When writing music, there are two main different stages that your mind goes through to write a song you’re proud of.
There’s the creative side, and the destructive side.
In this article I am going to discuss ways to unlock you inner artist with some exercises (no, not the physical type!) that will get the creative juices flowing.
Lets get started!
The Difference Between The Artist & The Editor
The creative side is all about making & creating things (whether they be words, notes, rhythms, paintings, or anything else). This is a force in you that makes things happen, and comes up with new ideas.
On the opposing side you have the editor, who is a destructive force. This is the guy inside that tells you “that part really sucks”. He’s also the guy who gives you a big thumbs up when you’ve done something right.
He gets rid of things that aren’t very good, and chisels away at your songs until only the best parts are left. This guy makes executive decisions about what your songs should really sound like, and gets rid of the rest.
Each of these roles (the artist & editor) are both equally important. Without the artist/creator, you wouldn’t have any material to edit and refine. And without the editor, you would just have a big, unwieldy mass of unlistenable ideas.
Sounds like the perfect combo right? So what’s the problem then?
Well, us humans seem to get into this very bad habit of trying to edit while we create.
Have you ever felt self-conscious about your music? Ever felt afraid to write a song, or even to try writing one because you don’t think it’s going to be very good?
Do you ever have resistance to working on music, even when there’s no good reason to feel that way?
Any time you feel fear about creating, that’s because Mr. Editor is coming in and trying to tell you whether it’s good or bad, before you’ve even had a chance to do anything. He stomps out your creativity, because you’re trying to edit before you’ve even created anything.
Mixing these two roles up can be disastrous for your creativity.
Now it’s not so bad to mix them up the other way around though. If you’re editing a song, and you come up with some new ideas, it’s fairly easy to just implement them and your song will be all the better. But let the editor into your creation process, and you’re almost guaranteed to become paralyzed within your own ego.
What Is Creativity?
Let’s just get a few definitions clear here before we move forward.
Creativity means to create something original. If it’s not original, it’s not creative. If it’s not unique, you didn’t create anything, you simply copied it.
But what if you take other elements from what other artists are doing, and mix it in with your own work?
Well that would be considered “synthesis”, which would be mixing a few ideas together to create something unique.
The end result is still unique, even if you had heavy inspiration when making it. So don’t be afraid to copy someone else, just make sure you add in enough of your own creative ideas or perspectives on their work so that it becomes your own.
Getting In “The Zone”
As an “artist”, your goal is to draw from deep within, and put your private emotions on public display for all to see. Your goal is to draw as deep and honestly as you can from yourself, and see what comes out.
Getting in “the zone” is a really special way to do this.
What is the zone?
The zone is a focused place. It’s a place in your mind where writing music becomes amazingly important to you, and you aren’t distracted by anything. You’re able to work for hours on end without getting sick of the work, and working on your music is all you want to do.
Steve Pavlina (a self-development writer) describes this as a “creative flow state”, and I would highly recommend you read his article “7 rules for maximizing your creative output” in order to fully understand “the zone”.
He outlines 7 ways for you to achieve this creative flow state. They are:
- Define a clear purpose
- Identify a compelling motive
- Architect a worthy challenge
- Provide a conductive environment
- Allocate a committed block of time
- Prevent interruptions and distractions
- Master your tools
He provides a lot of details on each of these subjects (which is required to get in “the zone”), so please do click through and read. I’ll be waiting here for you when you get back 😉
Getting into the zone for music isn’t necessary all the time when writing music.
Some of the best stuff I’ve ever written came when I was just relaxing and noodling on the guitar or piano, enjoying myself. But if you combine that enjoyment, with a focused block of time that you’ve set aside to do music, there’s no limit to what you can write.
It takes a lot of self-discipline to stay focused, and to not allow yourself to say “oh that’s stupid, that isn’t even worth trying” or whatever other excuses you might come up with to avoid being creative.
Even writing this article, I can feel myself becoming distracted and thinking “this topic is too important. Who are YOU to write such an important thing? You’re not smart enough to do it. You need even more experience than you have.” I have to remind myself that I’m not allowed to edit my work right now, and that now is the time to be creative, not to hold back.
But what if I screw up?
Well, I’ll delegate the task of “fixing screw-ups” to my good old friend the editor. You see, even though he seems like my worst enemy when I’m trying to create something, he actually has my back.
When I’m afraid something won’t be good, I just say to myself “Let the editor fix it! He likes fixing those things anyways!”
