Writing music can be hard, but it doesn't have to be. Whether you're a composer, songwriter, arranger, producer, or something in-between, you've undoubtedly had moments of feeling stuck, unable to create, hating everything you produce.
Many people call these periods of stagnation "writer's block", but writer's block does not actually exist. What is really happening is simply procrastination and fear.
In a live interview I saw with A-list film composer Michael Giacchino, he said that he doesn't get writer's block. There were literally gasps and murmurs from the audience, as if that was something blasphemous to say. "All creator's suffer for their craft, right?"
But I'm here to tell you that no, writer's block is all in your head and it comes down to a handful of simple things: you have too many choices, you don't know where to start, you don't have a process, you are distracted, and/or you are afraid of something (disappointing yourself, appearing inadequate, etc.).
If you are having trouble writing, these are the areas you can focus on that will get you back into the groove.
In this article we're going to discuss the first: how to control your choices so you can make good decisions quickly and keep the writing flowing.
Limit Your Options
"Any tone can succeed any other tone, any tone can sound simultaneously with any other tone or tones, and any group of tones can be followed by any other group of tones.."
- Vincent Persichetti, Twentieth Century Harmony
I don't know about you, but I find the idea of infinite possibilities to be terrifying! To overcome the deer-in-headlights feeling when staring at a blank page you have to narrow down your choices.
Too many choices cause us to be overwhelmed by an overload of information. A commonly shared study on the impact of choices on sales of jam reveals that less choices actually produce greater forward momentum:
"A research assistant sets out different samples of jam at a stall in a supermarket. One stall has six choices of jam, the other has 24 choices. They then track the purchase behavior of those shoppers, and whether they end up buying jam or not in their final grocery basket. Iyenagar found that those that visited the table with the smaller sampling (six choices) were far more likely to buy jam than those who didn’t."
(source: Asian Efficiency)
They key to making decisions is for them to be easy to make. "Write a song" doesn't even seem like a decision, but "Is my song going to be fast or slow?" is a choice that is very easy to make. All you have to do to get the writing process moving forward is make your decisions simple, and then make one simple decision after another.
Composing music is about making choices. Make early choices, starting with overall concepts and moving closer and closer to details.
Outlined here is a five-step process for overcoming writer's block by making easy choices from the big picture concepts to the final details. Think of it like carving a statue - first you start with a big slab of rock, then it becomes a blob that resembles a person, and only at the very end do the intricate details take shape.
With this process you will work from the outside in, and each big decision will affect the smaller ones to follow. If you decide you want to write something in a heavy metal style, your decisions about instrumentation are going to follow pretty naturally. Conversely, if you are trying to figure out what instruments to use but you don't even know what style you intend to write you will be confronted with too many choices. At that point you'll probably feel stuck, end up wandering over to your e-mail or Reddit for "just a moment", and end up not writing anything at all!
You are not forever tied down to your early choices; every decision can be changed later. But each decision you make early on will help keep your process moving forward and help you write a unified and cohesive piece of music.
1. Big Picture Decisions
First establish your main concepts so you actually know what you are setting out to write.
What are you writing? It sounds simple but many people often fail to clearly establish what they're even setting out to do. "I'm going to write a song today" is a big ugly ambiguous thing. "I'm going to write a love song about a boy and girl who fall in love as children and aren't reunited again until they are adults" is specific, and will already get your creative gears running.
One of the reasons composers have an easier time scoring to picture than composing for their own sake, is that the film dictates what they are going to write. They fail to see that the problem when they are unable to get started writing a standalone piece of music is that they're lacking a big picture concept.
What is the style of the piece or song you are writing?
Again clarity beats out ambiguity every time. "I'm going to compose something," or "I'm going to compose a fast and exciting orchestral piece in a modern superhero style."
When you decide on the style you give yourself a leg up on more specific decisions to come regarding tempo, meter, instrumentation, harmony, and so on.
