by Claire Batchelor
As library composers it’s sometimes difficult to stay inspired and motivated. I’ve outlined some ideas which I use to stave off de-motivation, demoralization, loneliness, and the dreaded writers block. If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably read this article, think it’s useful (hopefully), and then do nothing! However, I would really urge you to try a couple of these things out. The reward you feel from creating a new track which you’re really happy with, and have created using a couple of totally fresh ideas, will be worth it!
Take a Break
If you just can’t get a track to sound right, take a break. There’s no point in forcing yourself to work on something when you no longer even like it! Sometimes it’s best to leave something for a day, or even a week or month. Come back to it with totally fresh ears, and you might think of a new way to tackle it. If not, sometimes a track just needs to be scrapped altogether – it’s better to realise that early on than keep flogging a dead horse (to yourself!)
Another idea is to work on several different tracks at the same time. Not only does this fend off boredom but will also make you feel less ‘stuck’ if one of them isn’t working. If you’re writing 5 tracks and 4 of them sound good, you’re less likely to feel demoralized.
Have a Clear Idea
If you are working to a well written brief from a library, then hopefully you will already have a clear idea of what you want to achieve with a piece. However, if you are writing tracks off your own back to then submit to libraries, you could give yourself a brief. Sometimes tracks grow naturally out of random ideas, but sometimes it really helps to have a clear idea before you start.
If you’re looking for inspiration to give your track a mood, why not find a photo or painting which gives you a feel of that mood? Or how about a character, person or animal? Giving your track a name before starting will also help with this, or even writing a library style description, before you even write the track. You can always change it later on – the point is to get your creative juices flowing, and give yourself a clear direction.
If you’ve been writing a lot of music in a short space of time, or have been writing library music for years and years, it’s easy to just sit back and think – I have no ideas left today! All the music in the world has been written – as of this moment!
A great thing to do for inspiration is just to listen. Listen to your iTunes collection on shuffle, or pick out an old CD or Vinyl you haven’t listened to in years. Search the internet for new music on Spotify, Soundcloud or Youtube. Watch a new TV show or film and listen to the music. Ask your friends to recommend a band or composer to you which they think you’ll like – or the 21st Century way of doing it – post the question on Facebook, Twitter, or a forum.
Go for a walk and listen to the sounds you naturally hear – is there any inspiration for music there? Also think about this when you’re traveling, I find there is something about being on a train which always gives me ideas. If you have an app on your phone which lets you actually write these ideas down in musical form, even better (or, old school – a piece of paper!)
Learning a new mixing or production technique can be very inspiring. There are hundreds of excellent recording and production blogs, forums and of course books. Do you know the New York Compression technique? Have you heard of Micro Panning? Have you ventured into Sound Design? Have you ever layered up 4 kick drums at the same time?! (See, you already want to try one of those I can tell).
If we have been doing this for a long time, we have our favourite ways of mixing and micing things up. But we never know it all, there are always new things to try – and our mixes could be better for it.
Write to Picture
When we’re composing library music, we occasionally forget that the majority of this music is going to have to work to picture, and possibly also voice over. With that in mind, it can be very useful writing to picture.
For example, if you’re writing a trailer track, ‘borrow’ a Hollywood trailer off of Youtube, mute it and follow the edit. Or find a documentary with voice over to write your documentary tracks to. This is also a good way to stop you over-cluttering your library tracks – personally I always have to stave off the temptation of adding more and more – when a simple track would actually be fit for purpose. If you make a track too complex, it’s going to struggle to fit under a voice over (this of course depends on the kind of track you are writing).
I am a terrible culprit of this, and perhaps need to take my own advice – I really love collaborating with other composers – but I hardly EVER do it!
Collaborating with someone else is great fun, it makes a lonely job more sociable, and lets you create a piece of music that would not otherwise exist. Other composers have different strengths and weaknesses to you – they have other ideas, other plug-ins, other skill sets, other instruments, other microphones, the list goes on and on. It’s great for inspiration, motivation, creativity and originality. So get connecting with your friends!
If you’ve studied music academically in any way, you’ve probably come across aleatoric music.
Another term for aleatoric music is ‘chance music’, which is precisely what you create. You can assign numbers on a dice to notes or chords, roll the dice a number of times, note the results and create a musical pattern. Got an old Rubix cube? Why not write chords or notes all over it?
You can look at a sequence of numbers and allocate each number to a note or chord (e.g. C =1, C# = 2, etc) – what does your phone number sound like? With MIDI information enabling us to write and edit so quickly, how about pasting the MIDI from a drum part onto a piano or marimba track?
The great thing about this is that it can give you some much needed, unsystematic inspiration. You will create something that you couldn’t have done, had you started in a methodical or usual way. You can be as strict or relaxed with it as you like – either way, it’s a great method for sparking a new musical idea.
Buy or Borrow a New Instrument
Owning a new instrument, whether it’s a real one or a virtual one, can be very inspiring. If you buy a new VST instrument, let yourself have some time just to play around with it. Get to know all the sounds and controls – you’ll have a new track before too long! I have various VSTs I’ve never even used – I’m sure we all do. Which gives me another point – utilize what you already have. If you have VSTs you’ve never used – open them up, play around with them, and have fun.
The same goes for acquiring a new instrument. Ask family members if they might have an old flute or clarinet lying around in their loft? You might be able to make some interesting sounds, even if you’re not classically trained on the instrument. Have a look on ebay for cheap or interesting instruments – how about an accordion? A xylophone? An acoustic bass?
I like to use this one a lot, as I really enjoy composing in odd time signatures – I have even made a track in 10/4. There’s something so mundane about 4/4 time, even writing a waltz could be an inspiration to you. Also you can play around with using more than one time signature, or misplacing the drum beat for interesting effects.
This is mainly one for the guitarists – try a new tuning. DADGAD is a good starting point, but try playing around with others too. Your fingers will fall on different chords and different notes than you were expecting, making you think in a completely new way. Another fun thing to do is use your instrument in a different way – for example hitting the side of a guitar for a woody percussion sound, or opening up a piano and playing with the strings.
Live music is special – it’s great for inspiration and remembering why you wanted to do this in the first place. Do you remember when you were a teenager and you didn’t do this for a job? You just had a passion for music and knew your favourite albums inside and out. Nothing beats recapturing that (however far away from your teens you are!). Learn a song, play a gig, see a live band, see an orchestra, or watch a live DVD – you’ll enjoy it.