We’ve all been there: you sit at your computer or with your instrument aaaand….nothing. Composer’s block, or “writer’s block”, has reared its ugly head and the more you focus on creating something, the less creative you feel. If you’re working to a deadline, it can be the worst feeling in the world.
I’ve read a fair share of articles about composer’s, or writer’s, block – and there is some awesome advice out there! And that advice will help you get over your composer’s block…eventually. The problem is, as soundtrack composers, our deadlines don’t allow us change our schedule or just wait. We need to get past our hurdles fast. Like, right now.
What do I do when I’m stuck? I turn to theory. WAIT! Don’t go! I know the mention of the “T” word usually means you’re about to be bored to death while someone pseudo-analyses what some legendary composer was intending to do when they chose a specific interval over a chord. But that’s not me. I turn to practical theory that’s actually going to help me.
That said, using theory is going to involve some level of analysis. Namely: analysing some pieces that capture the spirit of what you’re aiming for, and combining them to create a new outcome. Sounds simple, right? That’s because it is.
As much as you might hate to admit it, most of the music we’re asked to create isn’t original.
Barely any music is original, but film music intentionally draws on the power of association to evoke emotion from the listener – that’s the whole point. There’s no point torturing yourself trying to pluck a new idea from thin air when what you need to do is use the listener’s existing knowledge of music to play to their emotions. Of course, their “existing knowledge” comes from existing pieces.
So, here’s what you do when your composer’s block comes calling:
1. Find Pieces to Inspire You
First things first is to find the existing pieces that you’re going to analyse. You’ll want them to be similar sounding, obviously: the same genre of music can be approached in many different ways, so try to find a few examples where it has been approached similarly. Don’t forget any pieces the director may have given you, or pieces that are in the temp track. Aim to have around 3 to 5 pieces – too many and you’ll be overwhelmed, too few and you won’t have enough material to work with.
2. Work Out What Unites Them
Now you need to analyse those pieces, working out which elements tie them together. Maybe they all use a certain chord? Maybe the melody in each pieces uses the same interval? Perhaps the instrumentation is the same in every piece? Things to listen for:
- Melody and intervals used
- Chords and chord sequences
- Instrumentation and orchestration (how the instruments are used)
- Time signature
- Rhythmic devices
- Dynamic contour or arrangement
The structure is less important, as that will be dictated by the scene you’re working to.
3. Figure Out How They’re Different
This might seem counterintuitive – after all, we’re looking for things that make the style we’re going for, so why do we need to know how they’re different? Well, that will all make sense in our final step. For now, just create a list of differences and whether it’s different across all pieces, or whether multiple tracks share it, but others don’t.
4. Combine, Create, Experiment
Now’s where it all comes together. You should now have a list of things that are always found in your chosen style, and a list of things that are unique to each of the pieces. All you have to do is use the common things, and combine the unique things.
- they might all use solo piano, and the lydian mode
- they all have different tempos, and chord sequences.
- two of them use the same rhythmic pattern, one has a unique pattern
- Write a piece for solo piano in the lydian mode
- Take the chord sequence from one piece
- Use the tempo from a second piece
- Use the same rhythmic pattern as the unique piece
And that’s it! You just used analysis to come up with a (sort of) new idea – nice work! Of course, this is just a starting point – you still need to develop the piece, find an interesting way to arrange it, but at least you have your first stepping stone. Now I know that this can feel like cheating, you might even feel a little dirty by “appropriating” ideas from other composers like this, but providing you develop the piece in your own way, you aren’t doing anything that nearly every composer in history hasn’t done before.
As the great Woody Guthrie once told Bob Dylan:
“Don’t worry about tunes. Take a tune, sing high when they sing low, sing fast when they sing slow, and you’ve got a new tune.” – Woody Guthrie
Here are the steps in a handy infographic:
What techniques do you use when composer’s block hits you? Tell me in the comments!