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Matt Roberts' Music Blog

Friday, October 8, 2010

Searching For The Panacea For Composer's Block

In Dave Liebman's article on "The Compositional Process" he relates an anecdote that he once asked Stevie Wonder how he wrote so many masterpieces. Stevie's reply was something to the effect of "I write five tunes a day!!" My mother once related a story about a pottery teacher who asked one class to make one perfect pot, and another class to make as many pots as possible. At the end of the week, the first class had not created any pots: each pot they had started had been destroyed somewhere along the way because it had developed a flaw. The other class had made all sorts of pots; perhaps some of them were very poor, but many of them were wonderful.

I've found this philosophy to make a lot of sense in my own creative process; but it also makes it all the more frustrating when I hit the dreaded "composer's block" and seem unable to create anything.  This is the most common scenario: I come up with an idea; I decide it's not good; I get rid of it; I come up with another idea; I decide it's not good either... and I repeat this cycle over and over again for hours or even weeks, getting more and more frustrated.  In a recent bout of this, I even began to think I had tried virtually every possible solution for the problem I was working with. Which lead me to think, half jokingly, that maybe I could find the solution through a process of elimination; all I had to do was record every possible wrong answer, and then whatever was left over would be the right one. So I started a new compositional practice: when something didn't work, I didn't erase it; I'd somehow record possibility I tried, with written notes as to why I each idea didn't work.

I've been doing this for about two weeks now and I have found it very helpful in overcoming composer's block, although not exactly for the reasons I expected.  It seems it helps primarily in two ways:
  1. It helps point out the solution.  For example, recently I was writing a tune, didn't like it, and decided to scrap everything I had written.  The reason I wrote down was "the chord changes seem too random". This made it obvious that when I started again, I should start with the chord changes, and start with some sort of concept behind their interrelationship.  I did this and the process proceeded much more smoothly.
  2. It makes me less emotional about false starts. I didn't realize it, but I think every time I erased an idea that didn't work and had to retrace my steps, I was making the subconscious assumption that "That idea was terrible, I write terrible ideas, I'm never going to write anything good!!" Unfortunately this can easily become a self-fulfilling prophesy! I find that when I actually write down what I didn't like about an idea, it becomes much less dramatic. Now my attitude becomes more like: "It isn't that I'm not a good composer; this composition just needs some chord changes with a logical interrelationship to them. The problem was just that I didn't previously recognize that."
Unfortunately this hasn't been a universal panacea for all cases of composer's block, but it certainly has helped.  I've been studying with Andrew Downing as part of my master's degree at U of T, and he has been giving me a lot of composition exercises. I've found that these seem less intimidating, since I'm encouraged to regard them as exercises, and this has also helped to get my creativity flowing.

So, my question to you, Dear Reader, should you be inclined to post a reply, is this: what is your cure for creative block? Do you think the approach I describe here could work for you?

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  1. interesting! what helps me is switching instruments - I usually write with a guitar in hand, but when I'm stuck sometimes I'll sit down at the piano instead. since the way the notes are laid out is different it forces me to think differently and that often helps.

  2. I think the "keep on working it" ethic is a good starting place. For a Saxophone Concerto I was writing I started with a pretty randomly developed tone row. I realized early on that it was not happening. Too much space (in octaves)between melody notes was one problem... Instead of scrapping it I went through to the end with it, uttered "This SUCKS" and played an entirely new Saxophone line from beginning to end, entering it through a MIDI keyboard this time. It was certainly not perfect but leaps and bounds better than its predecessor and ended up becoming the basis for the Saxophone in that piece.

  3. @Matt - Yeah, I do that too. I didn't know you played guitar though? I usually write at the piano, but sometimes I'll write on Sibelius, with a guitar, or on my bass. Or sometimes even just with a pencil and some manuscript paper!

    @Thom - I think I dig what you're saying - you realized that the row wasn't working, but you kept going anyway, and ended up being able to fix it, whereas if you had worried to much about that, you might not have been able to get started. Also, which Thom is this?!?!

    I think composer's/writer's/whatever block probably ultimately stems from an emotional block. At least it is that way for me. I think Dizzy Gillespie (or Coltrane??) once said something like "improvisation is the courage to put one note in front of the other." Maybe it is the same with composition?