Though it’s fun to take your time creating music by tinkering with samples, jamming on a riff for long while, or layering track over track, sometimes, you need to tighten up and set yourself a deadline and some constraints to get the job done.
You may think that imposing some rules on the songwriting process will stifle your creativity, but the opposite is true; limitations will bring out your creativity in unexpected ways.
Using this principle, I’m going to share a simple composing process that will help you avoid writer’s block, stay inspired, and deliver music you, your listeners, and your clients will love. I can sum it up with five words:
Tip #1: Set a Project Deadline of One Week or Less
When I started writing music fifteen years ago, I waited for inspiration to take hold with no concern for how much time passed during a session. I’d play a riff on my guitar, record it, and then add other instruments. I had no schedule, no plan, and no definitive goal for what I wanted to accomplish.
”Experienced musicians know how to activate their creativity. They set limits that force them to deliver under pressure.”
This is a lot of fun when you’re a teenager, but it can be time-consuming, unproductive, and unprofessional. There’s also a point when you can hit a brick wall—you might not know where to go or what is missing. More often than not, I wouldn’t complete the song, and after a few weeks, it would end up collecting dust in my digital basement with all the other “great” songs that I never finished.
Many business leaders suggest that “success” is counterintuitive. The same is true when writing music.
When you set a deadline, it forces you to act, to come up with the musical ideas, the arrangement, and the correct mix (or good enough to deliver mix). Most importantly, it helps you follow through with the project. The deadline holds you accountable, and ultimately, unlocks your creativity in a predictable way. Yes, creativity can be predictable.
So let’s make a commitment right now—let’s finish every musical idea that we start.
Tip #2: Define Your Song
Every time I work on a new song, I create a plan. I define exactly what I want out of the song by breaking it down into five categories. They are:
- Style: The style can be as broad as you want: rock, pop, classical, jazz…
- Length: Strive for an exact song length: 2:00, 3:30, or 4:00.
- Instrumentation: Pick all of your instruments. Know which is the main and which are the accompaniment.
- Emotions: Define the emotions that you want your audience to experience: nostalgia, longing, hope, and inspiration.
- Reference: Pick two references tracks that have a similar tempo, instrumentation, and emotional core. Make sure they inspire you.
This homework should take about 10 minutes to complete. When I’m done, I make sure that all the decisions that I make during composing, recording, and mixing reinforce my song plan.
Novices create music blindly, without a strategy. Writing music is an art, but you can’t justify a late delivery to a client by saying that your artistic process needs more time.
Experienced musicians know how to activate their creativity. They set limits that force them to deliver under pressure. I’ve found that knowing exactly what I’m striving for keeps me focused, maximizes the time I spend on a session, and helps me deliver.
I agree with the sales and business coach Jeffrey Gitomer who says, “If you don’t know what you want, you probably won’t get it.”
Tip #3 – Limit Your Choices
Writing and recording music in the digital realm can be daunting. It’s easy to get lost and drown in a sea of endless possibilities. You have unlimited tracks, thousands of sampled instruments, and can design any sound that you can think of with synthesizers and plug-ins.
Let’s not forget the goal – we have a job to do and that’s to finish the piece, not spend hours experimenting with cool sounds. I’ve found that limiting the tracks that I use helps clarify what is critical and what is not. The “less is more” concept is in full effect here.
When I compose, I want to know what drives the song. Is it guitar, piano, strings, or vocals? What should be the focus of my attention? Do I really need to tweak that synth? Should I get a better guitar performance? Is that track adding or taking away from the overall sound?
”A composing strategy helps you make the most out of your time spent on music, and ensures that songs don’t just get relegated to the “rejection” pile because they’ve been in the works for too long.”
Try this – make a new song using 4 to 8 tracks. Figure out what the melody is (which should be treated as the god of the song), what the harmony is doing, and how to enhance it with the remaining tracks.
Great music is clear and directed. It’s fun to add layers and layers of sounds, but is what you’re adding helping or hurting?
Limit your choices, with both the number of instruments and the track count, and the song will reveal itself to you.
Tip #4 – Time Your Sessions
As a musician, I live in a dream world full of colors and imagination. I admit that it’s easy to get carried away, so I anchor myself in reality. I use a timer to keep myself on task for each session. I recommend two-hour intervals with a 15-minute break between sessions.
This is an eye opener—I can gauge how much I’m getting done, and based on that, how much time I will need to finish the project. This also helps me plan my weekly schedule.
There are deadlines, bills to pay, and clients to keep happy. Do yourself a favor and time your sessions. They can occur over multiple days, so it’s also advantageous to plan out what you want to accomplish with each session.
- Session 1 – record piano melody: 60 min
- Session 2 – program drums: 60 min
- Session 3 – record rhythm guitar parts
- Session 4 – mix demo
Tip #5 – Mix on the Fly
I used to save all of my mixing decisions for another day. I’ve learned that this can have unexpected, negative results. As time passed between the recording session and when I sat down to “mix,” my mood would change. I would doubt what I recorded, and couldn’t seem to find that original pulse that guided me in the beginning.
Have you ever had a recording session that lasted a few weeks?
I used to play in a funk band. We were recording and the first few days were amazing; the energy was high, everyone was excited and playing well. As time progressed, however, the energy level dropped. The bassist started messing up. The singer couldn’t hit the right pitches. The drums seemed too harsh. Everything seemed to get worse as the days went by.
I’ve seen it with composing and mixing sessions—we lost the inspiration that we had when we wrote the song. Momentum is such a powerful force. When you are inspired during a session, that energy is something special that you don’t want to lose.
Some musicians won’t agree, but I recommend mixing on the fly.
Try a preliminary mix right after you’ve recorded all of your instruments. Your ears might be a little fatigued from recording, but do it anyway.
Don’t be afraid to commit to decisions that you made while you’re recording, like volumes, pan, compressor settings, verbs, and EQ. This will keep your head in the game, congruent with the inspiration that created the music to begin with. You can always go back and tweak the mix later!
The main point is that you want to get as close as you can to done, while staying in the moment, and riding on momentum.
Mixing is part of the performance – let it occur naturally.
Create a Strategy
The importance of having a composing strategy cannot be overstated – it helps you make the most out of your time spent on music, and ensures that songs don’t just get relegated to the “rejection” pile because they’ve been in the works for too long.
We’ve all been guilty of wasting time and not delivering music on time. Set, Define, Limit, Time, and Fly may help keep you on track to deliver predictable creativity.
Different workflows appeal to and work for different musicians, but I urge you to give this one a try. It’s worked well for me so far!
Approaching your creative work with deadlines, limitations, and a specific musical goal in mind may sound counterintuitive, but is actually a way of composing smart. Give it a try!