In this article, I look at five reasons why the best intentions, desires and equipment never lead to an influx of musical creativity and output.
The tips are my personal experience, but I’m hoping that the ideas will resonate with others out there who are struggling to get any creative ideas down. They’re all pretty obvious but sometimes just hearing how easy the problem is to fix, can make you want to do something about it. The only flaw here is that, although I know these ideas work, I still struggle to use them effectively. Oh well, that’s more to do with my lack of self-discipline than anything else.
Let’s start with something obvious. When you have an idea or play something great, try to get it recorded in one way or another. There’s a tendency to let it pass thinking that you can improve on it or come back to it. Maybe you get caught in the moment and keep on playing. Unless you hit that record button more often, you will never get the foundations of a song in place.
If you’re anything like me, you hate the record button. The annoying metronome and the sudden pressure to play something perfectly a second time that you just finished playing a first time so beautifully is enough to force mistakes. Once you make a few of those, you feel demotivated or irritated. Pressing record takes you mentally from improvisation and jamming into a formal task, and that feels wrong. Some people use a field recorder or phone to record everything in the background so they can always go back to great sounding ideas. This might work for some, but you have to get past the freedom of improvising (which always makes you sound great) and get serious by pressing the record button more often.
LIMIT YOUR PLUGINS
Too much choice is a terrible thing when it comes to putting a piece of music together. These Black Friday or Summer deals are amazing, and there’s always a great temptation to buy that extra synth here or sample-based NI plugin there. You’ll find a use for it, right? Of course, you will because that’s your justification for spending the money in the first place. Those first few hours playing around and going through the factory sounds to see what your new plugin can do are heavenly.
The problem is that merely flicking between what can genuinely be thousands of presets is no good for anyone. Try to limit yourself to just a couple of plugins. For example, I know that Diva will generally give me any synths, pads and even bass that I want. It is a trusted go-to plugin for me. Try to find yours and stick to them. If you don’t, you’ll search for a few minutes, lose your way, lose your will to live and fall into that horrible creative hole where you give up and Cmd-Q your way out of the software so that it’s off the screen as quickly as humanly possible.
HAVE A GOAL
As mentioned, it’s too easy to drift when it comes to music. A project or a goal can stifle creativity, but in general, it gives you the focus you need to get started. That’s half the battle. Decide what you want to compose before you start so you can avoid that random sounding piece that you quite like but is a mishmash of genres and doesn’t hold together. I know what you’re saying, and unfortunately, it’s often the case that your best ideas come out when you are messing around and not working on a project. That’s where point number one comes into effect, I suppose.
IMPROVISE WITH FRIENDS & WRITE DOWN IDEAS
If you’ve never played music with others, I seriously recommend it. It’s incredibly rewarding and is, without doubt, the best way to get your head into the right place to write more by yourself.
The last song that I wrote and (at least, the last song that I like listening to) was after I had an evening with a friend where he was on guitar, and I was playing a mixture of piano and guitar VST. After that evening we’d noted down a simple set of chords that we both liked. Nothing complicated but somewhere to start. We’d agreed on a time signature and had an idea of what we wanted to do. We never had time to finish it that evening, but this planning gave me motivation and confidence to work with this idea and build on it. I spent the next two days building up a track. I knew precisely where I wanted to start but, more importantly, where I wanted to finish.
USE DECENT HEADPHONES OR MONITORS
When it comes to writing decent music, gear is not the answer. You don’t need it and, just as with photography, don’t assume it will make you a better musician. There is one exception though, and that’s headphones or studio monitors. Don’t try to produce with the speakers on your computer screen or with a set of speakers somewhere else in the room. Putting on a decent pair of headphones will not only give you a much more accurate mix and representation of what you’re producing, but it will also go some way to transport you into the zone. It’s such a good feeling when you put down just a few tracks, and they work well together, and you’re listening on headphones. You know it works, and it spurs you onwards.
CANCEL YOUR NETFLIX ACCOUNT
Accept the fact that composing or producing music takes time. If you’re from a background of Garageband layering of samples and loops created by someone else, then you’re possibly used to quick gratification. This type of production is a building block job. Providing you have the right ear, you can put a song together in a few hours. Creating a song from scratch will take time.
In my experience, if you get some ideas flowing, hours will disappear. The same happens if you series binge on Netflix. If your time is limited, you’ll waste those few hours you have to produce music because you’ll be sat watching Startrek DS9. Or is that just me?
Please don’t take this too literally. For you, this might not be Netflix, but there’s probably something. Something that pulls you away from getting a few hours down in your DAW of choice. In my case, I genuinely believe that cancelling my Netflix account would make me more productive.
TAKE A BREAK
A lot of the advice in this video applies to any creative pursuit but this one more than any other. Take a break and come back to your work after some time has passed. Maybe a day or more. You will tire from hearing the same passages repeatedly and will have no way to be objective. Come back to your song, slap an audio processor onto your master track and listen to what you’ve made. The audio processing will give your production a more polished sound, and you can objectively determine whether you like what you hear. Whenever I come back to sets in Ableton Live, it’s usually 50/50. Half the time I love it more than I remember and want to carry on and the other half get binned. Reviewing your work this way is either a timesaver or a big motivator, so it’s good either way.