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Remedies to musical ennui and tedium?


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So I was trying to compose last week and couldn't find satisfaction in anything I wrote.  I was just jumping from melody to melody without being able to decide what to actually work on and develop.  I sometimes have trouble finding what I'm going to compose next - I chalk it up to being too picky about choosing what my material is going to be that I actually commit to and develop.

So my question is - have you ever found yourself in this kind of situation?  (I guess a kind of writer's block?)  And what have you done to get out of it?

I personally have sometimes used various methods such as completely changing the way in which I compose through some kind of novel approach to composition:

  • Using different kinds of dice to determine various things about a composition (pairs of regular 6 sided dice for figured bass numbers for example, or 12-sided musicians dice to determine the key of your piece, or a combination of different sided dice (a 4-sided and an 8-sided to give me a mode from a table of modes that I made)
  • Using the technique of melodic mining, in which the rhythms and sometimes even the pitches of your musical material are taken from specific spoken phrases.
  • Of course I can't forget to mention probably my favorite method - writing variations on my own or other composers melodies!

These are just a few things I've thought of that I sometimes do to inspire myself/get out of a rut.  What do you do?  Do you study certain things about musical composition and write music as exercises about what you've learned?  Some people I've heard use random number generators, poems, images, stories, or they create melodies/motives from the letters of their names (called nomenclature if I am not mistaked?).  Others even take abstract concepts (such as the five classical canons of rhetoric) and compose music to give them life.  Some people are inspired by places they visit and they try to make their music embody that place.  Yet another method I've seen is to simply play around with the shapes/characteristics of a melody/motif and manipulate it and transform it in various ways.

I'm stoked to hear what you do/have done in the past to inspire you and whether it resulted in some good compositions for you or not.

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1 hour ago, PeterthePapercomPoser said:

So my question is - have you ever found yourself in this kind of situation?  (I guess a kind of writer's block?)  And what have you done to get out of it?

I always have writer's block!! What I have done is stay out of it and don't push myself to compose with pressure. I will just listen to works that I am not familiar with, hoping it will give me new insights. Also I read different types of books and music manuals to make sure I have a fresh mind. I always think that composing is improtant, but less important to growing and learning as a better human being.

My approach to composing is: Spontaneous inspiration of a new theme, then work on it by developing it. If I find it unsatisfactory I just pust it aside and usually it will come up with something better.

1 hour ago, PeterthePapercomPoser said:

What do you do?  Do you study certain things about musical composition and write music as exercises about what you've learned?  Some people I've heard use random number generators, poems, images, stories, or they create melodies/motives from the letters of their names (called nomenclature if I am not mistaked?).  Others even take abstract concepts (such as the five classical canons of rhetoric) and compose music to give them life.  Some people are inspired by places they visit and they try to make their music embody that place.  Yet another method I've seen is to simply play around with the shapes/characteristics of a melody/motif and manipulate it and transform it in various ways.

I will study those things before composing, but during composing I won't let those things limit my creativity. Take my new wind quintet piece as an example, it simply grows by itself and I sometimes has to stop its growing, fearing that I cannot sleep! I did study the range, timbre of each instruments, but during composing I just forgot them. I am more in a natural approach, since I hate forcing things especially when composing. I don't think the artificiality will help at all. When I'm in block I will probably put it aside or work with the details first, like adding dynamics, slurs etc.

My clarinet quintet in C minor cost me almost 6 years, while the wind quintet movement cost me 9 days, but I find them both successful in their own ways. Just relax and have fun on composing! At least I am an amateur one that don't need to earn my living through composing! Find something we want to talk about and express it in our music. If nothing we want to tell, Im sure read more, walk more, feel more can help. Hope these can help a little bit!

Henry

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A lot of times when I have writer's block, I instead focus on learning a new piece or getting better at my instrument.

Maybe pick up that guitar and start pickin' and grinin'. You may find inspiration with improvement with your instrument as well. 

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 My approach is to experiment on the piano before I begin a new composition. I don't have any key or time signature in mind at that point. The piano helps me come up with  the general harmony or tone of the piece, then I try to come up with a decent melody. For me, the melody is the hard part and may take me some time to develop. Also, this may sound weird but I don't get inspiration from anything other than music itself. For example, my personal mood or experiences don't reflect what I am going to write. I could be feeling really happy and decide to write a dark or sad piece. My only inspiration comes from composers I enjoy listening to.

This is unlike Rimsky-Korsakov where his music was influenced by his life experiences and imagery. You can hear this influence in his symphonies.

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If I have this block it usually means insufficient inspiration so I close the file and put it in pending.

While practicing piano I usually have my little tascam going 'just in case' - a harmony, a fragment that might be associated with some piece I'm thinking about.  Maybe even a melody but I no longer want to write melodies as such - fine for people who do (and I envy them at times) but that means a piece in embryo is going to start fairly formless. How do I write a mood? 

We have a musical lodger who sometimes inspires. 

Moving forward has been the problem. I reckon I've written my best stuff already so now it's hard to move 'forward'. A break is good. I'm spending time on a related project and something new in the way of 'notate-able' composition is emerging.  Fighting musical lassitude can be so frustrating.

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I always get writers block if I sit at a keyboard and try to mash something out; sometimes something might come, but it’s never my best work. If i’m trying to think of a structural, harmonic, melodic, etc. solution to something I’m writing, I  have to take some time staring at the ceiling or out the window, and ‘write’ the music in my head. Ideas away from a keyboard or notation software are always my best! However, I find manuscript paper very helpful in forcing you to plan and think about every note; this always helps my attention to detail, which suffers if I write straight into notation software.

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I don't ever really have "writer's block' as such anymore, if anything I kind of have the opposite problem: Too many ideas at once.

My personal struggle is fighting with the uninspiring technology used to make a decent-sounding mockup, and I can't afford to hire live players all time. It's why I don't do a lot of orchestral music these days; having to perform and program absolutely every line, do multiple passes tweaking MIDI CCs with faders in realtime, keyswitches, layering articulations etc. is all very soul-destroying and time-consuming.

So for me, it's largely that I find myself just wanting to do anything else.

A teacher I had in digital audio somewhere around 10 years ago said something that has stuck with me: "Every minute that you're fighting learning curves, fiddling with knobs and faders; you're not making music".

I really need to get on finishing my new Windows 11 PC, because then I can run Musescore 4, which I'd combined with live musicians and samples. I really support these things like Staffpad, Musesounds, and the coming AI instruments because they take so much workload off the composer to get a good synthesized recording.

Anyway, tips that helped me:

• Always have a theme for the piece in mind. A setting; a place, person or story that the music is supposed to represent. Always have a "muse".

• Star with the simplest aspects of music first if you're stuck. I used to be a big "Melody-first" evangelist, but honestly: Starting with an accompaniment idea that sets the tone of the piece can make it a lot easier to come up with a melody.

• Start with the rhythm of the melody before the pitches if you're stuck. Every great melody has a strong rhythmic pattern/foundation. If you just come up with a good rhythm on say, the root note of your key, then you can play around with the pitch afterward.

• Learn about melodic structures like the sentence and period form, and try to keep within the usual 8, 12 or 16-bar phrase length.

Lastly: Not every piece can or needs to be a masterpiece.

Edited by AngelCityOutlaw
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