In this episode, you’re going to learn how to overcome writer’s block as a music producer once and for all. Since the dawn of time, artists have been struggling with this problem. Staring at a blank piece of paper (or DAW session), trying to force yourself to produce something worthwhile can feel frustrating. In this episode, I’m going to show you 5 tricks you can use to overcome writer’s block and get creative again.
Stop fighting it, start channeling it in the right direction
The first important step of dealing with writer’s block is acceptance. Stop feeling guilty, stop feeling like a fraud. It’s not your fault and you’re definitely not alone with this problem. Every single artist who has ever lived had to deal with this issue at some point.
One thing I’ve observed over the years is that the more you try to aggressively fight it, the more depressing it gets. You’re adding fuel to fire, even if you don’t want it. The trick of overcoming writer’s block is to stay relaxed instead of putting even more pressure on yourself.
Your goal here is to trick your mind a bit and open it up to new possibilities. So stop blaming yourself for this and try out my five strategies of overcoming writer’s block.
5 tricks that help you deal with writer’s block as a music producer
Overcoming writer’s block isn’t as hard as it seems if you have some go-to strategies in your secret playbook. Every time the issue comes up, you simply pull out your list of tricks and try out what feels right at that moment. The benefit of having these strategies prepared beforehand is that your mind automatically starts to relax thanks to the fact that you have an emergency plan in place.
1. Change your environment
Nothing’s worse than being stuck in your studio (or apartment), staring at your screen, and banging your head against the table trying to squeeze out something good. One of the easiest methods to overcome writer’s block is to simply change your environment.
I’ve already talked about going into nature and capturing field recordings already in my episode on generating song ideas. This is just one of the ways you can change your creative environment to overcome writer’s block and get new inspiration. Sometimes, a short walk is enough to put your mind into a more relaxed state and spark new creative ideas. Remember: It’s all about reducing pressure.
But try to take it one step further: You could take your laptop (or even just your phone/ tablet with some music creation apps) to a co-working space or café. Maybe one of your music producer buddies wants to do a studio session at his or her place?
If you don’t have the possibility to bring some basic equipment to a different environment, you can try to bring memories of another place back to your studio. Visiting an art exhibition is one of the best ways to get inspired. Just make sure your visit isn’t too long because you might end up feeling too exhausted to work on music. I recommend taking notes during your visit so you capture your emotions and memories for the studio later.
2. Try out a new instrument and get as many cool samples out of it as possible
If you’re dealing with writer’s block as a music producer, you often aim too high. Maybe you just weren’t meant to write a full song that day. Still, you can work on collecting great sounds as a starting point for your next session. There’s a specific method I want to recommend here.
Simply download the demo version of a virtual instrument (or even rent an analog piece from one of your friends) and try to get as many interesting samples from it as possible. Remember: It’s not about finishing a song, it’s just about sound design and experimentation. If that ends up turning into a full song, that’s even better. But even if it doesn’t, you still end up with a collection of very cool samples.
Just make sure to export the sounds in high quality and save them in a specific folder. This is going to be your future “inspiration treasure box” and it might make it way easier to get started with new songs.
3. Re-introduce playfulness and mistakes in your composition style
Often when we’re facing writer’s block, we start to over-analyze our way of working. In other words, we’re trying to outsmart ourselves (which never works). Instead of focusing harder, you should the exact opposite: Let go and start to be playful again. Be bold, be brave, and dare to make mistakes.
Instead of trying to draw in every MIDI note perfectly by hand, try to just play things on your keyboard. Instead of writing in a specific key, use “wrong” notes and see if you end up with something interesting. Put a delay with extreme feedback settings on your track and start automating the parameters throughout the song. Overdo things intentionally.
Another great way of using playfulness to your advantage is to do live-recordings of rhythmic instruments. Instead of programming a shaker or hi-hat, try to find something in your studio (or apartment) that you can play live. A pack of rice and a spoon might be your new best friends.
