Have you or your students ever started composing music with no ideas and no strategy? Much like writer’s block, a similar kind of paralysis can happen with composers when faced with a blank page and no plan. As a result, fears and doubts rise up and self-deprecating thoughts flood in. Thoughts like I can’t do this, I’m no good, I’ve got no original ideas.
It’s a very common story for composers of all levels of experience, and one I’m personally very familiar with. Even highly successful composers that I’ve spoken to about this have felt this way… and often.
What To Do When Composing With No Ideas
To get past this blank page paralysis, quite simply, you need a plan to help break through the fog and start producing something.
Because when you’re composing with no ideas, all you need to do start somewhere and the creative juices will start to flow. Then you should be good to go.
The antidote to inaction is a plan
The problem that many of us have, even the pros, is confidence. We doubt our ability to be creative and original on cue and that pesky fear of failure loves to hover over us.
We need easy strategies to follow so we can look past ourselves and just get on with it.
When I’m stuck, I always have go-to steps to follow which help me move past the anxiety blockage and get the ideas flowing. These “Creativity Sparkers” promote action, kick start your compositions and conquer your blank page paralysis.
Here’s my top 5:
#1. Look For Resonances
When I was studying screen composition at film school every project we worked on went through a development phase called Resonances. This was a process of finding inspiration from music, art, imagery, design or anything that resonated with us around an idea or an interest.
Searching for these resonances is a great way to spark ideas.
Think about WHAT music you admire, and WHY. Is it the melody, mood, lyrics, instrumentation? Are there ideas in the music that you can use as a starting off point for your own composition?
Do a similar exercise with non-music resonances – art, photography, film, designs.
Resonances are really great at helping you understand what mood or feeling you want to create with your composition. Do you want to write a happy, bittersweet, tense, ethereal, slow, or energetic piece?
Use your Resonances to narrow down the MOOD of your piece.
#2. Use Stories
Stories are an amazing source of inspiration for writing original music. They’re brilliant at tapping into our emotions on a subconscious level, bringing out all sorts of strong emotions, and conjuring up vivid imagery, thoughts, and feelings.
Search for stories in different places. They can come from films, photos, paintings, texts, poems, lyrics, personal experiences and directly from our own imagination.
When you work from a story it’s like having a teacher guiding you as you write. Because you can always check back with the story as you go, just to make sure the music is on the right track.
Read more on how to use story when composing here.
If you found a piece of music in your resonances exercise that you love, start to analyse it for ideas for your own composition.
- Are there melodies you could adapt or that you could modify using different melodic variation techniques (retrograde, augmentation, diminution, inversion etc..)
- Can you borrow a chord progression and make it your own by changing the accompaniment pattern, adding an original melody, rearranging the order of the chords, or changing one or two of the chords used.
- Can you adapt a rhythmic idea? Invert it or use a fragment of it adding to it with your own rhythm.
- Are there qualities of timbre, texture or instrumentation that you could use.
The options are almost endless. But just make sure you seek appropriate approvals if the composition is recognisably similar and if the final product is intended for commercial use.
#4. Copy (ethically)
A great Creativity Sparker is to use your favourite piano solos for inspiration. Simply copy the left-hand accompaniment pattern and use it in a new context. Add your own melody and harmony, change the mood, dynamic, pitch register, or try adding different articulations.
You can copy other things too. Stories, chord progressions, melodies, rhythms. Any ideas really.
The best way to understand how composers wrote their music, is to copy what they did. Which is exactly how I learnt to compose. As long as you copy ideas only to get you started. Obviously, you can never claim music as your own that’s a direct copy of someone else’s work, but it’s a great way to spark new ideas.
Use Your Favourite Composers to COPY, LEARN, AND REWORK. Repeat!
#5. Try A New Technique
Ever wanted to experiment with a particular compositional technique, style or device? This can be a great Creativity Sparker and an excellent opportunity to learn a new technique.
Think about techniques and devices like counterpoint, cannon, imitation, pedal note, sequence, syncopation, hemiola to name just a few.
Or styles, like Jazz, Baroque, New Age, Pop, serialism, atonalism, minimalism or medieval.
Pick one, research it, and use it as the basis of your composition. This approach will give you a set of guidelines to work from, which takes the pressure off.
Go With Your Strengths, Keep It Simple
Finally, whatever Creativity Sparker you try, look for ways to apply your current strengths into the process. Don’t feel like you need to reinvent the wheel and try not to over complicate the music you are writing by experimenting too much too quickly.
Choose only one area, such as harmony, melody, story, structure, rhythm, or lyrics, to focus on, and keep the other areas simple. Remember, you can always refine and develop as you go. There’s no need to start guns blazing and throw everything you’ve got at it.
Once an idea is starting to take shape you can add more elements. This is where the exciting process of creating starts to build momentum and take on a life of its own.
Getting stuck before you’ve even started can be a real blow to our confidence. We’ve all been there. The important thing is not to let it stop you from moving forward.
Usually, all it takes is to write anything at all, good or bad, just to get some momentum. So having strategies on hand to kick start the writing process may be just the thing to spark your next great composition.