Beating composer’s block


Teaching your craft to someone else is a great privilege. Apart from the pleasure of sharing knowledge, I’ve found teaching offers many opportunities to learn and reflect on my creative practice, and question how and why I do the things I do.

Recently a student asked me what to do when he gets stuck with writer’s block. Much like people who write words, people who write notes often get frozen by the void of the blank page, and this student’s question gave me an opportunity to think about what I do (or should do) in this situation.

My solution was to come up with a series of questions for a composer to ask themselves, to help begin narrowing down options, and set up parameters to work with. Most of these are things I ask myself when getting ready to write a piece, consciously or subconsciously, most of the time.

Here they are:

  1. Who is going to play this?
    • what instruments are at you disposal
    • what is possible on that instrument
    • what is comfortable on that instrument
    • what is the playing skill level of the player/s (real or anticipated)
    • what is the reading skill level of the player/s
    • what are the special skills of the player/s
  2. Who is going to listen to this?
    • what are the expectations of the listeners you’re anticipating
    • do you want to meet or challenge those expectations
    • where/by what medium are they going to be listening
    • what are the special features of that venue/medium
    • what are the non-musical goals of the piece (commercial, conceptual, functional, therapeutic, etc.)
  3. What are the temporal parameters you’re working with?
    • how long will it be
    • what tempo/s will it have
    • what time signature/s will it be in
    • how many bars long will it be (bpm x minutes / beats in the bar)
    • what rhythmic feel will it have
    • what rhythmic notation will you use
    • what formal structure will you use (if conventional, which one)
    • what are your rhythmic ideas
  4. What are the pitch parameters you’re working with?
    • what pitch organisation system are you using (Western tonality, serial, etc.)
    • what scale/s are you using (or rows, sets, etc.)
    • what kind of harmony are you using (triads, 7th chords, extended chords, etc.)
    • what are your melodic ideas
    • what are your harmonic ideas
    • what simple variations (“exact repetitions” as Schoenberg puts it) can you make of your melodic ideas (retrograde, inversion, retrograde-inversion, chromatic transposition, diatonic transposition, augmentation, diminution)
    • what further variations (“modified repetitions”) can you make of your melodic ideas (rhythmic, intervallic, harmonic, melodic)
    • what simple variations can you make of your harmonic ideas (inversions, voicings)
    • what further variations can you make of your harmonic ideas (extensions, substitutions)
  5. What musical idea/s will be the focus of this piece?
    • this could be the rhythmic, melodic, harmonic ideas mentioned above, or something else
    • what will happen to the focal idea/s over the course of the piece

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