Given the way that I use GPO, and the fact that my health has been less than stellar for the past few weeks, I don’t feel as though I have been contributing as much to this wonderful forum as I would like. So I would like to humbly offer a few tips on beating writer’s block that I learned at Berklee as well as some of my own that I discovered through time.
In my final semester at Berklee, I took the Advanced Songwriting 2 class. It worked on a two week basis. The class of week 1 was devoted to describing a certain style of pop music. We then had until the next weeks class to write, record, and present a demo of the tune, complete with a lead sheet transparency for analysis by the class. Upon arrival for class on week 2, the class and instructor would then analyze the work, and the rest of the next week was devoted to the re-write (with new demo and lead sheet transparency). The first half of week three class was devoted to analysis of the re-write and then we turned the final work in for grading. The second half of that class moved on to the next style of music, and we repeated the process for this next style. In short, we had one week to write and record a good tune or we were dead.
I was terrified. Recording the demo and transcribing the piece would take half the week, so I had just a few days to actually write. Fortunately, I found that I write best under pressure so most weeks went pretty well. But for those that didn’t, I had to figure out a system. Here are some of the things that I did that worked:
1) If you are working on a deadline, don’t panic! (You don’t have time, and the worry clogs the universe to brain transmission).
2) While writing your last piece, you probably have “out takes” of ideas you didn’t use. Change the arrangement around and try in make it work in any style.
3) Get organized. Spend time sharpening pencils, reading your sequencer’s manual, cleaning your work space, organizing your files on your hard drive, making GPO templates, and so on. In other words prepare to write. When you are preparing to write, your brain is actually in writing mode and subconsciously working on your next piece.
4) Every musician friend that I have told this to correctly thought I was nuts, but came to me later to tell me that it works! Here it is: Play, or learn to play Chess! Why? At one point during a bad week, I threw up my hands and said “Oh well, no song this week!” at which point I thought I’d just play a stupid computer game. I played a few of the mindless ones figuring that it would offer a break and a clean slate (it didn’t really work). Finally, I bought a computer chess game on a bleak, cold, rainy, Boston day. I walked home with it in a plastic bag under my coat. When I got home, I fired it up and played the computer. After 4 hours of getting creamed by the remarkably good A.I. (never underestimate your opponent! ), the music machine was spinning, and out came the tune plus material for the next two weeks! How did this work? (Glad you asked - I have a theory): Chess involves the same type of thinking as writing music. You are dealing with combinations, intuition, recognizing patterns and where they will lead, finding order out of what seems to be chaos, making your own order out of chaos, symmetry, asymmetry, logical conclusions to a line of thinking, surprise, questions, answers, and counterpoint, - it’s all there! You are training the brain, writing the next piece, and taking a break from it, all at the same time! This has been one of my biggest musical secrets that I usually keep to myself. It is now yours. It sounds nuts, but try it!
5) Don’t sit down to write a masterpiece. I-IV-V-I works, and is used a lot for a reason! Start there, try a melody over it, re-arrange, re harmonize, and you suddenly don’t have just a I-IV-V-I piece!
6) Load up a bunch of sounds you normally wouldn’t use (synths are great for this, weird ethnic instruments, or whatever). They can inspire, and alter your perspective.
7) The best composition advice I ever heard: From Elton John in an interview “When in doubt, write a hymn”
8) Look for metaphors. Perhaps you are walking down the street and see a broken flower pot with dirt and dead flowers. Notice it! Why is it broken? Did someone just hear terrible news that caused them to drop it and run off in agony? Did an old woman looking for some beauty in her lonely life find a perfect flower only to have her heart broken again?...complete the story! Movies, books and other media can inspire, but nothing like the way your own brain can. There is music in that barely noticeable broken flower pot!
9) Listen to the sounds of the Earth. Not every sound has to be pleasant. Birds sing little motives all the time, but so do car horns, chainsaws, lawnmowers, crowds of people. Connect the dots with them all and you will hear music.
10) Listen to silence! The real music is between the notes.
I hope this can help. I could expand on this, and I will if there is any interest. I just wanted to list some less obvious stuff.