For beginners and established artists alike, no one is immune to creative block. It can come at the worst possible time, and often does, making the artist feel at best frustrated, at worst ready to give up completely. But creative block isn’t the end of the road – there are plenty of tried-and-tested techniques to get over the hump, or to stay productive, even if the musical ideas aren’t flowing. We’ve gathered together 10 ways to overcome creative block so get reading and get inspired!
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Break the Routine
Routines are rarely fun and even more rarely are they creatively stimulating. We tend to get into particular production patterns quite quickly after we master a particular DAW or plug-in, reaching for settings which have worked well in the past. The problem is that this relies on what we already know rather than looking for something new and adventurous. Habits include loading up production templates, reaching for the same kick drum sample to begin work or simply loading preset after preset. Familiarity might work for a while but, sooner or later, you’ll become weary of a tried-and-tested formula and creative block may well follow. Break those patterns and take a journey into the unknown. Great things await.
Take the Pressure Off
If you make music with a computer, you’re in the business of ‘music technology’. The process of creativity is usually focused on the ‘music’ side, organising notes, chords, patterns, instruments and so on. Sometimes, this focus is to the detriment of our use of technology; in a hurry to get a great idea into our computers, we fire up a preset or a previous project and then become wedded to it, meaning this new track sounds a lot like the last one.
When you’re next experiencing ‘creative block’, see it as an opportunity to take the pressure off ‘music’ and use the time to learn some new ‘technology’. Spend a couple of hours properly learning how your new plug-in works. Or brush up on parallel processing. Or set up an experiment, sending a single note into cascading auxiliary delays to form a soundscape. You’ll learn something new and, you never know, that new knowledge might just trigger a great musical idea of its own.
Stop Making Music!
Sometimes, the worst thing you can do when ideas stop flowing is to try to force them. Just as you wouldn’t head back the gym for a hard work out if you’d pulled a muscle, so forcing yourself to try to write something worthwhile may well not achieve the desired effect. Sometimes the best way to come up with new ideas is to remove yourself completely from your studio, switch off your phone, put down your iPad and head out for a walk, open a good book, or do something else completely different from music-making. Distracting your mind can work as an incredible ‘reboot’.
Hit Something With Your Hands
It’s really unlikely you fell in love with making music by sitting in front of a computer. That might be what you spend most of your time doing now but, when you were a child, you hit things to hear what sound they made and that physical connection is so important, as it brings the fun back into music-making. Try building a track from manufacturing DIY drums formed of plastic and wooden boxes, hitting table-tops or banging on pans.
Chop these up, isolate hits, even sample them if you want to but most of all, let out some ‘creative block frustration’ by giving those instruments a good bash. That will provide therapy in its own right and, you never know, you might even build a better beat in the long-term by mixing your recorded hits with some samples.
Creative Block vs Laziness
Creative block affects us all – sooner or later, we all find ourselves unable to produce anything we’re happy with. But every once in a while, it’s not block which stops us, it’s laziness, so here comes the tough-love part. If you’re striving to make something good, something with an original musical idea and careful production choices, making music is never likely to be easy. The thought processes in every production decision require concentration and dedication and, for some people, that just seems a lot too much like hard work and ‘creative block’ sounds better as an excuse than ‘can’t be bothered’. Soldier on, work hard and the rewards will come.
So, you’ve reached an impasse. Perhaps you have the germ of an idea but you don’t know how to nurture or develop it. What you really want is something to kick-start the process, ideally taking your idea off in a direction you might not have considered, to get the creative juices flowing once more. But if you’re out of ideas, how on earth are you going to develop new ones, particular ones out of left-field. Brian Eno’s ‘Oblique Strategies’ are one example of how ‘random’ advice can sometimes help. They’re effectively a series of playing cards from which one can be chosen randomly whenever you’re stuck.
‘Retrace your steps’, ‘make an exhaustive list of everything you might do and do the last thing on the list’ and ‘don’t be frightened of clichés’ are but three of a large collection. Select one at random and force yourself to do whatever it says. You may well end up somewhere unexpected and that, in itself, might overcome your creative speed-bump. You can always add to Eno’s cards with ones of your own. There’s an online version here if you can’t find the original set.
Learn to Finish Tracks
While the roots of creative block often feel as though they begin with ‘I don’t know where to start’, subconsciously, they’re as likely to be caused by ‘I don’t know how to finish’. As our minds seek out patterns in all that we do, not finishing tracks becomes ‘a behaviour’ which our brains come to encourage every time we don’t bring ourselves to complete a task. As a result, starting something is easy and well-known, whereas developing it and bringing it to a conclusion is foreign and difficult.
So, pick one of your unfinished ideas and wrap it up. Even if you don’t like the result, you’ll learn something about how ideas can be developed as tracks progress, which will stand you in better stead for next time.
Listen More and Broaden Your Tastes
Nothing inspires creativity quite like listening to other music, as the world is awash with great ideas which should help get the juices flowing. However, if you limit your listening tastes only to the genres of music you produce yourself, you’re unlikely to escape writer’s block. You can see the pattern easily; by listening only to ‘finished’ tracks by artists working in your genre, returning to your computer to a track in progress will always seem like a confidence-sapping anticlimax. However, if you can broaden your musical listening choices, the pressure is taken off.
Listen to a film soundtrack, or some pop, or some reggae, or anything else completely beyond your usual selections. You might find a great chord move you want to try out in your own track, or a particular bass hook you haven’t tried before or even stumble upon a creative sample to act as the foundation for your next track.
Bored of your own ideas? Then share some and obtain others by collaborating. The most obvious collaborations come in the form of finding a friend or fellow producer and knocking musical ideas together. But – potentially even more interestingly – why not find a film-maker and agree to write them a soundtrack, or find a photographer who needs a few textural tracks for their end of year show. Recognising the needs of a different artistic media can often bring new creative ideas to bear on your own tracks.
Change the Context
Sitting there at your computer, frustrated that the ideas won’t flow? Then why haven’t you moved?! If the last play through of your track confirmed that you don’t know what to do next, take the track somewhere else. Bounce it out as a stereo file (no matter how much you currently can’t stand it), put it on CD and take it for a drive, or put it on your phone and go for a walk with your headphones.
It’s amazing how not being surrounded by the tools with which you make music provide a new context to help you hear what’s wrong. Then you can rush back and pick up where you left off.
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Editor’s Note: This is an old article and things have moved on considerably since the original publication date 🙂
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