I had a surprisingly hard time starting up the practice of writing music. Lots of false starts were involved, a ton of back and forth on if I even really enjoyed doing it, and the classic moments of cringing at some of my first tunes.
In a lot of ways, music school REALLY helped me out with the skills and vocabulary needed to make songs.
But then, the unspoken emphasis on theory-driven music and "correctness" in music was a really difficult funk to shake loose.
SO, this is advice for me-from-a-year-ago. Or, maybe it's for you! These are some things I've picked up wrestling in the mud. It's from the perspective of a performing musician switching gears to writing. Maybe it will help if that's you!
The meatiest part of getting into it is right here. It's gotta be fun!
Gradually over the course of going through school and mastering an instrument, I assumed that what was meaningful was hard. I was fortunate to have wildly supportive instructors. Never did my music school experience come close to the movie Whiplash, is what I'm saying!
But, still, systematically it's a competitive environment.
On the other side of school, creative practices have to be done with much more levity.
It helps that what I write is pretty silly! Take time to do things badly: Write the worst song ever on purpose. Accidentally write avant garde music. Write music to a silly prompt. Anything to get it moving!
Honestly, it's a lifestyle thing. Making time for your play: Doing things just for the fun of it, feeds into this as well.
There's a balance between finishing songs and always moving to what's most exciting. A balance between keeping a routine and letting enthusiasm guide you. That interplay is what keeps it exciting! Lean towards curiosity and interest as often as you can!
Being a Connector
Sometimes the ideas just come. Seemingly out of nowhere, after assimilating new techniques, sounds, and theory, it all just clicks!
These days are a rush when they happen! And they are few and far between.
In the meantime, I think taking the approach of a connector is really helpful.
Say you want to write a song as if Beethoven wrote Lo-Fi hip hop chill beats to study to.
You have two sounds to work with: Orchestral brilliance and a gentle beat.
Like a DJ, your job is to mix them so that they work together. DJ's only have tempo and keys to adjust. You, on the other hand, probably have a lot more tools at your disposal (Swapping chords, rhythm, tempo, new melody, instrumental texture, mood, etc.)
This is one of my favorite parts of the practice because it's SO JUICY! You get to break open and learn a little bit about what makes a certain artist, song, or style sound the way it sounds. There's some transcribing involved that's helpful here. Often times, the pieces that need connecting need some glue. Maybe even original material! So you are in fact writing something new, even if it's just a transition or a different bass line. At the end of all that learning, you have something new that's never existed before! Something complete that gave you lots of cool little tools for future-you writing future-music.
Steal like an Artist! You could read a whole little book on it. I'll tell you now: Everyone is stealing something. Even if you're Jacob Collier, you're borrowing from genres, artists, and experimental theory ideas. We're all just riffing on the major scale, at the end of the day!!
Letting go of the weight of trying to be original helped me loosen up. Probably you're doing something original on accident, even if you're not trying. We all have such a unique collection of microscopic influences that have bent our ears and minds, it's bound to come through in what you make.
The best thing my general music classes gave me was just enough theory and ear training to transcribe. I also got a lot of weird hang ups about it, so I avoided it for a little while.
Some myth busting on using the tool of transcription:
Momentum is more important than accuracy
Sometimes recordings are muddy, chords are dense, or a sound just isn't sitting in the ear. Move on! Find something that kind of matches the musical/emotional intent, and get back to writing. It would be a shame to let go of learning all the other juicy things about form, harmony, melody, and instrumentation just because it's hard to hear exactly what extensions were being used in a passage.
Know Enough Music Theory for the Major Tropes
In jazz, you have to know about the ii V I. In classical, the dominant to tonic. Knowing enough of the reoccurring themes in a genre makes transcribing easier, and you get to focus on the building blocks around it instead of dissecting a technique you probably could have found in a blog article somewhere.
Actually, blogs are great places to start with learning these, if it's a ubiquitous form like jazz.
Transcribing is a Learnable Skill
It's like anything. The more of it you do, the easier it is. Being reasonable with it at the start helps keep you moving. For example, maybe just start with the form of a song and then try to write something with the same form. Or focus on major harmonic points instead of every subtle chord shift. There's no test at the end of a transcription. So long as you're picking up a new technique and immersing yourself in a sound, you're learning what you need to from it.
Releasing Music and Inertia!
I have an arbitrary pacing for when I release music. It's broad enough where if I miss a day, it's no big deal, but frequent enough where it keeps my spirit magnetically pulled to always asking "What's next?"
I've tried a few out: "Write something everyday" was impossible. "Record one album this year" meant it was never going to happen. But having a regular interval somewhere in between those two kept me going.
Having to make it public, also, helps a lot with the accountability, even if no one is actively policing you on your schedule.
Follow Your Energy Through the Day
Classic productivity prescription. It clicked for me when I heard Dilbert's Scott Adams talk about it in his sort-of-autobiography. For him, writing happens in the morning, and rote-drawing happens in the evening.
Translating to writing: Actual melody/harmony production happens in the morning, edits and tightening up the quality happens in the evening. Or, most of the time in my case, I took the evenings to practice an instrument like guitar or piano. It doesn't take design-type thinking to practice a scale or play an exercise.
Keep a Collection of What you like.
Likes on Spotify, bookmarks in your web browser, whatever! I personally keep a plain text file called
FavoriteMusic.md where I copy in links, song titles, and notes on what I like about a song.
I have a list for album ideas. Some may never happen. But on the days where there's simply a blank canvas, both of these lists come in handy.
Make it real
This might just be helpful to me, personally. If it's not under my fingers, it doesn't always feel very real. At the very least, it becomes too cerebral if it isn't.
Sometimes I find an idea while noodling on guitar. Or from playing sax. My favorite now is piano. Nothing beats it when it comes to visualizing harmony and getting used to thinking polyphonically.
Largely, keeping a part of the process tactile has helped. The day I got an electronic keyboard hooked up to my laptop as a midi input, the game changed.
Work with the Material
Any creative thing — music, art, blogs — is cool because, in my mind, it's a still image capture of something in motion. Like those photos with Long Exposure effects and Light Painting.
In other words - Don't worry about sitting down and not knowing what's going to come out. That's the fun part!! A dash of mystery and a pinch of romance on a day-to-day basis!
You learn from starting. Get something on the page. Then mold it. I think very few folks know exactly how something will go before they sit down to write it. It's a process. In fact, the process is what's so rewarding anyhow! It's a journey of discovery, making something. That's the point of it all in the end. Not to have made, but to be making.