Have you ever sat there in front of the computer, and no matter how long you waited, the ideas just didn’t come? Have you ever started to wonder whether or not you’re even any good? It happens to the best of us! Luckily, there are some techniques we can employ to get those inspirational juices flowing. Read on if you’re stuck!
1 - LISTEN TO MUSIC YOU LOVE
Sometimes it’s as simple as reminding ourselves why we make music in the first place. Do you remember the song that made you want to be a producer? I do - it was “Circus”, by Britney Spears (produced by Dr. Luke & Benny Blanco). I remember the first time I heard it. And then the second… and then it was on loop for months (literally, on loop). I remember the excitement it gave me when I got lost in all the little details - the sounds, effects, the vocal harmonies, etc. Take a few minutes, and go for a journey back in time. Pull out those songs from your younger years, turn the volume up and get amped! This will serve as a healthy reminder of one great reason why we make music - to share the gift of joy with others.
2 - GIVE YOURSELF A SOUND-ALIKE ASSIGNMENT
Don’t know what to make? Then copy something! Pull up a song you really enjoy - either one that’s doing really well in the charts or online, or one that you’ve always been interested in investigating - and try to duplicate it. Not only will this eventually get your own original ideas flowing, but it’s also a fantastic exercise for becoming a better producer or mixer. Listening critically, and trying to implement what you hear, is certainly no easy task. Every time you attempt to recreate someone else’s track (assuming you’d like your own material to sound similar in some regard), it makes you better.
Keep in mind, you don’t need to perfectly recreate the track from start to finish. It’s perfectly worthwhile to pick just one aspect or element of the song to emulate. For example, perhaps you’re interested in the arc of the song’s arrangement. Count out the bars, and try to create something that matches. Or perhaps you just focus in on the drums, and try to copy the rhythmic pattern and sonic elements. For example, mimic the incredibly detailed hi-hats we hear in today’s trap and IDM beats. You could try to match the vocals - in fullness, EQ, or effects. If you want to improve your chord progressions, perhaps try copying the harmonies by ear (and if music theory is your thing, write out an analysis). While working, try to completely forget about industry demands - do what makes you excited! This will yield more authentic results, and even if they are not necessarily “trendy”, I guarantee you will get a more authentic, organic response from your audience. People can tell when something is trying to be something else, and tend to reject it.
3 - CONSUME OTHER FORMS OF ART
I’ve consistently found it very helpful, while experiencing a lack of musical inspiration, to delve into other forms of art. The visual arts (poetry, movies, paintings, photography, etc) all work well in stimulating ideas. There’s something powerful about immersing ourselves in another artist’s creative output that jumpstarts our own ideas. Switching gears and consuming art other than music is a great way to take a breather, and get refreshed.
Artists are particularly sensitive to what’s relevant politically, culturally, socially, economically, or otherwise. The art of a time is often some sort of response to, or mirror of, what’s happening in the world. Tuning into these frequencies can get us aligned with our own feelings and reactions, and spur some great ideas. This is helpful for influencing the sound or vibe of a production, as well as lyrical content for those of us who are also lyricists.
Diving deeper into the relations between different art forms can reveal some surprising correlations. For example, digital artists speak of “curves” which can be likened to EQ in music. Just as we can manipulate the highs and the lows of our sonic frequency spectrum, the highs (bright spots) and lows (dark spots) of their light frequency spectrum can be manipulated in order to effect contrast. Poetry and prose have forms and formulas, aspects of “arrangement” and arc that can be likened to that of a song’s. Subjects are introduced and elaborated on, just like melodies. A photograph deals with “composition” techniques, which the photographer uses to guide the viewer’s eye through an image, over the course of time, just as we use composition to guide the listener’s ear through time. The eras in the history of painting match closely with what was simultaneously going on in music. Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Impressionist, and Contemporary refer to styles of music, as well as styles of painting. For example, paintings by Monet or Renoir are related to look exactly like the way pieces by Debussy and Ravel sound. Movies and cinema are great as well - they too follow emotional arcs over a set period of time. A director’s role in guiding the creative direction of the project is very similar to that of a music producer. Any good editor will tell you that the masters of their art have a very strong sense of rhythm.