It’s great to simply delegate the task of quality assurance to such a critical guy. He will pick out every little flaw and throw them out, leaving only a great piece of work!
I can remind myself that no one will even see my work until my editor friend has had a chance to get his hands on it with a fresh set of eyes. He will then be able to fix all of my mistakes for me so I end up looking really good!
It’s great to be able to trust such a reliable character! I recommend you let him worry about being perfect, so that you can just focus on creating things, even if they suck!
Different Exercises & Techniques For Being Creative
Did you know that to write the grammy-award-winning song “Wax Simulacra”, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez was attempting to write a song that was under 1 minute long?
He didn’t actually stick to that goal, but because he tried to write such a short song, it ended up being a hard-hitting, focused-yet-frantic masterpiece. That was because the limitation he put on himself helped to focus his efforts – this is a creativity exercise.
Omar is far from the first person to think up an idea like this. Roger Von Oech had thought of these ideas long before him, and others before him.
A wonderful book of his, about being more creative is “A Whack To The Side Of The Head”. It’s a must read for any creative person.
Roger gives dozens of suggestions on how you can be more creative by the way you think.
Just like with any medium, you can also apply his “sideways” thinking to music. Take a look at my own creativity exercises below for ideas on how to stretch yourself and coax your mind into providing you with stellar artistic ideas.
These ideas & requirements can cause focusing limitations that just might bring out some incredible new music from you.
Creativity Exercise #1: Encapsulate Yourself With Imagery
There are certain limitations that you can impose on yourself to get the best music out of that brilliant mind of yours – I like to call these limitations “creativity exercises”.
This is the first post in an ongoing series of creativity exercises that I’m doing to help you write more inspired music.
One of the best ways you can inspire yourself is by creating an environment that is conducive to creativity. We may not want to admit that our visual atmosphere has a big impact on us, but it does. This first exercise involves creating a visual focal point that brings out the best in yourself.
Here’s the exercise: find an image that grabs you, and then focus on it while you noodle around on your instrument. It sounds silly at first, but as I develop the idea you’ll start to realize how powerful it is in making you more creative.
By focusing on something visual, your mind is able to make new connections to the music that weren’t previously available to you. Focusing on arbitrary notes and rhythms is dumb! With this exercise, you can let yourself go and focus on feelings and emotions instead.
Your focus could be on anything that evokes emotion in you. Some examples of visual atmospheres are:
- a painting
- an image on a TV or a projector (turn the lights off for this one)
- an image you printed off
- colorful lighting in a dark room
- get a fog machine and fill the room you’re in with eerie fog. Add in optional lights for a bigger effect.
- playing in pitch black
- look out at the sky, day or night, and focus on it. Better yet: move your instruments outside and write there instead.
- what other ideas can you come up with? List at least 1 new idea to add to this list.
By taking the time to set up your workspace, you’ve given your mind the message that it’s going to be creating something inspired – and it will.
Use A Projector To Display A Visual
My first experience with this creative exercise was while testing out a projector for a live performance. I was playing music with the band, and we just needed to make sure that the projector worked.
Once we had the visuals worked out, we didn’t need the projector anymore. But then we had an idea: what if we did our whole band practice with the same visuals we’re using during the show?
The visuals we had weren’t particularly special (coming out of an Xbox 360 music visualizer), but we found a certain setting that was full of disconcerting red & purples colors. It was quite a stunning visualizer to look at; it reminded us of videos “inside the human body”.
Such an emotionally disturbing visualization was the perfect choice to write music to – it evoked emotion and distracted us from our own inhibitions.
And the music we wrote ended up being great – one of the best chord progressions I’ve written to date. It wasn’t a disturbing song either, even though the visualizations were rather disconcerting. So don’t fret about whether the image you’re using contains the emotions you want to convey (though I’m sure it won’t hurt).
- choose a visual element that sounds fun to you, and try it out!
- spend 20-30 minutes noodling around on your instrument or voice while being fully immersed in your new, surreal environment.
Share your results in the comments section below. Did it help your write anything special?
Creativity Exercise #2: Screw Serious – Set A Timer And Fiddle
Fiddling around is how most music is written. Many musicians who have one big success can find it difficult to write more music, because now things are “serious” and there’s no time to fiddle and noodle around with music.
Music becomes a serious business.
Getting away from that seriousness is important to coming up with really creative ideas; you need to give yourself the permission to do something completely stupid.
