9 Advices for Getting Unstuck in Your Music Project (#8 May Hurt)

 

One of the most common problems I face when making music is getting stuck on an idea. The dreaded 8-bar loop syndrome!

As you probably very well know, this eventually leads to total frustration and loss of perspective. It becomes very tempting to abandon the project entirely and just start something new. Indeed I have done that countless times.

I wanted to share with you some solutions that I personally apply in these situations.

 

The Ideal Situation

Ideally, in the creative phases of making music, I strive to work guided by intuition as much as possible.

Intuition can be described as the ability to acquire knowledge without inference or the use of reason.

To make music without thinking. It’s those times when ideas just seem to flow out of nowhere and things just click without even really trying.

When that happens, it’s beautiful.

Now, you can and should strive to create the right conditions for intuition to flourish as much as possible. But that is a different topic altogether.

Let’s face it – sometimes you’re in a rut no matter what. Let’s get you out of there.

 

Why Do We Get Stuck

First of all let’s think, why do we get stuck on a project?

Well, there are several scientific theories of creative process that could help in explaining this. In practice though, I see it like this:

We don’t always have the optimal conditions for intuition to thrive. It also takes years and years of practice to cultivate the power of intuition – some people are simply better at it than others.

Finally, we are stuck with our own little ways, habits and expectations anyway. That is simply how we are. Otherwise we would not be able to function as human beings.

These things are OK and perfectly normal! So cut yourself some slack.

The good news is intuition is not all there is to making progress in the creative phase of a music project.

Where intuition ends, you rely on methods and perseverance.

 

Solutions

Here are a few things I apply in these situations. There are many different ways to approach this and I would be curious to hear about yours – but this is how I’ve been looking at it.

 

1. Drop all expectations

Unless you’re doing client work where you really need to come up with something very specific… You should just forget about whatever you were trying to do.

Give yourself the permission to stray, to try something different and go with the flow.

Often your worst enemy is your own expectations.

 

2. Try a new technique

In order to get out of your normal patterns (which are obviously not getting you out of the rut), you must force your mind to work in a different way.

The best way to do this is to try something completely new. Try a technique you’ve never tried before, or at least one you haven’t used in a while.

Youtube is your friend when looking up new techniques! Find something and try it out on the track you’re working on.

This way you won’t be able resort to existing patterns of thought and action. You’re forced to create something new.

An added bonus is that you’re learning and expanding your horizons.

It often just takes a little nudge to give you that new angle and bang – you’re back up and running.

 

3. Go random

Random is your friend. Try some random shit. Be clever with that.

Use randomizers (you can set up some pretty cool generators and things of that sort in Live).

Use the shotgun method and then pick out the best bits and refine them.

Do whatever you can in order to come up with unexpected results.

Best things often come from the unknown.

 

4. Subtract

This is something I used to do a lot. These days my work tends to be fairly minimal to begin with in terms of different elements and sounds going on, but there is still a place for this method.

Especially in the moments when I feel like I’ve lost perspective, I try to cut down do the essentials and find the focus of the musical idea in there.

That then gives me a direction to build on.

 

5. Steal an idea

Yup – go listen to some other music and grab an idea you like. It does not have to be obvious. Use it as a base of experimentation. Change things up and go from there.

Maybe it’s a rhythm pattern you like. Maybe it’s the way the structure of the track is constructed. Perhaps an unusual reverb that you could try.

It’s OK – wether you admit it or not, nothing in art is truly original in the end. Being creative is about discovering new combinations. Everyone is influenced by something.

 

6. Flip it upside down

Choose one aspect of the track and try the complete opposite approach with it.

For me this often means changing up the drums completely. I’ve salvaged countless of tracks with this technique.

 

7. Apply a proven formula

Do something blatantly obvious. It’s only a starting point. The only purpose of this is to get you unstuck.

As you keep working on it, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to inject originality back into it.

 

8. Don’t be a perfectionist

For f*s sake stop messing about with little nuances when you should be focusing on the big picture!