4 - COLLABORATE
Got talented friends? Invite them over! It can be very helpful (and fun) to bring in some outside influence when you’re feeling stuck. Let them assume the lead role, and assume the role of contributor for yourself. Being responsible for the final product can sometimes cause a lot of pressure, and pressure is no friend of creativity. Allowing someone else to take control, even temporarily, allows us to relax a bit. Sometimes it’s much easier to edit someone else’s drum pattern or bass line, than to come up with our own. Once some fundamental elements are in place, you can either continue working together, or thank your friend and kick them out.
5 - MAKE UP RULES
A blank canvas can be one of the most terrifying things an artist must face. When the options are infinite, we’re left wondering about which choices to actually make. Change the situation from one of limitless possibilities, to one with limits, rules, and structure. If I put you in a room with unlimited canvases, and every color of paint in the world, you could theoretically paint anything at all… but for a lot of us, this would be a daunting scenario. But if I gave you the instruction “only use 1 color”, all of a sudden ideas come to mind about how you could creatively overcome this limitation.
Carrying this technique over to music, try to make a production with just a few sounds. Use sound design techniques (pitching, time stretching, filtering, distortion, etc) to get the most out of those few sounds as possible. Set yourself a time limit - try to make a complete song from scratch in 2 hours or less. This will force you to watch the time and budget how long you spend on each part of the process. You will be making quick decisions, cutting corners, finding shortcuts, and otherwise being very creative.
6 - DO SOMETHING ELSE
To the contrary of what many seem to believe, productivity doesn’t mandate hard work. Make some time for things like self care, reflection, meditation, going for a walk, enjoying nature, etc. Stress and anxiety are enemies of creativity, and therefore doing things to manage them will help free our creative voices. Have you ever tried desperately to remember a particular word? No matter how hard you try, it just doesn’t come to mind. But as soon as you move on to something else, it pops into your head. The same thing happens with creative ideas - letting go, without trying to grab onto them, allows the space for them to show up.
7 - BE DISCIPLINED
Musicians are not known for enjoying schedules. Despite our best intentions and efforts, we repeatedly find ourselves being reminded by the rising sun that we should’ve gone to bed hours ago. Nevertheless, a structure is very helpful for achieving a flow, and making a habit out of it. Creativity is a muscle, and exercising it regularly yields the best results. This brings us to one of my absolute favorite quotes, by William Faulkner: “I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately, it strikes at nine every morning.” By getting ourselves on a regular schedule, we train our minds to cooperate by doing what we want, when we want it. This particular technique won’t be an immediate solution, but will surely pay off over time.
8 - MAKE GARBAGE
The pressure of making something “great” is a total creativity killer. We find ourselves needing to prove our worth, and this leads to our egos getting wrapped up in the results of what we attempt, rather than focussing our efforts on the process itself. The fear of failure isn’t too far behind, and from there things can look a bit dismal. How do we combat all this negative thinking? By switching up the rules! If you intentionally set out to make something terrible, this automatically throws your ego for a loop. This also reverses the effects of our fear of failure. You can surely succeed at making something terrible, right? Making something terrible is a great exercise for detaching our self-worth from the results of our efforts. And it helps to simply ‘get us going’ - once that happens, the ideas can start to flow. Another great exercise is to make something that you intend on deleting permanently. This scenario sets up similar deterrents for our ego, and fear of failure, as well as validation-seeking. Making something that will be destroyed upon completion allows us a unique space of freedom where we can create simply for the sake of creating - again, focussing on the process rather than the results. The Monks have a similar practice where they spend up to 30 hours as a group creating a beautifully intricate mosaic on the floor of a Mandala with millions of colored grains of sand. Once the masterpiece is finished, they take brooms and sweep it away, reminding themselves that nothing lasts forever.
What do you do when you get stuck? What’s your advice for regaining and strengthening a creative flow? Share your questions, comments, and advice below!