By Chris Joye
Being hired to write the music for a film, television show, or commercial can be one of the most exciting experiences in your musical career. But when the time comes to sit down and begin writing, you may find yourself with no intricate melodies or memorable, interwoven themes, you may struggle to write a chord progression that fits the scene, or you may see no possible solution to finish the piece - let alone get it started.
Don’t think you are alone; many people suffer from creative blocks that prohibit them from starting or finishing a project. Dozens of fellow composers, songwriters, and musicians – of varying experiences – agree that some of the hardest parts of writing music are beginning or finishing the piece. It seems like bits and pieces of chord progressions and melodies float around in a never-ending cycle of attempts to complete a piece of music, yet the puzzle pieces never fit together. This is a really common struggle for musicians early on in their careers, but even at later stages, creative block can creep up on you at any time. Below, I discuss a couple of methods that I have used in the past to try to overcome this obstacle.
While I was at Berklee College of Music studying film scoring, one of my teachers made a simple and seemingly uninspiring comment one class that has stuck with me since – just finish the song. He stressed how important it was, especially with short time frames and fast-paced turnarounds, to write, record and finish the song, and move on to the next piece. You need to be to develop a system of composing where hours are not wasted on minute details of the structure of the piece, although make sure you are not sacrificing quality over quantity. The time frames in the music industry, particularly the film industry, tend to be very tight, so as a composer, it is imperative to be able to quickly turn around a high-quality deliverable.
Of course, “just finish it”, is not as easy it sounds. I struggle with many of my tracks on how to create the B section, what instrument should take the lead, which chord should follow the IV-V cadence, or, ultimately, how to complete the song – all the while, striving to produce the highest quality in composing and production I can muster. As with many composers, over the years I have found that I can be extremely particular on minor subtleties when I compose, such as worrying that the sampled snare attack velocity is too high or that the sustain pedal letting up too quickly on the Rhodes accompaniment – despite the fact that those subtleties are buried in the mix. The idea behind “just finish it” is that while subtleties are not necessarily bad things to be concerned about, if your time frame to complete the score is short (and let’s be real here, when is it not?), it is important to not get stuck tweaking minor details until your space bar is worn and you are facing an impending deadline that you may not meet.
If you have the misfortune to continuously stare at a blank sheet or computer screen when it’s time to compose, instead of pounding your head on the keyboard, I have found it more helpful to walk away and come back at a later time. Do something other than music-related activities to clear your mind and allow you to come back with fresh ideas.
You may also want to avoid envisioning your track as a complete whole, and alternatively, break it down into smaller sections. Some composers write better when they start with a drum groove, while others do well when they start with a chord progression on the guitar or piano. Focus on these types of smaller sections (one instrument at a time or two to eight bars in length). Lately, I have been building my commercially geared music tracks, by building the entire harmonic structure first: I work on the piano or guitar chords for the A section, then move immediately to build a B, C, and/or D section, and then create a smoother seam between all of the parts (maybe adding a couple beats before returning to the A section, or creating some rhythmic variance to transition into another section). Next, I go back and start layering in instruments, typically the bass, keyboards, percussion and drums. As I work, I fit the melody and any counterpoint into the piece.
Still struggling? Take a research break: listen to some music, regardless of whether it is in the style you are aiming to write or something completely different. It’s more about getting some fresh perspective than anything else. Personally, my research breaks are short. I work towards matching the mood, rather than the melodic structure or the specific chord progression. In addition, I like to watch some films in a similar genre and listen to how the composer works (or fails to work) with the emotion in a particular scene. Remember: if your music is starting to sound like the music you’re listening to, you may want to shorten your research breaks!
As is typical in this industry, I have numerous project files of short ideas, such as a 4 bar chord progression here or a drum groove there. If you’re like me, you want to avoid the pitfall of not knowing what to do with these ideas. You want your ideas to form into full pieces of music! Fortunately, in the world of commercial and film music, directors and producers want almost any idea. For example, it may not matter if it’s 30 seconds or 4 minutes long. Some of the tracks I have created under my commercial music business are ones I thought would never be used or licensed, yet those same tracks end up being the most used and the most lucrative. You also can work on combining your ideas together and work on smoothing out the seams between them.
Writing music is very exciting and interesting, but it can also be extremely frustrating when you hit a roadblock. Working through these creative blocks is an essential part to being a successful composer, and - one way or another - it has to be done. So, worry less about the minor details, step away for awhile, focus on smaller elements, gain inspiration from other composers, and combine your ideas together: develop the methods that help you to overcome creative block. Ultimately, just finish the song and move on.
Chris Joye is a Denver-based film and television composer and multi-instrumentalist. A dual-major graduate of Berklee College of Music in Film Scoring and Bass Performance, he has credits in numerous feature films and documentaries, television and web commercials, and has music being licensed with companies such as Red Bull Media House UK, The New Yorker, MTV, and VH1. He just completed his fifth album geared towards commercial licensing (under the moniker Cue – http://www.facebook.com/cuefilmmusic) and is composing for a feature film in Chicago in production. Contact him through the Production Guide today.