Overcoming Composer's Block

August 20, 2020

Writing music can be hard.

It can be hard to find new ideas, hard to develop material, hard to structure sections, hard to create transitions, hard to arrange… It can be a whole lot of hard, and it's in these moments we feel stuck.

But believing that music is hard is the thing that is detrimental to our progress. In a sense, hard is just a construct. When you accept that music is too hard – you make it so.

Ok - some pseudo-matrix-there-is-no-spoon sh** right? Let’s look at this further. What does “hard” actually mean for you? Because your relationship with that word is the key to overcoming musician's block.

Hard is too simple

‘Hard’ is an incredibly general word that covers everything and yet says nothing. It prevents you from seeing the ingredients of problems and from breaking down the actual issues themselves.

Imagine a builder is building a building, and they throw up their arms at the beginning and say, "it’s too hard, I can’t do it.” 

You might agree with the builder and think the project is hard, and you might disagree and believe that the project is simple. Arguably though, neither is ‘correct.’ A highly experienced builder might look at the same project and say it’s easy.

Sure – some things are near impossible. But, generally speaking, whatever the scope of a project, most things are possible if you have the time and resources (experience & help) to deconstruct the problem.

Deconstruct the problems

Next time you find yourself feeling that writing music is too hard, take off the pressure and give yourself the time to break it down. Instead of just wallowing in the feeling of hardness, focus your energy on deconstructing the problems.

This is, of course, easy to say, and hard to do – so to help, let’s look at the broadest or top-level challenges we experience when composing. Perhaps some of them resonate with you and help you start breaking things down. 

  • I can’t come up with ideas.
  • I don’t like the ideas I’m coming up with.
  • I can’t execute my ideas at the piano.
  • I can’t execute my ideas in my production.
  • I can’t capture my ideas on paper.
  • I’m struggling with music theory.
  • I can’t develop my piece beyond a certain point.
  • I can’t transition between sections.
  • I can’t structure my piece well.

Whatever your issue, I find it useful to categorize problems in terms of; ideation, medium, or arranging.

Allow me to take you on a brief tour of each. Along the way, I will try to explore the typical issues and solutions you might try.

Ideation

Ideation is the first stage of composing. It’s the process of creating ideas and developing them. There are many ways you can come up with ideas, so if you’re struggling with this stage, you might find something of value here. 

Audiation or Imagining Music

Audiation is the ability to perceive musical content in your mind. This means hearing the imagined sounds while simultaneously comprehending how the music is constructed. Basically - writing music in your head.

Audiation can be combined with different execution methods. For example, you might hear some ideas in your mind and then try and capture them on your instrument, at the DAW or through notation.

It’s easy to have All or Nothing Thinking about audiation. I used to believe that I had to use (or strive to use) audiation exclusively and conceive of all ideas in my mind first (like Mozart 😉).

In reality, most people use audiation in conjunction with other ideation methods. You might hear a motif and then go and improvise on it or work on that idea with procedural generation in your DAW.

If you’re struggling with audiation as a method for composing try:

  • combining it with other methods
  • taking the pressure off and accepting whatever you hear
  • going to lots of live music
  • transcribing music for over three hours (with breaks 😉)

Improvisation

Many people wonder what the difference between improvising & composing is. This is definitely a personal opinion and will differ for each person, but there are few ideas I can offer.

Usually, the distinction is drawn between the two by thinking of improvisation as ‘real-time’ writing and composing as spaced-out writing.

With improvisation, there is only a second or two between your ideas and their execution. Therefore, there’s a minimal amount of time to ‘think’ intentionally about what you’re going to do. This is often a good thing as more can come from your subconscious.

In a sense, this gap between conception & execution creates a spectrum, with composing at one end and improvising at the other. 

If you’re struggling to come up with ideas or are encountering Composers Block, then you can play with this spectrum. Try ‘improvising’ in super slow motion to take the pressure off. This moves you more toward the composing side of the spectrum whilst still making sure you don’t feel the pressure to ‘compose.’

  • Improvise with a groove/drum loop, drone, or simple harmonic context.
  • Improvise on someone else’s idea (see imitation below)
  • Use rules to restrict your improvisation.
  • Improvise with other musicians
  • Record your improvisations and then listen to them a day, week, or a month later – you’ll be amazed at what you hear. 

Imitation

Imitation is basically working with references. It’s also called Pastiche Composition. You take a reference – which could be anything from a whole track to a single motif – and then use that as inspiration. You might write something very similar, or it might be unrecognizable from the inspiration.

I can always, yes - always find my way with writing again if I try to imitate something or use someone else’s work that I find inspiring as a starting point. I much prefer working this way, rather than with a ‘blank canvas.’ If you’re not working with references – do it. 😉

However, if you’re still struggling to come up with ideas using imitation;

  • Take the pressure off and try to write sh*t versions of inspiring tracks. Really go to town and do terrible pastiches for fun. No-one needs to hear them. 
  • Try a different type of music.
  • Don’t try and imitate ‘all’ of the features of the music – imitate a single element.
  • Imitate some of your own music or your friend’s music.
  • Totally copy someone else’s music and then slowly change tiny bits of it until it’s not the original piece anymore. 

Interdisciplinary Inspiration

You can also use other art forms or things to inspire your music. The work I do in software and design very often informs and spills over into my music work. I’ve also always loved writing music to picture – regardless of whether I’m actually writing music for a film.

If you’re stuck with your writing, try drawing inspiration from other sources like poetry, stories, art, film, or anything else. I’ve also found it incredibly helpful and moving to write music for people you like and love. Try and sum up your friend’s personality in a tune! Or write a piece for your mother. 

Procedural Generation

Intentionality is a big topic and one that I think a lot about. Very often, we are fixated on the idea that WE must come up with the ideas, otherwise it’s not composing. In a sense, this is ego led composing, which has its issues.

We can instead set in motion processes or techniques that allow us to explore or encounter new material. From this perspective, we are stepping back from the music and viewing it as a separate process from us. It’s something that we set in motion.

I will definitely be working on more content and courses that cover procedural composing – but essentially procedural composing is coming up with rules that restrict the type of material you can write. This ends up being incredibly fruitful and creative.

This can be done by yourself, for example, by saying, ‘i’m only going to use minor chords and use 2nd & 4th intervals’ or by using plugins in your DAW like arpeggiators, scale quantizers, etc.


Phew - lots of stuff there. That’s a look at ideation. It’s not typically a major problem for most composers. The main area where people come unstuck are the second areas – the context in which you compose and the arrangement of that material. I’ll be looking at this in part 2.

Ping me in our forum or @jackmsvaughan on Twitter if you’re interested in more content around this. I’m totally passionate about it and would be happy to connect and provide details.