11 Ways to Stay Inspired

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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, lonelinesbulb-40701_1280s, 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.

Listen

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!)

Educate Yourself

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).

Collaborate

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!

Aleatoric Approach

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?

Odd Time

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.

Tuning

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

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.

12 thoughts on “11 Ways to Stay Inspired

  1. Yes, thank you Claire. Copying this and keeping a reference copy on my desktop.

  2. Thank you everyone! I’m so glad you’re all enjoying my article 😀

    Claire

  3. Great Food for thought. Thank you Claire for sharing these very relevant ideas with the community!

  4. I find that when i start my day in the studio, i need to be in the right place. Just a few minutes of meditation/silence can help me get there. If that doesnt work, a walk helps. About once a year, i like to take a break for about a week during which I will stay away from my DAW. You will come back a new person. I have found that your mental performance is intricately linked to your physical state and even though i really enjoy my work. A few straight months of continuous work drains you emotionally and physically. I have also found that playing my guitar, just for fun, is a great way to relax and refresh.

  5. Here’s an out of the box idea, ma look int this. Although the musician involved is a heavy metal guitarist, The ideas he puts out there (interchangeable microtonal guitar fretboards for your guitar anyone?) the ideas and approaches offer a for lots of different instruments I think.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RWCwMW48FO4&index=2&list=RDiRsSjh5TTqI

  6. Great article.
    Continuing with what MichaelL mentioned about trying different approaches to what you are currently writing I have always found Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies to be really helpful in removing composer’s block.
    Here is a website that you can go to and get random suggestions to think outside the box as you are composing
    http://stoney.sb.org/eno/oblique.html

  7. Yes…great article.

    Everyone has that experience once in a while, Chuck. I’m actually just finishing a piece that I started in 2011.

    Try substituting different instruments for some of the parts. Ask yourself, what is it that isn’t working. If you can identify what you don’t like, change it.

    Treat yourself to some new sounds. It doesn’t have to be a big splurge, maybe just some new patches for a synth you already have.

    Take a walk. Get outside. Go somewhere new. When all else fails, I go out to the dock and fish, even for half an hour.

    But…don’t throw anything away. You might hear it completely differently later.

    Cheers,

    Michael

  8. I know exactly what you mean Chuck, been through that many times myself! Sometimes you can salvage something from the track before completely abandoning it – maybe an interesting groove, some of the chord changes, or even just the sound palette? I find sometimes changing key will open up new possibilities, helping me scrap the elements that aren’t working.

  9. Actually kind of stuck in this right now, although likely because my week has been overly busy, but have about 4-5 hours into they track, at least, and for me just not tripping my trigger. What do you do in this case? I will sometimes start writing a track and be maybe a couple hours in and decide it’s not working, but hate to do much more then that and just scrap a track (O.K that doesn’t happen that often but maybe once every few months or so). I suppose this track has enough interesting ideas to maybe work as a shorter idea? Question is as though, what do YOU fine folks do in a case like this? Scrap it? Rework it? Other ideas?

    • I agree with Mark and Michael, never throw anything away. If I get stuck with something I’ll put it away and label it WIP and then come back to it another time.

      Too avoid writer’s block, if I’m not making progress I’ll look at the clock, if it’s say 1:20 I’ll let myself work on it util 2 and if I haven’t made any progress I’ll put it away.

      And yes I’m aware I’m replying to a comment that is a 1.5 years old!

  10. This is a great article!

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