Monday, January 16, 2012

Overcoming Writer's Block for Composers

It is something that used to plague me, sitting in front of my manuscript paper (or later, the computer screen) trying to force something to materialize that wouldn’t make me scream. I used to have a terrible habit of not allowing myself any sleep whatsoever until I composed at least an idea with which I could be happy.  Needless to say, this generated more than one sleepless night.

First things first, let us try to examine just what “writers’ block” really is before we go about attempting to make suggestions about its treatment. To be completely honest; There really is no such thing as “writer’s block,” when you think about it – you can go to your manuscript paper and doodle notes down into melody and harmony all you want, all day, every day.  There is only the condition: “I’m not writing anything that I am happy with,” and the best way to get over this, is just to accept it and move on (or power though). But this may not be totally realistic for many composers or songwriters. So I wanted to list some additional ways to cope, just in case.

I would like to expand on our first suggestion, that being to power through and just write something you don’t like, or are not happy with. I know, it seems like you would be inviting a great deal of punishment for doing this, but the truth is – virtually every piece I have generated in this manner, (after I came back to it) there was at least something I appreciated in it. It’s funny how time and distance from a creation will give you a fresh perspective.

Something else you might want to consider is shifting gears. Instead of trying to compose something fresh, turn to arranging, or orchestrating. For instance; try harmonizing a Gregorian chant or medieval song – or orchestrating a Bach Fugue or even a Chorale. You could read about instruments you aren’t familiar with and arrange for those so that you get to know them.  In short, don’t worry about generating new material at all. Another thing you might try is to focus on doing strict theory or counterpoint exercises. Practice writing hymns or writing melodies over a cantus firmus. If you come up with something you like you can always adapt it into a new piece.

Part of dealing with writer’s block is to avoid it all together in the first place. One of the best ways to do this is to get involved in composition lessons, having an instructor who will give you weekly assignments tends to motivate students much more than just writing in your bedroom. Plus, a good instructor will try to coax certain skills out of you that you might not realize you are lacking.

 A video series I made for my beginning composition students. 
If you would like to study music composition at a distance,
 please visit for more information.                                                                                           

Finally, and this is the most important - Let go of the idea that “genius just springs forth,” the truth is that composing music (especially good music) takes work – and it takes years of hard work. So, stay focused and you will get there.  

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