Overcoming Composer’s Block

Virtually everyone who has composed music for long enough will experience mental blocks to getting projects started or completed. As this is a very familiar experience for authors, I thought it would be useful to compile some suggestions for overcoming writer’s block along with some of the things that I’ve personally found helpful for working my way out of composer’s blocks.

Set a Schedule
In my experience the number one cause of “writer’s block” ends up that the composer just doesn’t ever get to writing.  Many times music can spring from our minds without conscious effort, but that’s not usually how most composers work.  Setting a regular schedule to compose not only makes it more likely for you to get something accomplished, but it often becomes enough of a routine that your creative juices start flowing more freely during that time.  Keep in mind that it’s possible to be too rigid with a composition schedule. You can end up setting unrealistic goals that only serve to frustrate yourself instead of inspire. Think of time on task as being not just the means to an end, but also an end in itself.

Or to think of it another way, you’ve got to swing at the ball to get a hit.  Don’t stop trying to compose regularly just because you find it slow going.

Write Something Down – Anything
Get something written down on paper (or in the computer, if you compose that way), even if it has nothing to do with your current project. Merely writing random notes down on the staff can often fool your brain into thinking it’s composing and before you know it, you’ve got something you can work with.  Once you have something on paper you have something tangible that you can explore and expand.

Work Out of Order
This is good advice, even when you’re not stuck for ideas. It’s very easy to write yourself into a proverbial corner if you try to start from measure one and write to the end of the piece. Certainly it’s important to pay attention to how the piece flows from beginning to end, but sometimes you need to work out the middle or end of a piece before you know how you’re going to get there.

This can be particularly helpful in working out voice leadings.  Try starting with the final chord of a phrase and find the voice you want, then work your way backwards.

“Perform” What You Already Have
By perform I don’t mean to schedule your unfinished composition on a formal concert, but find a sympathetic ear and play what you’ve already got. Talk to your audience a bit about your conception for the completed piece. Even if your audience doesn’t have the background or inclination to offer suggestions, merely getting it out into the open can be therapeutic and spark some ideas on how to continue.  If you can’t find a live person to play for, try recording what you have so far and talking into the recorder about your composition.  Go back and listen to what you played and said with an open mind. You just might find the answer you’re looking for there.

Improvise and Record
Get to your instrument (or even an instrument that you don’t play well) and just start improvising freely. You don’t want to have any particular goals in mind, just that you play something. Record your improvisation and listen back for fragments or even complete themes you find interesting and write them down. Even if you decide to not utilize those ideas in your current project you should save them for later.

If you’re not an accomplished improviser you actually may have an advantage over someone who is.  Don’t discount ideas that weren’t quite what you intended or didn’t sound like you wanted at first.  When improvising, sometimes our mistakes are more original and creative than what we meant to play.

Try to Write Like Another Composer
It’s been said, “Good composers borrow. Great composers steal.” While I don’t think it’s appropriate to plagiarize another composer’s material, you can try to work out a solution that you think one of your favorite composers might have used. Taking material or concepts that someone else has come up with first and using it in unique ways can be very creative. Even if you eventually reject the idea as not belonging in your piece, you will have at least eliminated one possibility, making it more likely that your next idea will fit even better.

Imitation is an essential part of any creative endeavor.  To put it another way, you need to understand the “rules” before you develop a feel for how to break them.  Get inside why a particular composers music sounds a particular way and you’ll develop an intuitive understanding on how to get a similar sound in your own music and how to change it to fit your personal style.

Find Some Inspiration
The obvious inspiration would appear to be other pieces of music. If listening to music gives you ideas you can use, then by all means listen to some recordings (or play through some pieces on your own). Don’t reject other sources of inspiration, like visual art, film, poetry, books, or whatever. Just don’t get so wrapped up in searching for your muse somewhere that you never get anything added to your composition. Come back to your project immediately following whatever experience you find inspiring and get something written down.

Change Your Compositional Process
Most composers tend to write a certain aspect of their music first, such as the melody or harmony, and then add the rest. If you find yourself stuck try focusing on composing just the rhythms or come up with a form instead. Force yourself to think a little differently about getting ideas.

Don’t Be So Critical of What You Write
A big part of writer’s block is our inner voice telling us that what we’ve just created isn’t very good. Instead, make it your goal to write something you know is terrible on purpose. It’s easier to make a bad composition good than to to write a masterpiece in one draft.

Once you’ve got something composed that you don’t like you have the opportunity to fix it and make it better.   Figure out specifically what you don’t like about it and change those things while leaving the good parts alone.  Sometimes after we’ve lived with a theme for a while it grows on us and becomes something that we enjoy working on and hearing.

Finish What You Start
It’s OK to move on to another idea or project if you feel that you can’t make a composition feel right at this time, but commit to finishing the projects you start.

I’m of the opinion that one of my compositions isn’t truly “complete” until I at least get to hear a read through, and even better, a performance.  It’s essential to get the feedback of actually hearing the completed project in order to learn what worked well and what sort of things didn’t have the intended sound.

Keep a Composition Notebook of Themes or Other Ideas
It’s common to have lots of ideas in a short amount of time, too many to get into one composition. Instead of just forgetting about what you’ve just imagined, jot them down in a notebook for later. When you get stuck for some musical material you can go through your notebook and might just find something that will work for your current project. Don’t reject anything for inclusion in your notebook, no matter how lame it seems to you at the time. At a later date you might have a better chance of making those ideas sound good to you.

Have Fun
Although I saved this one for last, it’s probably the most important thing we can do to eliminate blocks. If you don’t enjoy the process of composing then it’s probably going to show in your completed project. Remember, a big part of deriving enjoyment from any activity is in not being too self critical.

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