A good way to defeat seriousness is to set an egg timer (or maybe just the timer on your phone) for 20 minutes and fiddle around. Here are the rules:
- start out by playing something totally stupid to unjumble your creative brain. You can move towards things you like more after 30-60 seconds of silliness. For the rest of the 20 minutes…
- no writing it down – in this way your creative process won’t be interrupted at any time and you can get deeper into having fun and doing stupid stuff; a very conducive environment for writing something great.
- feel free to record yourself – if you’re working in MIDI, just set your DAW to record and go. If you’re playing the guitar or another instrument, turn on your iPhone’s recording feature. You can go through the ideas later and keep the ones you like.
Go out and do it now. I know you might not feel particularly motivated to play music right now, but if you just get started the time will fly by pretty quickly. By starting right away, you’re going to end up with at least 1 or 2 solid ideas that will turn into songs.
Don’t you want some new songs in your repertoire?
If you end up recording yourself, know that you’re going to have to sift through a bunch of crap. But if you use a good sifting pan (your destructive mind), you should be able to find the few gold nuggets in there.
How did this exercise work for you? Did you get any “golden nuggets” out of it? Share in the comments below.
Creativity Exercise #3: Play A Different/New Instrument
A great way to expand the rhythms and notes you write is to use a new instrument entirely.
By using a different instrument, preferably one that you’re less familiar with, you’re inherently encouraged to go outside of your typical “muscle memory” and instead start playing more with your mind.
For Acoustic/Analogue Instruments
When I say “acoustic” what I really mean here is “not MIDI instruments”. If you’re in a situation where you’re playing with a MIDI keyboard hooked up to a DAW, I’ll address your situation in the next section.
By switching from a real instrument like Guitar to Bass, or to Keyboard or Violin, you’ll get the exact effect that I described above: your hands won’t be used to the instrument, and you’ll have to do more listening for rhythm and pitch.
This also encourages you to go outside of your comfort zone, which could drastically change your playing style if you keep shaking things up over the next few months.
This newness to the instrument breaks you down to a time where “you didn’t really know what you were doing” – oh what a special time to be in, as a new musician who is just trying her best to create something unique, being completely unsure of herself.
Uncertainty, discomfort, instability – these are all great things to feel when creating! And you’ll probably experience each one of them as you try a new unfamiliar instrument.
Don’t feel bad about it though, because you’re participating in the glorious and unnoticed struggle of the artist. You should feel proud to be uncertain – it means you’re doing something new. And at the end of the day, you’ll probably start to feel a whole lot more certain as you write down the new sections that you’ve created.
So when you wake up tomorrow, certain that you can write something good (because yesterday you certainly did!), be sure to knock yourself down a peg. For your music!
For MIDI Instruments
If you’re used to being on the computer often like me, you’re probably quite familiar with the idea of scrolling through dozens/hundreds of different MIDI instruments to find the right sound.
My challenge to you is to find a sound that’s the WRONG sound, and write something with it.
The key here is that you don’t have to keep the sound in the end; you can easily replace it with something more pleasing to the ear. But for now, find a sound that you don’t really like, and try to write something that you do like.
You should also try taking instruments that you like (or don’t) and add in different effects. A delay effect can dramatically change the type of song you write, especially if you use a rhythmic delay that does more than just echo the instrument you’re playing; it turns it into a new rhythm entirely.
Using effects like delay, heavy reverb, distortion, or tremolo can make a big difference in what you decide to write using your MIDI instruments. You can use “the effect technique” with regular non-MIDI instruments as well.
Pick 1 single combination (maybe say, a sound you DON’T like, combined with tremolo) and start writing with it.
Remember, you can always change the sound later, but for now, record the rhythms and notes you come up with in your DAW so you can change the instrument later (using these new notes you just wrote!).
Another great effect you can use is the arpeggiator. If you’re using Logic Pro or Reason, you’ll find there is a built-in arpeggiator there already. If your DAW doesn’t have one, you can always try the Kirnu VST arpeggiator plugin. Once you’re arp is setup, experiment with the rhythms, speed, octaves, shuffle, and any other options that your arpeggiator lends to you.
This is your opportunity to be creative with your instrument.
With all of the effects and instrument suggestions above, just keep mixing and matching them. Every time you come up with a new combination, spend 5 minutes playing around with the notes to see if you write anything good. If you can’t write anything that makes you want to keep going, try a different combo.
