Composer's Block

We’ve all been there–staring at the screen not knowing what to do next.

Too many composers and songwriters just sit around and wait for creativity to happen.  But the truth is that, most of the time, by making yourself write, you inherently have to be more creative to be able to put something on the paper in the first place.

I used to be the kind of composer that just waited around, and I often moved onto new pieces whenever I hit the “barrier.”  I used to think that forcing yourself to be creative stifled creativity, but now I see otherwise.

We talked about this idea of compelling yourself to be creative during GRAMMY Camp, and since then, I have been making myself push past the blockades.  Three months later, I can say I’ve been more productive musically than ever.  I produced, mixed, and mastered an entire album in this time in addition to writing and notating my longest and most complex piano composition so far (more on this piece later).  I also started several new electronic productions of my own and re-did the mixes of some older ones.  In three months, I’ve done what I used to do in a year.  The quality of my work has not worsened because I’m taking less time and making myself do it.  Conversely, it has significantly improved.

It’s not like it’s always easy to push through the walls, though.  Sometimes, it’s really painful because I’m a perfectionist, and I feel like what I’m making myself come up with isn’t any good.  Even so, I make myself keep going anyway, and eventually, I’m satisfied with how my productions and compositions turn out.

To get past the creative block, it often means trying things that you might consider ridiculous.  Don’t give up on a possibility just because it’s weird or unconventional.  Even if the crazy thing you try doesn’t work, it can lead to something that does work, and doing something outside of your norm can help you think of something new.

Ultimately, making yourself write or mix or produce is a matter of practicing.  You won’t get better at what you do by waiting around all the time.  If you want to get better, you need to push past the walls.

So let’s hear from my readers.  How do you get past your creative blocks?  What do you do when a song just doesn’t seem to be working at all?

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About Shelby Rawlings Blalock

I'm a 22-year-old composer, pianist, audio engineer, student, and GRAMMY Camp 2012 alum––a Charlottesville native making my way in Nashville! I write music for orchestra and small ensembles, but my debut solo piano album Airborne is available now on iTunes.

16 responses »

  1. […] again, finding the joy in it.  Although it seemed like I would never get over that last bout of composers’ block, I finally have.  I’m writing music unlike anything I’ve written.  I venture to say that […]

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  2. […] back to my final Tuesday composition lesson before the due date bemoaning the unproductiveness and composer’s block I was experiencing.  I told my professor that I wasn’t sure it was possible to finish the […]

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  3. […] But still, even if the total number of hours I spend on “F Minor” is similar to what I’ve spent on other pieces, twelve days is still twelve days.  There’s something to be said for spreading out a composition over several months, because sometimes the best ideas come when you’re resting.  On the other hand, I’m finding that having a time limit forces you into creativity (as discussed in my post, “Composer’s Block: Pushing Past the Walls”). […]

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  4. thenathancarlsonproject says:

    I had that same problem, I find that overthinking kills a composition. If my ears like something, the rest follows, so I don’t think too much anymore when I write.

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    • Shelby Lock says:

      I agree. I’ve caught myself trying to “fix” a composition when I started to overthink it, but I often find that work that comes more out of intuition than “logic” has something special about it. I guess we need to remember the saying, “If it’s not broken, why fix it?”
      Thanks for the comment!

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  5. On waiting for inspiration, remember what Jack London once said: You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.

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  6. angstycrayon says:

    Logic Pro kicks ass! I use it to compose with. Although, sometimes I notate using Notion 3.

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    • Shelby Lock says:

      Great to see other Logic users! Thanks for stopping by.
      How do you like Notion? I’ve been thinking of switching to another notation software. Finale can make things pretty tedious, and I haven’t found a simple way to export MIDI cleanly into Logic…

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  7. bsharpej says:

    Totally agree with you – the best stuff I have ever done is under (and because of) time-pressure, in terms of composing and engineering! If a song isn’t working out and I can’t get past the ‘block’ then I either just scrap it for a while (maybe come back to it later) or look around for inspiration and have another go!

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    • Shelby Lock says:

      Yeah, there are definitely times when it’s best to just walk away and do something else. Sometimes ideas come when you’re resting. The trick is figuring out when to scrap something and when to keep going on. There’s a fine line!

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  8. Piscis says:

    I definitely understand the perfectionist angle. I agree (as both a writer and composer!) – often you have to force your way through it, laying down whatever phrase comes to mind, being fine with immediately getting rid of it and trying something else until it clicks.

    Also – Logic, huh? (>^-‘)>

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    • Shelby Lock says:

      Thanks for stopping by. Yes, it seems like it does apply to writers and other creative people, too…
      I use Logic for mixing and production, but I notate my scores in Finale. Do you like Logic, or is that character there wincing? Haha.

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      • Piscis says:

        It’s a winking Kirby! I guess that’s only one letter off…

        Logic’s not bad, but I’m on Windows, which it has sadly abandoned. I used to use the now defunct IDD Studio for composing, which had a nice, clean interface that made writing sheet music as easy as on paper, and could then dump to MIDI. These days I seem to be bouncing between Mixcraft, Ableton, Pro Tools, and the super-useful Xewton Studio on iPad.

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