just keep moving forward.
Experiment with rhythms and chord progressions
Pick four or five arbitrary chords. Or just one, it doesn’t matter. Without trying to make something into a real song, just play with the rhythm. Do something weird or unusual. Don’t start on the down beat. Hit the note off-time. Add more silence than usual. Or hold the note out “too” long. Make every other bar a completely different rhythm.
In addition to the rhythms, plot out weird chord structures and progressions. Jump multiple octaves to the next chord. Go from a major feel to a minor. Write a chord progression that’s just “odd”. Make it rise and then fall. Again, the point isn’t to make a song, but to play with sound.
Though you’re not trying to make a real song, often something new and unexpected arises. Even if it’s only one riff, your brain is working in a new way and inspiration can arise.
Use time limits
Give yourself 15 to 20 minutes at a time. Put on a kitchen timer and stop when it goes off. Once the timer starts, forget about time. Just move forward and keep playing and playing and playing. Don’t censor yourself, just go. Then force yourself to stop right when that timer goes off.
I’m getting this method from the book “Accidental Genius”. Mark Levy uses freewriting to generate original and unexpected ideas. But, he puts a time limit on a writing session. The benefit of this time limit helps out with song writing paralysis and procrastination. Sometimes you think that writing a song is going to take all night long. That thought just makes you tired. However, if it’s only 15 minutes, it’s much easier to commit yourself. You can get more accomplished with a stress free 15 minutes, than the idea of an all night long session.
But the other import part of this is giving yourself a break.
Give yourself breaks of silence and nothing
Put the instrument down. Sit and do nothing for at least 5 minutes. Go into a daze. Don’t check e-mail or turn on the TV.
Why? The brain hates a lack of input. Without input, the brain will start creating patterns on its own. After 15 minutes of non-stop music writing, suddenly there is nothing. The brain will create music on its own. Suddenly, without you trying, that cool melody, riff, or bridge will pop into your mind. If that happens, you can end your break and start writing again.
Don’t worry if it sucks
It’s okay if what you’re writing sucks. If it sucks, just finish it and move on. The act of creating music is the most important part. Get your brain used to always creating music, daily. Not everything is going to be a winner. Think of your favorite band. Do you really love every song they’ve put out?
There’s songs I created that I thought were just damn silly. Throw-away songs. For some reason, people just LOVED those songs. For instance, I made a joke song called “Rather Be Undead”. The premise of the song is this guy would rather be an undead vampire than have to deal with his girlfriend anymore, “I’d rather be undead than be with you.” Silly. But people would demand that we play it at shows, and get pissed if it wasn’t on the set list.
Listen to and learn a different style or genre
This method is to jar your senses and make your creative juices do a 180. Too often, we get stuck writing the same sounding music. Nothing differentiates one song from the next. The only way to get out of this rut is to make your musical thought process go into an entirely new direction.
The easiest way to do this is to use Pandora or Last.fm. Plug in something vastly different than your own style of music. Play metal? Plug in Balkan gypsy music. Play pop punk? Plug in tribal African music.
Listen to this music for a half hour or so before you sit down to write your own music. Or listen to it at work or on the bus. This music will imprint itself on your brain. Then, when you write music, try messing with the style of your song by incorporating this different genre. It doesn’t matter if the end result sounds like this new genre, but that your music writing will change in a unique way.
You don’t need to make a full song
Don’t worry if you didn’t write a full song. Sometimes that song isn’t destined to be written just yet. Something else needs to happen in your life first. Put that song on the shelf and come back to it later. Either a different month or a different year. Maybe, if you’re trying to come up with a new song with your bandmates, pull out that unfinished song and maybe they will finish it for you.
However, don’t forget that song…
Record it, or you’ll forget it
The worst thing is to write an awesome riff or piece of a song, but, then, the next day, you completely forgot how it went. Worse, maybe you wrote something that you didn’t think was very good, but later realize it was actually cool. But if you don’t record it, you WILL forget it.
Don’t worry about the quality of the recording. Cheap software and a cheap mic or interface is all that is necessary. If you don’t have that, just record it onto your cell phone. You’re going for memory, not quality.
After it’s recorded, go back and listen to the odd ideas you’ve had every now and then.
Remember stories from your life
Sometimes music doesn’t come from an instrument; it comes from life. Think about something from your past that had an effect on you. A night of laughter, that crazy relationship, that time you got punched out in the bar, or even that weird lady you saw at the store. Think about these stories and see if a song arises in your mind.
Do it, even if you only have 10 minutes
We’re constantly pressed for time. Working a real job. Posting fliers all over the city. Spending time with your friends and loved ones. Updating the 30 social media sites your band is on. How do we have enough time to actually write music?
I sat down the other day with only a few minutes before I had to meet my girlfriend. In that few minutes, I wrote an intro and an outro for a song and quickly recorded it. The pressure of limited time can be an inspiration.
Originality? Forget about it.
The pressure to have an original sound and song can prevent the brain from writing any music. Does the song you are working on sound generic? That’s okay. If your brain is in a generic mood, just let it. Don’t go against yourself. Have fun with the generic tune. Originality can be emergent. It can develop naturally.
How many songs are truly original? Are you really going to censor yourself on some holy grail quest for the purest form? Let your music flow. Be unoriginal occasionally. No one else needs to hear it if you don’t want.
That’s some of the methods I use to write music. Hopefully, someone else can gain some benefit from it. Of course, this is writing music by yourself. Writing music with band mates is much more….interesting.
So how do you write music? How do you get over blocks? Leave a comment and let everyone know!