Composition troubleshooter – “I can’t think of anything to write!”

by May 26, 2018Advice for Students

As a teacher I’ve been asked the same questions by students so many times that I decided to write them all down and create a “Composition troubleshooter” for my classroom wall.  This way, if a pupil isn’t sure what to do next and I’m not available, they can look at the troubleshooter and at least have a couple of ideas of what to try in their composition.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be adding new composition problems with suggestions of how to tackle them.  Here I take a look at a familiar composition issue…

Aaarghh!  Writer’s block!

What on earth do you do when you’ve got a composition deadline looming and the creative juices just aren’t flowing?  Here are some things to consider:

Are you in the mood?

You may just not be in the mood to compose (difficult, I realise, if you’re in your music lesson and your teacher has asked you to compose something!). If this is the case, could you work on something different?  For example, if you’ve been asked to write a melody, could you try working on it from a different standpoint and try a bass line or chord sequence instead?

Play your instrument

It may sound obvious, but many students forget all about actually playing their instruments when composing.  They see performing and composing as two different things when they are, in fact, intrinsically linked.  Try playing your favourite piece or song.  Can you then keep playing when you reach the end of the piece and improvise?  Do you have a favourite film or television theme that you’d like to play?  Why not download the music and enjoy learning it to get some inspiration?

When’s your deadline?

If you’ve got a tight deadline and you’re feeling stressed about it, chances are you’re not going to come up with your best ideas.  Try to give yourself enough time and space to be creative.  In other words – don’t leave it to the last minute!  However, we all get busy and leave things a bit late in the day.  If this is you then try to be realistic about what you can manage in the time you’ve got.  Some composers like the pressure and thrill of a looming deadline though….


What’s your method?

How are you trying to compose?   Are you In a studio? Using your instrument? At the keyboard? Straight onto Sibelius? Perhaps your method is hindering your creativity – I usually find that students are more creative when they try playing ideas rather than just staring at a computer screen and clicking notes in.  Why not mix it up a bit and try working in a different way to how you normally compose – you might surprise yourself.


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Listen, listen and listen!

Listen to some music – a good place to start is the ‘Inspiration’ page on this website.  Use the filters to narrow down the choice and have a read through the information given as well – you might discover a new piece or composer.  You could also create a playlist of pieces you really like on Spotify or Youtube – they don’t have to be similar, you don’t even have to say why you like them, it’s your list!  Don’t see these things as a waste of time – “doing listening” is an important part of composition, even though it might feel like you’re not doing much practically.  Just immerse yourself in music!

Take a break

If you’ve been sitting at the piano or computer for a while without any ideas forthcoming, go for a walk even if it’s just to the kitchen for a snack!  Just having a change of scene can help refocus your mind.  Make sure you return to your workspace though and beware of procrastination!  I saw this great tweet recently by composer Ben Dawson:

“Composing is so easy and productive: I find I sit down with some blank manuscript and within three hours, all the laundry is done, the lawn de-weeded, and the burnt-out fuse in the car has been replaced.”


Are you a perfectionist?

Is it that you can’t think of anything to write or are you discarding everything you come up with because it’s not ‘right’?  If this sounds familiar, why not try setting up an ‘ideas page’, where everything you think of can be recorded/notated without it having to be part of the final composition.  This way you can develop some ideas and come back to others later and not worry about it all being part of the finished article.

Keep it in perspective!

According to Stravinsky composition is just about combining notes.  That doesn’t sound so hard does it?!