I’ve got a hard drive full of half songs. Usually, they’re not fully-fledged, walking, talking song-children because I start them and then go down a rabbit hole. Trying to make them sound good and forgetting what the inspirational spark was in the first place. Obsessing over sounds often turns into procrastination. It keeps us from finishing even a first draft. I think this is a common way our subconscious likes to undermine us. It emphasises a big need to separate musical play from musical work.

Play should be just that. It should be fun, it should be discovering a new piece of gear or noodling on a guitar or piano. Trying to work out a song you like from the radio or spending an evening seeing if you can get an iPad app to sync up to that Pocket Operator you got for Christmas. The main criteria for musical play should be that you have zero expectations of ending up with anything you care about. That doesn’t mean it’s not useful later down the road. You may end up with a nice musical snippet to be reworked into something meaningful at a later date. You might integrate a new piece of equipment or learn a new mixing technique. Things which save you breaking your creative flow when it actually matters. When you’re actually working.

So if working is different to playing, then how should we treat it differently? Well, it’s work. It’s not usually quite so spontaneous and unplanned. It requires some discipline and management of your time and resources. Music play is inherently distracting and takes up lots of time, so work should aim for the opposite. Quick, exhilarating bursts of creative thinking.

The solution I’ve found is to start a piece of music by banning myself from being near anything musical. The only tools you need are a pen and a notebook.

Side note – Computers can be ok too if you’re well regimented and don’t retreat to Facebook at the drop of a hat (I often use freedom.to when I’m working on a computer, so I can block off all those notifications and websites that I know have nothing to do with the task at hand – it works on mobiles too). In fact, lots of tools for organising ideas and project management can be useful. Especially for pieces of music that have lots of sections and could become a sprawling mess. But these are tips for a whole other article… back to the pen and paper…

Writing without access to anything that makes sound is great for one reason – it makes us consider the conceptual aims of our music. We can write about actual ideas and how we might realise them. Free from the specificity of piano rolls, step sequencers, staves and fretboards. Often, I find an idea hidden away in some other experience. Maybe a book introducing astrophysics makes you want to apply those concepts to music. The first mental breadcrumb on your path to a finished piece. Your scribbles direct you to search through the fantastic audio library from NASA’s archive. Looking for sounds that represent planets colliding in distant galaxies. From there, you could pitch shift many copies of those sounds and combine them together like some crazy, Delia-n drawbar organ.

Just a few benefits you might get from your frantic shorthand:

  • A tome of pre-prepared IDEAS, waiting to be exploited as starting points to cure that “blank page syndrome”
  • A way of remembering ideas as they strike, during those first, most fertile moments. When your synapses fire all over the place and you come up with 20 potential avenues to explore within just a few minutes. They might not all be great ideas but that’s where coming back later helps. If it’s still a good idea tomorrow or next week, then it’s worth exploring.
  • Limitations! Pretty much every note and idea that you log will end up being a way to bottleneck your creativity and consequently focus it. Constraints can be some of the most liberating things when you eventually sit down to work. Lovely rules that keep you focused and moving forward rather than sideways. Maybe you plan to write a piece using only sounds created using kitchen utensils. If so, you’ve just avoided the paralysis that comes from being confronted with innumerable opportunities (which synth is the right one for this song?!) – well done, you! Limitations can be a creative lifeline. They give weight to the silences between sounds and achieve focus that can only come from simplicity.
  • Planning. By writing down your ideas, you’ll immediately see what needs to be in place before you can start work on them. This ensures that all your tools are ready before you begin. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve started writing and soon realised that I need a specific audio cable/instrument/plugin license that I don’t have on hand. The result is that the procrastination monkey wins again. We feel deflated and end up burying our idea along with the failure we felt at being unable to continue.

Hopefully this post gives you some ideas about how a notepad can engage your musical brain in a different way. Allowing you to drill down into new creative flows. It gives me a way to tap into some more subconcious ideas. The type that take you by surprise and only come from working at speed.

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