The blank page, or DAW screen in many cases, is one of the most daunting stages of any new project. You have a deadline and high expectations (often imposed on yourself), and now you need to get those first notes down. Looking back at old projects, I often go “How on EARTH did I get there?!?”. I usually think I’ve lost my ability to compose and start considering a career in dropshipping.
In this series of posts, I want to help composers, as well as myself, implement some best practices when it comes to starting a new project. From preventing writer’s block and workflow improvements to getting the first ideas down. I hope this series will help you when you come back to the inevitable stage of the empty page.
Chain the muse to your desk
In the first installment of this series, I want to talk about a couple of things you can adopt to prevent writer’s block. Before you start writing anything, it is good to think about how you can stay in a composing flow. There’s often a lot of music to write and not that much time to do so. Sure, you can combat writer’s block when it hits you, however, looking at my hauntingly empty DAW, I realize I can’t afford to fall into such a crisis. Getting some notes down for that first cue or theme sketch is vital for me to get a head start, and I need to get those notes fast. Preventing writer’s block from happening altogether is something you do have a certain amount of control over. Help yourself preventing writer’s block by minimizing the risk of getting stuck with the following 7 tips.
1. Break it down into small pieces.
The start of a new piece or project can be daunting and overwhelming. You have all this empty screen in front of you and need to pull your first idea out of thin air. A way to help you start is to break down the process of writing your piece into smaller chunks and fill them in one by one. By breaking the process down, the tasks seem more manageable. By completing all these little tasks after another, you’ve gained a considerable amount of ground, and your piece is well and truly underway.
The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks and then starting on the first one.Mark Twain
One way to do this is to start with the big picture and zoom in. First, start with the overall feeling or theme you want to create with the project. Is it heroic? Emotional? Creepy? What are the locations I have to write for? What is the general atmosphere? Write these words down so you know what you’re aiming for.
Next up, you can decide on some musical parameters that align with this theme or mood (or moods) you’re trying to achieve. What will the time signature be? Is the piece fast or slow? What key or mode will I use, and what kind of sounds and instruments will I need? You know what you are aiming for, so it’s easier to pin these elements down to make them fit with the mood you’re achieving.
When you’ve set these parameters, you can start aligning a basic structure. Try to fill in the timeline with some basic suggestions of how the music will flow, what the orchestration will do, if there are big climactic moments, where the points of tension and release will be, and so on. This structure will give you a direction when you start writing your first notes and themes.
The basic form will be your guideline when you start writing. Please don’t get too attached to it, though. It only helps you to get started. If you feel like the music is going somewhere else than you intended, go with it. Your creativity has taken over from your planning, and that’s GOOD! The goal is to prevent writer’s block, and it seems like you’ve nailed it!
2. Have a schedule (and break it).
Working on a regular schedule helps you put your goals for the day in check and keep your eye on them. You know what you’re working for, so it will be easier to get your work done. A tip when setting your goal for a day is not to specify how many minutes or seconds of music you want to write but how many hours you want to spend composing. This way, your goals align with the work you put in, not the work you want to take out. There’s less pressure on the output, and you can compose freely in those hours you put in. And believe me, you will write more.
One thing that can help you stick to your schedule is to imagine yourself going through it the evening before. Visualize yourself going through every step of your day to anticipate how you will perform this task or feel during it. What are distractions that might come your way? Visualizing your day like this is a way to anticipate distractions or any negative emotions that might come up during your day. This way, you can prepare to deal with them when they arrive the next day.
And if you’re at the end of your allocated composing hours, but you’ve got about 1000 new ideas? Then go on. Rules and structures are there to break when creativity is flowing. Go with it.
3. Take frequent breaks.
Breaks are usually the first things that go out the window when on a deadline. While working, however, your pre-frontal cortex, the ‘thinking-part’ of your brain, is working on overdrive. To keep it effective and preventing writer’s block, you need to give it some rest from time to time. Taking a break refreshes your creativity, gets you moving for a bit and can restore your motivation. Having a regular break helps you keep your mind and imagination fresh, so you can stay on the ball when writing. Be intentional with these, plan them in advance, and stick to them.
4. Keep working on your craft.
All great composers of the past spent most of their time studying. Feeling alone won’t do the job. A man (or woman, red.) also needs technique.George Gershwin
Your craft is something that can get you out of a whole lot of sticky situations. And by craft, I mean techniques you master, certain harmonic progressions you know will work in the context, or certain orchestration or sound design tricks you’ve learned. The technical knowledge you’ve gained that you’ve put in your toolbox and can apply in a new piece. You can enhance your craft by taking time in your day to study something you’re not familiar with, doing score analysis, or by challenging yourself. Challenge yourself to apply a new technique you don’t know yet in the next piece you’re writing. You’ll learn to master it by forcing yourself to use it. The next time you’re in a situation where you’re stuck, this technique is now part of your toolbox you can grab into for a new solution for the problem you’re facing.
5. Separate your spaces.
It can be very tempting to do your studying at the same desk where you write your music. Or that you watch some Netflix in your studio because the ‘sound quality is so good over there.’ However, if you keep your composing space dedicated to composing only, it can work miracles on your creativity. You step into that room, knowing exactly what you’ll be doing, and immediately adopt a composing mindset. When you leave the room, you know you’ve done your composing work until you return. Having a dedicated space for each of your tasks can help you focus on that specific task, eliminate distractions while working, and stay in that creative flow.
Oh, and one more thing. Keep your phone out of that space as well.
6. Change things up.
To prevent yourself from getting stuck in a rut, it’s essential to change things and try new things. Try a new workflow. Pick up a new instrument when improvising for ideas. Listen to a genre of music that you’re not used to. If you experiment and keep trying new things, you’ll pin down the things that work for you. You might never find these if you keep doing the same things over and over again. So go wild.
7. Keep the pencil moving.
In a live masterclass by Howard Shore, someone asked him how he retained his inspiration when working on a massive project such as ‘The Lord of the Rings.’ His answer was simple.
“Keep the pencil moving.”
Writing every day, he stayed on the ball for the entirety of the project. He didn’t allow himself to get out of it. The music developed very organically because the themes he wrote were all in his head and kept coming out slightly differently. Keeping the pencil moving, he created this fantastic coherent score that has been beautifully analyzed by Doug Adams.
If you take only one thing from this, make sure it’s this one. When you compose every day, you stay in the flow. Even if it’s only for 15 to 30 minutes, you will have written something, and you will have grown as a composer in that short time. Doing this every day will help you stay creative and help you preventing writer’s block. You chain the muse to your desk and force her to stay with you because you’re not letting her go.
While the project I’m embarking on at the moment is not a Middle-Earth-sized monumental undertaking, I can certainly make sure to implement these practices to help myself prevent writer’s block. Come back for the next installment in this series, where we’ll talk more in-depth about writing up a music document!
https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/changepower/201704/how-do-work-breaks-help-your-brain-5-surprising-answers#:~:text=Breaks increase productivity and creativity,took breaks%2C according to research.
https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/changepower/201704/how-do-work-breaks-help-your-brain-5-surprising-answers#:~:text=Breaks increase productivity and creativity,took breaks%2C according to research)