Here’s what you can do to get creative and put into action this “challenging of musical paradigms”:
- pick either a new instrument, or a new MIDI instrument
- play around for 5 minutes, see if you can get yourself excited about something new
- if nothing comes around, choose another instrument, effect, or arpeggiator.
- play around for 5 minutes
- rinse and repeat
Creativity Exercise #4 – Repurpose Rhythms In A Different Context
Take a catchy rhythm that you already love, from a song that you already love, and put it in an entirely new context. By reusing the rhythm with different instruments, or just in this new context, you can start to spur on more creativity (and I promise it’s not stealing!).
I did this recently for a song I’m still writing. I was heavily inspired by the song “Impossible Soul” by Sufjan Stevens. I love the rhythm showcased in a jazz-jam halfway through the song at 12:55 (video starts at 12:50).
In the below audio file, you can hear that I’ve repurposed the rhythm with different instruments to create something quite different. This file is actually part of a much longer song (this file is just the middle section).
It’s a Reason 7 export, so the sounds are quite cheesy and it’s unmixed (I typically export songs to Logic Pro and then mix them from there), but it’s good enough to use as a sample to show how this creativity exercise works.
You can hear that the rhythm caries this intermission section for quite a while. The ending few minutes of the song don’t really include the rhythm that I’m showing you here, so why have I left it in for this example?
I never would have written this last section if I hadn’t first borrowed from Sufjan’s Impossible Soul. This goes to show that a little bit of “copying” can actually spur on a whole lot of creative and original thought!
We’re all copying from someone anyways. If you’re playing rock, there’s an evolution of thought that has been created through the decades of rock music being played. Each generation listens to the music that’s current and the music that preceded it; they take from the old and build new things on top of it.
The rock you write would be much different if The Beatles never existed. The jazz we hear today wouldn’t be the same if Miles Davis had never come along. Every generation borrows and copies and creates new things based on what we’ve heard, and the fact that we’re influenced by these great musicians proves that we’re all copiers (at least a little bit).
And it’s totally okay, because we’re just taking that inspiration we receive, and those songs we love, and we’re warping them and expressing our own personal perspectives on them.
That’s why it’s so important to build of a library of music that inspires you and influences you – so your subconscious mind has something to draw from when you go to write! That’s the recipe for creating something original.
So don’t worry about copying a rhythm or two, you’re going to put your own twist on it eventually anyways, and by the time you’re done with the creative and editing process, no one will be the wiser.
Creativity Exercise #5: Replace A Melody From A Song You Love (And Then Some)
Another idea for creative music writing is to write new melodies overtop of existing songs:
Find a song that you already know well. It can be popular if you want, but it doesn’t have to be. Remove the vocal track from the chorus.
Jam to it for a while, and sing a new melody over the vocal track yourself. Once you’ve come up with something you like, record the melody so you have it saved.
Now write new music for your vocal/instrumental melody that you just wrote.
At this point, you have a new melody, and new music – all original! Even though you started with something that would have gotten you sued for copyright infringement, you’ve now removed every element that’s associated with the original song; all that’s left is inspiration.
And when you go to write new chords and music, you can really mix it up now. You could take a song written in a major key, and now make it diminished or minor. You can even change the key to E instead of C, or B instead of F#!
Was the original song uptempo? Put a downtempo drum beat on it and now you’ve really changed the feel. Was the original downtempo? Make it uptempo now! How about changing the time signature?
You can mix and match and change and arrange every element here. Was the original a rock track? Why not add some clarinets or steel drums into that chorus? At this point, you might just make the song instrumental and play your new melody with instruments.
Use this as an exercise in practicing your arranging skills too. Are you able to take the things I said above about changing the key and feel, and actually implement it? It should challenging, but the more you get used to manipulating music this way, the better you’ll get at arranging.
The way you manipulate a song, change the:
- order of the chorus/verse/bridge/other sections
- effects used
…are all examples of arranging music. Good arrangements make just as big a difference on your song as a catchy melody, or a wicked guitar hook.
Get to it right away ya turkey! Set a timer for 15 minutes or so to come up with a new melody that’s really exciting, and then once your 15 minutes are up, see what you can come up with for new music.
Writing the music underneath is definitely the harder part, because it’s where the most creativity is needed. It sure is cool when you make it work out though!
How did you do? Share any examples of songs or sections you wrote using this creativity exercise below.
Creativity Exercise #6: Write Solos By Starting With Rhythm
Here’s an exercise for writing creative solos: tap the rhythms out using your fingers, input them on sheet paper/MIDI/music writing program, and add the pitches later.