2. General Decisions Specific To Your Piece
Now make decisions specific to your piece, but that still encompass the overall composition. These include:
- Mood: Happy, sad, melancholic, frightening, or a blend?
- Length: How long is it going to be? Consider your audience and the purpose of the piece. A track you intend to send out to music libraries might be only 60 seconds, a symphony to be performed as the main event at a concert will need to be substantially longer.
- Harmonic approach: The chords and scales you intend to use. This may be dictated already by your choice of style. Will it be simple triads, a song built on three basic chords, or in a specific mode like Dorian or Lydian? Perhaps you'll want romantic chromatic harmony or even atonality. Decide now.
- Key/Keys: You don't have to decide on every modulation, but simply by saying, "This piece will start in G minor," you have instantly established constraints on how you are going to begin, thus making it easier to move on to the next phase.
- Tempo: Again, you don't have to know the specific bpm, but you should decide if your piece is going to be slow, medium-slow, insanely fast, etc.
- Meter: Is it a march in 2/4, or a floating 3/4?
- Instrumentation: Another choice often dictated by style, but perhaps you want to add a unique flair. Orchestral but featuring accordion, or an indie rock band with slide guitar. Know the palette you are going to be working with.
3. Overall Structure & Form
Next decide on your basic structure/form. Will it be a reliable sting structure of Verse Chorus Verse Chorus Bridge Chorus? Or something more unusual?
Songs that are about the lyrics and story often do best with a simple structure; compositions that are meant to be very exciting and keep people on the edge of their seat lean towards a less predictable form.
Think of your piece's form as the outline for how you will express your ideas, with each section being filled in with detail later on in the process.
Decide now if you'll have a general ABA shape, perhaps mimic sonata form in some way, or are going for something completely different.
4. Outline Each Section
Now that you know the outline of your whole composition, you take it a step further and work out the outline and general characteristics of each section individually and how it compares or contrasts with the other sections.
- Orchestration: What will be the primary instruments? Perhaps you'll decide that the first section should be strings and the second section low brass.
- Dynamics: Where are the highs and lows for volume and intensity? When you look at your piece from zoomed out like this you can be aware of the dramatic shape, and whether or not it is inherently interesting or needs work. Too quiet for too long before anything exciting happens? No logic to the pacing of quiet and loud?
- Form: You know the form of the whole composition, but what about each section? If it's a very short piece than maybe your A section is just an 8 bar melody. If it's a bit longer your A section might be it's own mini ABA structure.
- Key: Depending on your style, you may want to consider modulations with each section in it's own key. How do the keys of each section relate to one another? Is there a logic to their progression?
At last you turn your outline into a flesh and blood composition. The scaffolding takes on texture and color. The surface level details come to life.
The great thing about this process is that you are not overwhelmed with "writing something". You are instead simply taking on the task of, for example, "writing the slow, sad and quiet opening four bars for solo trumpet in the key of C minor."
The Process In Action
I'll show you how I used this exact process to write two different things, a fantasy/adventure composition and this very article.
How I Used This Process to Write a Piece of Music
Writing a big orchestral piece is intimidating, but using this process of knocking out the decisions from biggest to smallest makes it a very manageable feat. Here's a piece I wrote following this procedure:
- First I made the basic decisions about what I was going to write. I knew I wanted an orchestral piece in a fantasy/adventure style.
- Next I made some choices specific to the composition. I decided it was going to be medium-fast and in 12/8. For instrumentation I knew I wanted it to be orchestral, but also with a recorder for renaissance flair and some high register chimes such as celesta to add a touch of magic.
I thought that Dorian would be a good choice harmonically because it has a medieval church mode flavor. It's like a minor key that is more whimsical than sad because of the natural 6th scale degree.
For the length I wanted something on the shorter side, so I made 90 seconds to two minutes my target length. Note that I didn't say, "It has to be one minute and 50 seconds," just that I knew about how long it should be. And for mood I wanted it to be moderately fun and exciting. Not the extremes of joyous celebration or menacing terror, but more of an uplifting journey.
