Writing music…even when you don’t want to

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.

Avoid perfection

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!

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8 Responses to Writing music…even when you don’t want to

  1. Spooky says:

    I might be one of those fortunate people that doesn’t run into writers block with music. When I write alone, it’s usually in the wee hours, anywhere from midnight to 4:30 in the morning. My method is simple- I call it the Hendrix Experience. I will just make noise with my guitar (or bass, or trumpet- whatever I’m playing). I just let go and make noise and something always comes out of it after a few minutes of straight, all-hope-abandoned, chaotic wailing. Sometimes I write the songs in my head when I’m out and about doing things, but for the most part, it’s from simply making noise. After I have the music written, I commit it to muscle memory by playing into the ground (I’ll play it over and over, like someone with OCD trying to wash the filth of his hands). Then I write the lyrics based on what ever feelings are inspired from the music. Song written.

    • Sweet! I like doing that, too. Chilling and not expecting anything to come out of it. I’ve actually written songs just noodling on the bass while watching TV. (I know, I know. Against what I said in my post.) However, the one that gets me is the song that won’t let you sleep. It just pops into your head and gets itself on repeat. You have no choice but to write it. The song will try to kill you otherwise.

      My blog post is more geared to writing daily, always creating. Especially when under a time crunch. Sometimes, that can seem a chore. But everytime I sit and start writing, I feel myself getting into the groove. Then I wonder what I was stressing about. That’s just me, though.

  2. As a bass player, I always found myself trying to write songs stemming just from a bass line… which is a damn hard feat to accomplish. Without a melody to work with, there is still a big piece of the puzzle missing. But I kept at it, and would continue to write music on a regular basis (less regular now that I am out of school, but I try) and now my song writing skills are good. Not great. But good. But Im okay with that…

    These are some incredibly helpful tips that I KNOW will work for many newer songwriters who are going through many of the same struggles I went through when I was aspiring to become a great songwriter. At least, I know using some of these techniques would have helped to push me further than I got.

    I would also add to this list, to LISTEN to different music. Study the different forms, the styles, the techniques and try to duplicate those. Understanding how the puzzle fits together will demystify the process for you when you are trying to write your own songs.

  3. Ah, a fellow bassist! Yeah, I was made fun of by a music composition professor for my compositions being to “guitar” centric. Fuck him. I quit music college and moved on. Hopefully he’s still the king of his West Virginian dung heap.

    Concerning writing on a particular instrument, there was a point I left out on music writing. Just because I don’t do it often. But, try writing music using an instrument you’re not used to. Play a piano, acoustic guitar, or use some wierd software. It makes your brain work differently, thus, different music comes out.

    And I agree about listening. I feel I don’t do it enough. Just sit back with my eyes closed, and really listen to music. I always get inspired listening to music I love. Good point!

  4. Neil says:

    First, I love your blog. You have fantastic ideas and they inspire me to no end.

    I’m in the process of starting my second band. I just got together all the musicians (minus my keyboardist friend who’s been very flakey of late) and we’re practicing our asses off to learn the songs (I write the songs on guitar and then bring them to the rest of the band… for now) so we can start playing some shows. Anyway, reading your site has made me realize I’ve got tons of shit to do before that first show’s going to happen.

    Enough of that, I tend to do my writing similarly to your methods. Writing’s the thing I do best and comes easiest for me. I’m not a fantastic guitarist and I’m only a decent singer, so I try focus on the writing aspect and make sure I’m constantly coming up with new or at the very least, weird ways of looking at things to get people interested. I also like to keep a pad of paper handy all the time to write stuff down at whatever weird point in the day something comes to me.

    Also, I highly recommend you check out The War of Art by Steven Pressfield (He wrote The Legend of Bagger Vance). It’s officially geared toward writing fiction, but it really applies to all creative endeavors. I gave it to my best friend/bass player recently who likes to paint on the side; he read it that same day and spent the entire night filling a canvas larger than he’s ever painted before. It was fantastic! And it helped me finish my senior thesis in college (Not that even having a degree has done shit for me so far).

    Anyway, again, I love your blog and I wish you the best of luck. Come to Texas if you ever get the chance.


    • Okay, that’s the second time today I’ve heard of “War of Art”. It’s definitely getting downloaded onto my Kindle.

      Ha! “Flakiness” kinda describes what I’ve been dealing with from other musicians for years. Even now, and I’m just trying to start a band.

      Have you ever used Evernote? It’s a cool mobile/web/desktop app that helps you remember things. If you have a sudden idea, you can just fire up Evernote, record your idea (in voice, text, or phone pic), and it stores it online for later retrieval. I always lose pads of paper, but I never lose my cell phone. Well…almost never.

      Keep us informed of how your band’s doing. Also, please tell me I’m full of shit if anything I mention on this blog doesn’t work. Or if I’m completely missing something basic!

  5. Neil says:

    I downloaded Evernote yesterday and it’s fantastic! Thanks so much for the tip.

    Yeah, flakiness is what killed my last band, but I feel really good about what we’ve got going right now. So far everyone’s been really dedicated and awesome.

    • Evernote saves my ass with clubs. I always forget who is who (booker, sound person, bartender, etc). I just pop out Evernote right after I’m done talking to someone and just record a voice message. It’s such a brain saver!!

      I’m jealous. I’m positive that there is no way to eradicate flakiness from whatever line-up I get. It’s just the level of flakiness that I’m willing to put up with.

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