Once you have all the rhythms plotted out, you can attach pitch/notes/bends to these rhythms. You’ll have a great base of a solo once you’ve done both parts.
This method is effective because it creates a mental dichotomy between the notes and rhythms. It separates these two things in your mind so that you start coming up with rhythms that you would have never used.
Try using a MIDI editor/DAW to plot out your rhythms (such as Reason, Pro Tools, Logic, Ableton, Garageband, Guitar Pro, etc.). Just put your in-progress song on play, and then pick a note on your keyboard to hit your rhythms onto (you can use the on-screen keyboard, or a real MIDI keyboard if you have one). Just hit that single note, so you have a stream of rhythms attached to that note.
Once the rhythms are all recorded, you can slide the MIDI notes up and down to give them pitch.
Here’s an example of a jazz solo that I wrote using this method. I simply tapped out the rhythm, and then added in some semi-random notes later. Random notes work for a Jazz solo, but if you hate accidentals, then you might want to make sure your notes don’t go off key when deciding the pitch of each one.
I personally find the off-key notes to be the salt and chile powder on this solo, but some artists don’t like that kind of thing.
You’ll have to forgive the cheap sounds though, as it was exported on guitar pro 5.
The excerpt was taken from a song that I never finished, because I didn’t particularly like it, but this solo was easily the best part of the song! This is another wonderful thing about being creative: if you don’t like what you made, you’re under no obligation to share it or even remember that you wrote it.
Lastly, you can edit the solo later to put in anything else that you really like. This method is just the building blocks for a solo, not necessarily the end result.
Do you have any questions about this creativity method? What types of results have you achieved with it?
Creativity Exercise #7: Stop Writing Alone – Invite A Friend(s) To Join You
[note: This exercise will be fairly redundant if you’re already in a band. Even if that’s you, this is a good starter guide to working with partners in music, so it’s still relevant anyways.]
There’s nothing quite like introducing a new person into your creative environment to shake things up. They have a whole world of ideas, preferred sounds, styles, and creative processes that will totally mess up what you’re used to – which is a great way to start creating something new.
A big challenge of working in a group is accepting who the “leader” is. If you’re just working with one other person, this isn’t as big of a challenge as a leader isn’t always necessary, but once you have 3 or more people, usually someone will take the lead just naturally.
If you have 2 natural leaders, learning to work with each other can be difficult unless they’re willing to take turns.
The way to defeat this is for a leader to approach the situation with a humble attitude. If two of you have a great idea at the same time, you need to be willing to shelve your idea and allow the other person to shine.
But you don’t want to forget your great idea, right? You don’t have to – just pull out your phone and quickly record your idea for a minute or two. Let your music partner know first that you’d like to save your idea in a recording, so that you can focus a good chunk of time on their idea. This puts them ahead of you, but still honors your own ideas.
Breaking The Ice
If you aren’t already creatively familiar with someone, there can be a bit friction when you get going.
You can always get through the friction cold turkey, and just start writing. It might take you a bit to write something you like, but it’s a perfectly legitimate method of breaking the ice.
One way that I often use to get comfortable working with someone, is to just learn a cover song with them. Because the cover has a certain strictness in accordance with the chords, structure, and time signature.
You’re forced to work together and hold each other accountable to the song; some of my most comfortable and smooth musical relationships started out playing cover songs.
As you gain trust with a partner, you’ll start to realize how limited you were writing songs on your own. This can take months, but it can also happen on your first time together.
I find that songs I write on my own can be interesting, but songs I write with someone else tend to have more flow and relevance to a listener. They also tend to incorporate dozens of ideas I never would have considered on my own, as the blending of 2+ musical preferences tends to do that.
You can greatly expand the content of your music by writing with someone else. They’ll contribute ideas that you wouldn’t have considered, and bring out parts of yourself you hadn’t previously explored.
Every different person you work with will bring out different parts of you. If you can handle it, try to work with as many people as possible!
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I love creative art, music, television shows, movies, video games, and a good story. If you had to find me somewhere, you would probably find me down at O’Neil’s home cooking and eating an organic sweet-potato bun breakfast sandwich with ham.
Among my friends, it’s a “Muller Classic Move” to eat McDonald’s at 2am because it’s cheap and open 24/7. The joke here is that I’m an idiot.
I play drums, guitar, piano, and I write & perform music for My Goal Is Telepathy.