How musicians can overcome the pain of writer's block

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Workflow is all well and good, so long as the work is, well, flowing. And every musician who has spent any length of time at their craft knows that while some days you feel as though you have a Midas touch and every idea turns to gold, on others, you can’t seem to find two chords that work well together.

Staring at an empty screen and not being able to fill it is gut-wrenching, and in those moments, it can feel as though we’ll never be able to write a decent track again. But often, subtle shifts in your mental state can get you past a block and, better still, potentially open up pathways of creativity hitherto unexplored. 

Writer’s block often stems from an expectation that something should be possible (or even easy) and a frustration grows that it’s proving harder (or even impossible) for reasons beyond your control. The first mental shift is to remove any sense of expectation; just because you’ve made tracks before, why should it be the case that it will be easier or just as straightforward this time? After all, circumstances change. 

Let’s take an analogy. Suppose you go jogging. Your ‘average’ speed to run three miles is 30 minutes. You always manage to cover that distance in that time but today, it’s taken you 35 minutes. If you only look at the time, you could say that you’ve failed today. But perhaps today you ran into a strong headwind every step of the journey or you skipped breakfast and your blood sugar is low. Just because you’ve switched on your same computer and loaded the same DAW doesn’t mean that today will yield the same musical result as yesterday, so removing that expectation can remove a lot of unnecessary pressure.

Make changes

So can changing your working pattern. Repetition is the enemy of creativity, so it should come as no surprise that, at some point, your brain will rebel if you fire up the same sounds, work at the same tempo, program the same beat patterns or reach for the same chords. Changing things up can be as simple as changing the order of the musical parts you bring to your tracks. Do you always start by programming beats? Then don’t - make that the last thing you do. Do you usually plonk down some chords and a guide melody before getting to work on sound design and production? Turn off your keyboard and draw notes into your DAW instead, so that you’re forced to think about every note you add to a chord - if you’re going to the trouble of adding notes manually, it may well prove to be the case that you’ll pick different chords or voicings to the ones your muscle memory selects when you’re playing to a click track. 

Collaboration is another way to get past writer’s block, as having someone else’s idea to kick-start the creative process takes the pressure off having to come up with all of the ideas for a track on your own. Similarly, asking others for feedback on your work in progress will throw up some ideas you won’t have had on your own. Even if you don’t agree with the advice you’re given, you’ll be forced to think about your tracks in a different way, which can get you over a hump. Better still, there may be a good reason why you disagree with any constructive criticism, which will make you defend your work. There’s nothing better than this for finding your self-confidence and realising that, just maybe, you’re not as bad at this music stuff as you’d been allowing yourself to believe.

Get more workflow-enhancing tips and advice in the Autumn 2018 edition of Future Music.

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