It’s difficult to keep track of everything that needs to be done with your musical ideas. If you write with any frequency, these ideas can amass until there are so many that you can’t keep track of them. Your ideas might range from little snippets to near complete works. Here are some things that commonly go wrong for me:
- I don’t take enough time to think about where an idea needs to go to be improved, completed, and fully fleshed out.
- I abandon the ideas for months or years, then become unable to find it easily (or at all) if I want to revisit it.
My ideas are scattered all over the place - in paper notebooks, little scraps of paper, computer files, recordings, and other places. I’ve tried many organization systems for them. I hope my experience can help you begin to discover how to get from start to finish on your creative ideas.
1. Idea Generation
Most of us discover our creative capacities without trying to do so. In these unplanned moments (without having a long-term goal in mind,) we generate ideas effortlessly. It’s immensely satisfying to create something this way, but it’s sometimes difficult to get back in this state. Here are some tips for finding inspiration when you have time and are facing a blank page:
- Make time to be absolutely alone. (Read more about how solitude helps creativity.)
Or, turn on a recorder while free-form jamming with a group of musicians.
- Allow yourself to enter a stream-of-consciousness. Ignore all of the “rules” and your pre-established patterns. I sometimes improvise on the piano (which is not my main instrument) to get away from the long-ingrained habits from idiomatic playing guitar. Let ideas come out in large quantity (Watch this excellent video on what some of the barriers are to good brainstorming and how to overcome them.)
Or, experiment with very specific parameters in mind. Choose a theme (musical, lyrical, or otherwise) to create variations. Choose a music theory idea (time signatures, a new chord, phrase structure, etc) that would expand your horizons. Use of an unusual basis for a song, like a string pad or flute melody.
- Begin the archive process: write everything you can down (or record it) without judgement. Write down the date no matter what and time if necessary.
One may need to plan when to have their idea-generation sessions and what limits they’d like to impose. This leads us to our next step.
2. Organization and Planning
Rarely does one have a finished product after the first step. It’s very easy to forget an idea if you don’t label and organize it for your archive.
- Don’t forget to put the date / time on your idea!
- We can label an idea further with a working title. ex: “Slow Groove in F minor”
- Add a text document with notes on the idea. ex: “intro is a slow build with strings, then the drums come in, sorta like this one Pink Floyd song.”
- Put your idea in a folder titled with the year. ex: “2016 Song Ideas”
Choose a time every week to make sure everything has this info and is in its proper place. During this weekly review, one can plan which ideas you’d like to revisit.
- Listen to and carefully study the previously generated ideas. Make a list of songs that you’d like to move to the next step. I’ve been using file labels for this (purple means ‘in progress’.)
- Decide when you’d like to add/write lyrics, basslines, vocal harmonies, and all the things that are often forgotten until the bitter-end of a project.
- Decide when you’d like to record a demo of the song. Budget in time to set up mics, move amps, warm up for days ahead of time, etc.
I recommend Time-Blocking - setting up specific days/times in your calendar - to get stuff done. I find more and more that if I don’t schedule and plan my creative projects, they don’t get done because of distractions and other little to-dos. You can of course ignore your time-blocks if the moment takes you and for emergencies, but respect your creative schedule.
Consolidating my ideas has always been a challenge for me. If one has a long to-do list, and scattered ideas, it’s very easy to get overwhelmed. I often do “meta-organization” by writing about it in a composition journal. This article is an example!
3. Idea Refinement and Completion
It takes dedication and a good amount of motivation to finish composing a song, let alone recording it in a demo or final form. All the effort spent organizing and planning should allow you to focus when the time comes. Your brand of perfectionism takes over here, and you decide what the song needs.
- Make sure the form and transitions flow properly.
- Make sure that you’ve recorded your absolute best takes and edit them.
- If you’re writing classical music you’ll want to focus on the details of making your score look good.
- Get input from musicians you respect if you’re working alone.
Composition is a process that everyone discovers and refines for themselves. I hope my suggestions on generating, planning, and refining your ideas are helpful. If you have any thoughts on creativity and productivity, feel free to comment below or join the discussion on our Facebook page!