4. Use the power of randomness to your advantage
Sometimes, all you need to do is outsource your problem. In this case, you can simply overcome writer’s block by letting a randomization tool create your lead arpeggio or shaker rhythm. Modern DAW all have built-in tools for step-sequencing MIDI notes and usually, they also have ways to randomize the process.
While it may take a couple of minutes before you’re getting the right results, you’re being rewarded with fresh inspiration. I’m not saying you should use the randomization-features to write your whole tune. All it needs to do is break that first mental barrier that has caused your writer’s block.
Let me give you an example: As soon as you have a starting point for your lead synth sound, the rest of the writing process will come much easier. Even if it’s just the first four notes that have that “special something” and evoke strong emotions in you. That might be just enough to follow through and finish that melody.
5. Educate yourself in music theory and try out something new
Guess what: Writer’s block has existed since we have that thing called music. For centuries, genius composers and researchers have studied methods of composition and arrangement. Part of that idea to formalize the writing process was to avoid being stuck.
Music theory is just a way to help you understand all the different options and figure out what to do next. If you’re now thinking something like “I don’t want to learn any music theory because it will force me in a certain direction and blur my natural talent”, I have to call you out on this. It’s a classic limiting belief that will prevent you from pushing your boundaries.
Don’t underestimate the power of composition and arrangement theory. You don’t have to be a pro at this, just be open enough to get started with educating yourself a bit in this area.
A good place to gain very foundational knowledge is Ableton’s free “Learning Music” platform. Then you can move on to free tutorials on YouTube but make sure you actually try them out in your current session. If you want to go really deep, start reading books like Jazz Harmony by Frank Sikora. The good thing is that you can break free from your writer’s block simply by trying out something new you’ve just learned. This different way of approaching and hearing things might be enough to spark your inspiration again.
Other resources that help you overcome writer’s block
Apart from these five strategies, there are certain tools that might help you. This is just a small collection of things that have helped me personally, so I’d like to share them with you.
- Making Music – Creative Strategies for Electronic Music Producers
This book by Dennis DeSantis is a collection of 74 strategies that help spark creative ideas. It’s short but effective and can be your “emergency”-companion if you’re stuck.
- Oblique Strategies by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt
This set of cards is extremely powerful, to say the least. Every card contains one very specific advice, sometimes even just one word. While it’s nice to have the physical cards on your desk, they come at a premium price tag. The cheapest alternative is this website. I personally love this app which is affordable but looks nicer than the website I’ve mentioned before.
- Nea Machina by Martin and Thomas Poschauko
Unfortunately, I haven’t found an English version of this book yet. It’s made by and for graphic designers first and foremost, but the principles can be easily applied to music production. The authors have developed playful methods of helping us break free from the “staring-at-a-screen-clicking-on-things” workflow and spicing it up with hands-on experimentation.
If you have other resources you’d like to see included here, please leave a comment and I will review them. Thanks in advance for your contribution!
Putting it into action: How to overcome writer’s block as a music producer
Now that I’ve shared my favorite strategies and tools with you, it’s time to take the first step. Here are my three action steps for you.
1. Analyze how you’ve dealt with writer’s block in the past
- Write down what has and hasn’t worked so far.
- For example: Have you been a bit too strict with yourself and started that negative self-talk? Maybe you’ve made great experiences with doing a bit of exercise and then going back into the studio?
2. Your secret playbook: Keep a list of things that have worked for you or might work next time you’re facing writer’s block
- Use your analysis from above as a starting point and also add the five strategies I’ve laid out here.
- Keep this “emergency” file close to you. Next time you need it, it must be easily accessible to you.
3. Next time you’re stuck, commit to implementing one of the strategies without second-guessing
- Don’t even think about it, just try it out and enjoy letting go of all the pressure.
- The idea of this emergency playbook is to help you ease the pressure and re-activate your playfulness and creativity.
Alright, that’s it for this episode. Now I’d love to know what strategies you’ve used so far to deal with writer’s block. What has worked for you?
Let me know in the comments, I read everything!