What I really want to stress here is that each of these decisions on its own is very easy to make one at a time.
- Overall form and shape came next. Because I already established that the piece would not be extremely long, I knew that I wasn't going to have a very complex form that went off in many directions. I decided that I would have one theme that was stated three times, each one bigger than the last. The fact that the first section becomes a build into the second wasn't planned out but came naturally when writing, but the fact that there would be a gentle opening section followed by a medium strength section was definitely known.
- The structure of three sections, small to medium to big, became my outline to fill in with greater detail.I decided that I would start with a solo recorder with a harp background for the first section, that it would move on to solo horn and cellos for the second, and finally high strings with big brass and timpani hits for the last.This is the stage where I really started writing music and coming up with specific ideas, albeit in a somewhat thin and sketched out manner.
Coming up with the basic theme was very easy because I already knew the following things:
- It would be in A Dorian, so I knew exactly which pitches I was "allowed" to use.
- It would begin on recorder.
With those constraints forced on me, I simply improvised on the keyboard until I landed on something I liked. Sounds too simple? It really is that simple.
If you still can't come up with something, add ever more layers of constraints: "I have to start with a perfect fourth interval," or "I'm only allowed to use the notes A and F#," etc.
Next I laid out the basic form of each individual section, for example the first section states the theme and then has a build, the second section states the theme and then has a B theme to give it more length, the third section states the theme and then builds to a finish.
In this phase things will get moved around, some of the bigger picture decisions might have to be reevaluated, and the composition really starts to take on a life of its own.
- Finally the fine details. Here I did things like adding more orchestral color and varied the theme in different ways each time it was played so it wouldn't just be copy paste. I knew that the harp would be playing arpeggios, and in this phase I actually worked out what those notes would be. The opening with recorder and harp alone felt thin so I added a soft pad underneath to act as a glue. Thus I kept reviewing and refining until the finished product took shape.
How I Used This Process to Write This Article
- First I decided what I was going to write about - Writer's Block. I also decided that the "style" was going to be a step-by-step tutorial.
- Next I decided on the overriding features - there are many aspects of writer's block I could write about, so in this case I decided that I was specifically going to focus on limiting choices and making easy decisions. I obviously didn't have to worry about things like key and tempo, but I did know that my length was going to be above 1000 words. My narrow focus needed to be established before I could move on.
- After I knew what I was going to write about I laid out the basic format - an introduction, each step of the process, an example of putting it to use, and a conclusion. This is the outline, with the idea here being that with each step of the process I am zooming in closer and closer to the details.
- Similar to Step 3, I next zoomed in another level and laid out all the ideas I would discuss in each section. So instead of actually filling in every word for step one I just wrote in the basic points I wanted to hit: "What are you writing?" and "What is the style?"
- Finally I went through and filled in the details. I fleshed out any paragraphs that needed more substance, rewrote awkward sentences, and I did general fine tuning. This part looks like the actual labor of writing, but in reality it is insanely easy because almost all of the decisions have already been made for me!
The main idea of working from the outside in is that you move from the easiest of decisions (style) to the more difficult ones (Ab minor followed by D7 or F? In the violins or violas?). But the beauty of moving in order is that each decision makes the next stage an easier one.
Does it have to be in this exact order? Of course not. There is nothing inherently wrong with working from the inside out, ie. starting with a nugget of an idea and letting it expand and grow into a complete composition.
What I'm outlining here is not the only way to work, and certainly not how I always work, but it is a process you can adopt to specifically fight those moments when you are stuck.
More often that not when someone is stuck and can't move forward it's because the don't know what to move forward with. The potential of infinite choices leads them to make none. Think of the car salesman, who doesn't ask "Do you want this car?" (infinite reasons yes and no), but instead asks "Do you want it in red or blue?" (a very simple choice and your brain will make one)!
Don't worry about doing things the right way, or the way you've seen someone else do it. Just focus on what works for you and allows you to actually output work instead of just thinking about outputting work.