Most people are a blend of two extremes when songwriting. On one end is the objective, writers who fit pieces together like Lego, and subjective at the other, people driven by expression. One of the common issues shared by both extremes is how to start something new?*
The blank page can feel as daunting as a mirror. In the absence of anything to ally yourself to it’s easy to get caught up in your expectations and frustrations. Especially since our minds and emotions seem to outrun our hands most of the time.
There are some simple strategies to start moving through those feelings though. Here is one.
For example: If you’re trying to come up with visual art ideas an old technique is to stare at complex patterns and just draw what you see: smoke, fire, water, tree bark, carpets, clouds, drop acid, etc. You just copy what your brain is wired to naturally find (connections), seen through your own experience, produced by your technique. Tada, some kinda art.
Letting content naturally float to the surface of your mind gives you two opportunities:
- To give your subconscious something to play with, to auto-suggest
- To give your consciousness something to work with, to problem solve, to edit
Intentionally letting your mind wander and explore is 50% of making anything, the other half is making it. Doodling like this is great because it’s an honest type of drawing. There’s very little to get judgemental with or attached to: it’s daydreaming with a bit of direction.
Working from something you’re observing trains your senses, copying what you perceive trains your focus. Forcing yourself to find content amongst “noise” is a great tool to sharpen.
What is surprising is that the joy of exploration and discovery, that feeling of deepening yourself through creative work, is really at hand all the time in this light. It’s a state not dependant on your education or manifesto so anyone can start, whenever, wherever.
It’s possible to do the same thing with music. You can take advantage of your brain by giving it suggestions and copying what you hear:
- Make a big random playlist with music with a beat
- Play it loud enough to hear it in the bathroom
- Get your phone/pencil/paper, go in the bathroom and close the door
- Turn the fan on and listen to the music through the noise
- Record/write what you think you hear
Fans make a lot of noise, which wipes out a lot of the music, but as your ears get used to the sound you stop hearing it in the foreground. The noise becomes ambient and acts like a filter changing what you hear. As your attention wanders this effect increases
When the ratio of sound, time, and attention is right songs can song completely different. Then you can just copy this “new music” and use it to write new material.
This works because of a couple things:
- The brain’s natural tendency to complete overtones series
- Our psychological tendency to search for recognition
- Noise simply blocking sound and phase cancellation
When it works it’s really remarkable but the volumes have to correct. If you don’t have a fan you can a noise generating website and a laptop or another fan. Bathroom fans are usually pretty noisy across a nice mid-range area though and that’s ideal.
You may have to wait a couple of songs until one comes up that you cannot place. (If you recognize the song the spell is broken so skip it.) Waiting also lets your attention wander, which means it can also be snapped back into place.
This is letting your attention breathe and I think it’s paramount to quick problem solving.
If you have any techniques let me know, I’m all ears.
If you’re mixing music you can create the illusion of fullness in instruments by using overtones too. This is a good trick to get more bass out of smaller speakers especially***.
An example: If your song is playing in the key of A, standard tuning is 440hz. Doubling the number of frequency gives you an octave so the bass is mostly 220hz but down to 110hz. Either way some small speakers can’t do those well.
Adding a little EQ at 440hz or 880hz, a bit every octave up, can give the bass more presence. The highs help it cut and reinforces the overtone series of the fundamental. That means listening brains will hear the bass as fuller than it really is. It’s called the restoration of the missing fundamental. Tada science.
*Problems in objective writing are: perfectionism, over thinking, difficulty with narrative, structure over sound. Problems in subjective writing are: editing, waiting (for inspiration), difficulty with structure, melodrama.
**Shout out to Pat for long discussions on song writing, mixing, and being obsessed.
***I think this is a Tony Visconti tip. I thought about it again when I read about Petr Janaka’s barn owl experiment in This is Your Brain on Music.