What is it that is getting in the way of your creativity? Is it something insurmountable, or is it really your bad habits and composing process? In this article, we are going to examine writer’s block, and what we can do about it.
When we sit down to compose, and nothing great happens, what do we call it? Writer’s block? Is it a lack of creativity? Are we just bad composers?
I am going to say, it is none of these. In fact, I believe it is a lack of understanding and focus that stops us from breaking through to the really good composing. This lack of focus can also be called entropy, which is basically an inefficient way of using your mental energy and capacity.
Entropy, Flow and Composing Music
Recently I have been reading the book Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly. Flow is basically being in the zone. In this article I am going to talk a little about what gets in the way of flow, something called entropy. In fact, that is not the right way to say it. Entropy is not really what gets in the way, but more of the opposite direction of where you want to go. You see, whenever you sit down to do anything, your ability to concentrate is located on a sliding scale from complete oneness with the task at hand (zen/nirvana) and complete psychosis (schizophrenia). Most people fall somewhere in the middle.
Entropy is just a fancy way of saying that you are not focused. Correcting entropy is not an easy task, and probably most of our learning to compose is really about learning to use the information in our heads efficiently. If I really sat, and thought hard, I could probably come up with an interesting, and still logical chord progression to use in my composing. But for some reason, when I sit down at the piano, start to write, put pressure on myself, think about this or that competition, or possibly posting something on my site that has to meet certain criteria… well I become schizo… actually more like frustrated and not very focused.
The Tools of Composing Music
Sometimes the tools you use can be the biggest part of creating an atmosphere of entropy. A little story.
I was very excited to start composing. It was a saturday, and I had just read about a composing competition with a large cash prize and a great way to get your music heard. I thought to myself… “Yes! I will knock this out of the park, and then my composing future is set for life…”.
Being that this competition called for high production value, I thought it would be a great chance to really get into my East-West Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra samples, as well as learn to really use my DAW. So I set everything up. This took quite a while. I had a hard drive with all the samples sitting in the garage, unpacked from the move to california. My keyboard was on the other side of the house, also boxed up. My desk with the computer is cluttered with just about everyone’s wallets and keys. So after spending about 20 minutes getting ready, I started to “compose”.
I noodled around a bit on the keyboard. Changed samples every 30 seconds. Attempted to record into the DAW. Couldn’t figure out why the keyboard wouldn’t record, but I could hear the sound. Figured it out. Recorded a little. Erased it. Recorded some more. Decided to add a counter-melody. Accidentally recorded over the original. Sheesh.
By this point, I was getting fed up. It had been about an hour. The A/C in the room wasn’t working, so it was hot. Then my two year old son came it. My composing time was over.
What lesson did I learn from all this?
I was not even close to a state of flow. I was about a million miles away from it. I couldn’t focus. I was hot. The thing that put the nail in the coffin, was that I could not use the software to save my life. I had to google stuff or look it up in the manual. This is a huge drain on both time and creativity.
Being Fluent In Your Software
So being fluent in your software is clearly important. One thing I definately recommend is make sure you know what you are doing beforehand by actually spending the time to just learn the program inside and out. I have been using Sibelius for a long time, and feel that I can really move around in the program, but whenever I try something new, it just doesn’t work.
But this is an article about creative blockages, so why did we talk about software? Well, for one, it was a huge block for me. But what this got me thinking about was that you have one very important piece of equipment that if you can master, will make it all easier. That is your brain.
You see, you need to approach learning to compose, like learning a piece of software. What do I mean?
Your Brain 2.0
Your brain has some great capabilities. Composers throughout the ages have used just that and nothing more to write great masterpieces. While I don’t believe Mozart truly composed every single detail of his compositions in his brain without any mistake everytime, he clearly had a great grasp of being able to create in his mind without the aid of an instrument.
So this is where we identify your creative blockage.
I want you to just imagine a new piece of music right now. Maybe it is a big orchestra piece, or maybe for kazoo and rubber band. Whatever it is, just sit and imagine the melody and harmony. How it all fits together. Take about 30 seconds.
Welcome back. How did it go? Were you able to think of music? I am going to say that you probably were. Like most people just beginning their quest, you should probably be asking yourself, “How do I get the ideas from my head, and write them down?” This is something I ask myself. Because I know that the ideas are there. Our job then, in learning to compose, is not really about learning to be more creative.
So take some time, and tryout just composing in your head, without the aid of instruments and then writing it down on paper. Compose an entire piece. You are not allowed to enter it in to any notation program, DAW, recording software, or even play it on any instrument, other than your brain, until it is finished. If you really want to make it interesting, don’t even sing or hum it. Just write. I think you’ll find that you are expanding your awareness and consiousness throughout the process. And as pointed out in the first article on flow, achieving it requires just these kind of consciousness expanding exercises.