One of the most common problems I face when making music is getting stuck on an idea. The dreaded 8-bar loop syndrome!
As you probably very well know, this eventually leads to total frustration and loss of perspective. It becomes very tempting to abandon the project entirely and just start something new. Indeed I have done that countless times.
I wanted to share with you some solutions that I personally apply in these situations.
The Ideal Situation
Ideally, in the creative phases of making music, I strive to work guided by intuition as much as possible.
Intuition can be described as the ability to acquire knowledge without inference or the use of reason.
To make music without thinking. It’s those times when ideas just seem to flow out of nowhere and things just click without even really trying.
When that happens, it’s beautiful.
Now, you can and should strive to create the right conditions for intuition to flourish as much as possible. But that is a different topic altogether.
Let’s face it – sometimes you’re in a rut no matter what. Let’s get you out of there.
Why Do We Get Stuck
First of all let’s think, why do we get stuck on a project?
Well, there are several scientific theories of creative process that could help in explaining this. In practice though, I see it like this:
We don’t always have the optimal conditions for intuition to thrive. It also takes years and years of practice to cultivate the power of intuition – some people are simply better at it than others.
Finally, we are stuck with our own little ways, habits and expectations anyway. That is simply how we are. Otherwise we would not be able to function as human beings.
These things are OK and perfectly normal! So cut yourself some slack.
The good news is intuition is not all there is to making progress in the creative phase of a music project.
Where intuition ends, you rely on methods and perseverance.
Here are a few things I apply in these situations. There are many different ways to approach this and I would be curious to hear about yours – but this is how I’ve been looking at it.
1. Drop all expectations
Unless you’re doing client work where you really need to come up with something very specific… You should just forget about whatever you were trying to do.
Give yourself the permission to stray, to try something different and go with the flow.
Often your worst enemy is your own expectations.
2. Try a new technique
In order to get out of your normal patterns (which are obviously not getting you out of the rut), you must force your mind to work in a different way.
The best way to do this is to try something completely new. Try a technique you’ve never tried before, or at least one you haven’t used in a while.
Youtube is your friend when looking up new techniques! Find something and try it out on the track you’re working on.
This way you won’t be able resort to existing patterns of thought and action. You’re forced to create something new.
An added bonus is that you’re learning and expanding your horizons.
It often just takes a little nudge to give you that new angle and bang – you’re back up and running.
3. Go random
Random is your friend. Try some random shit. Be clever with that.
Use randomizers (you can set up some pretty cool generators and things of that sort in Live).
Use the shotgun method and then pick out the best bits and refine them.
Do whatever you can in order to come up with unexpected results.
Best things often come from the unknown.
This is something I used to do a lot. These days my work tends to be fairly minimal to begin with in terms of different elements and sounds going on, but there is still a place for this method.
Especially in the moments when I feel like I’ve lost perspective, I try to cut down do the essentials and find the focus of the musical idea in there.
That then gives me a direction to build on.
5. Steal an idea
Yup – go listen to some other music and grab an idea you like. It does not have to be obvious. Use it as a base for experimentation. Change things up and go from there.
Maybe it’s a rhythm pattern you like. Maybe it’s the way the structure of the track is constructed. Perhaps an unusual reverb that you could try.
It’s OK – wether you admit it or not, nothing in art is truly original in the end. Everyone and everything is influenced by something. It’s the nature of this world – it is all connected. Being creative, then, is about discovering new connections. Become good at combining things.
6. Flip it upside down
Choose one aspect of the track and try the complete opposite approach with it.
For me this often means changing up the drums completely. I’ve salvaged countless of tracks with this technique.
7. Apply a proven formula
Do something blatantly obvious. It’s only a starting point. The only purpose of this is to get you unstuck.
As you keep working on it, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to inject originality back into it.
8. Don’t be a perfectionist
Stop messing about with little nuances when you should be focusing on the big picture!
You want to know what I really think about a lot of people’s so called “perfectionism”? Here it is:
Calling yourself perfectionist is a great way of masking your fear of putting yourself out there in the real world.
We are vulnerable. It’s ok. It takes guts. It helps when you understand that nothing is ever truly perfect or finished in this world.
No matter how good or close to perfect you think something is, there are always loads of people who are going to think differently anyway.
So don’t let that stop you.
Man (or woman) up, get it done and move on to the next thing!
9. Take some time off
This should be your last resort. But sometimes it’s the best thing to do.
Taking some time off is best when you’ve truly lost perspective on something that you’ve invested a lot of time and effort on.
You don’t feel like flipping it upside down or changing things up too much in that situation.
Let it rest for a bit. Just let it be. Don’t listen to it at all for a couple of weeks. Work on something else.
Then come back to it fresh.
When you do come back to it, make sure you’re feeling fresh too both physically and mentally. That has an enormous impact on your ability to think creatively.
While we are on the topic, here are a couple of books you might want to check out.
The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield
How Do You Get Unstuck?
It’s always good to get new ideas and broaden the scope. I’d love to hear how you tackle these situations. Let me know in the comments below!