You want to know what I really think about a lot of people’s so called “perfectionism”? Here it is:

Calling yourself perfectionist is a great way of masking your fear of putting yourself out there in the real world.

We are vulnerable. It takes guts. It helps when you understand that nothing is ever truly perfect or finished in this world.

No matter how good or close to perfect you think something is, there are always loads of people who are going to think differently anyway.

So don’t let that stop you.

Man (or woman) up, get it done and move on to the next thing!

 

9. Take some time off

This should be your last resort. But sometimes it’s the best thing to do.

Taking some time off is best when you’ve truly lost perspective on something that you’ve invested a lot of time and effort on.

You don’t feel like flipping it upside down or changing things up too much in that situation.

Let it rest for a bit. Just let it be. Don’t listen to it at all for a couple of weeks. Work on something else.

Then come back to it fresh.

When you do come back to it, make sure you’re feeling fresh too both physically and mentally. That has an enormous impact on your ability to think creatively.

 

Book Recommendations

While we are on the topic, here are a couple of books you might want to check out.

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield

The War of Art (audiobook)

Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative by Austin Kleon

 

How Do You Get Unstuck?

It’s always good to get new ideas and broaden the scope. I’d love to hear how you tackle these situations. Let me know in the comments below!

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  • Mav @ Scientific

    great post! 🙂

  • Lynden

    Such a good read. I love the perfectionist perspective. I suffer from that. Also really enjoy Austin Kleons books. Keep sending emails, we are reading.

  • Thanks for this. Im always looking for new methods to overcome my beat block. cheers!

  • lambdoid

    The War of Art’s a great book- quite short but with some excellent advice. I also have Do the Work by the same author. Taking time off is spot on. I left a tune thinking it was finished for a week or so, then came back to it, added a load of new tracks to it, and variations of the main theme and it went from sounding good to sounding great and got some positive feedback from some other people who normally don’t pull any punches.

    • Great – I’ll put Do The Work on my reading list, cheers.

  • Great artcile. I’d add something else here, sometimes you just have to push out a shitty track to get to the gold. At least your finishing tunes and practicing creating a flowing full peice of music. If you discard something when it’s in it’s 8 bar loop stage you’ve learnt nothing from that. In short, do you want to be good at making 8 bar loops or do you want to be good at making full tunes? Which are you practicing to completion?

    • Spot on! I completely agree. Finishing is a skill in itself and you have to practice that. Thank you.

  • Thanks for the comments Scott. Great suggestions.Deadlines and making yourself accountable are effective indeed!

    I am also using an app to collect and organize ideas. Really helps!

  • alex brusten

    hey ilpo, nice read indeed!
    1) i often work on different parts of the song when i feel like getting stuck (like for example break/intro)
    2) searching for inspiration from other artists is VITAL for me , i just take the ideea i like and mess around a bit.
    3) Try out new Vst’s , don’t know why but it boosts my moral and sometimes production when i see a new interface. Sometimes i use those only once, just to get me over that silly moment.
    4) when non of those work, i stop the process and explore new ways in different project, having my original song only in my head. like for example, create new atmosphere for the track, reverse some sounds, that are familiar with the track i am working on.
    5) sometimes i remix my own song even though it’s not ready yet, it could be verry inspiring, you should try it out!
    6) Finally, when non of that is working i leave it like that, go to gym, walk my dog, make a coffee and come back. HEADROOM IS IMPORTANT (not only on master output, haha).

    • Great tips, this article has turned into much more than what it was without all these comments. Thank you Alex.

  • Rajmund erkiu

    I have spoken with my friend about the same problem yesterday and i feel even more confident about it after reading you article. It is good to know that i am not the only one, who is aware of entering, as i call it, state of meditation while making music. I noticed that it can also work as a curse. For example, i am getting used to this style of working so much that it gets way harder to switch to other genre and work in a different way. I see it like a battle between conscious and subconscious. I think that you can be a real master of your mind if you will be able to manage both things. They have their own advantages and i think this is a very important thing.
    As always, great article

    • Well said! I completely agree. It is about mastering both the conscious and the unconscious elements and creating the right kind of circumstances.