Problems of beginning /
Three ways to start
You're staring into the void of a new empty project in your DAW, and you have absolutely no idea how to begin.
The blank slate might be the most intimidating place in a creative environment. Once we're in a flow, ideas tend to spawn additional ideas. But before we have anything, all options are available, so choosing seems impossible. One Part at a Time [which appear later in the book] is certainly a way to move forward, but which one part comes first? When you have nothing, even choosing one part can feel like an impossible hurdle.
The simple-sounding answer is "It doesn't matter how you start; just do!" This might work well as a sports slogan, but it's perhaps too glib and dismissive to be really practical for creative work, in which the number of things to potentially "just do" are limitless and the path forward is not at all obvious. Here are three practical suggestions for how to begin from nothing.
1. Start with the foundation. In most genres, we can think of the "bottom" of the music as being the low-pitched or purely rhythmic instruments, such as the bass and drums. On top of these are added instruments that are progressively higher in pitch. By starting with the bottom, we provide both a conceptual and musical foundation for everything else. The drums often provide the essential time- keeping elements, while the bass often provides the notes that define and anchor the chord progression. If you're working in more experimental genres that don't use these conventional instruments, it's still likely that some elements can be considered foundational— perhaps a droning layer or something that approaches a repetitive rhythm.
2. Start with what you hear. Many musicians never (or rarely) get spontaneous musical ideas—all of their music comes from active work. If you happen to be lucky enough to hear original musical ideas in your head, then you should absolutely use them as the basis for your own work. For example, maybe you have a melodic idea that you've been humming, or a rhythm that you've tapped out on the table. Just because these ideas came to you outside of your active music-making context doesn't mean you should discard them. On the contrary, these accidental ideas are sometimes the most interesting ones you can have.
3. Start with what you know. If you play a "real" physical instrument, try using it to generate your ideas. Even if you're writing purely electronic music and have no plans to use instrument recordings in your work, your natural physical connection to your instrument may help you come up with more interesting and organic musical ideas than you can get from just working with a mouse and a MIDI controller. For example, guitarists tend to voice chords and approach harmony in a different way from keyboardists. But because keyboards are the de facto control surface for entering music into a DAW, many guitarists might never think to use their guitars in an electronic music context. Drummers rarely play the kind of beats that are used in many types of electronic music, but sitting behind a real drum kit might stimulate creative ideas that would feel alien on a pad controller. The trick with this approach is being able to accurately translate the acoustic idea to the electronic medium, but that's a good problem to have; much better than having no ideas at all.
Problems of progressing /
Breadth before depth
Whenever you start making progress on a track, you suddenly become overwhelmed by the desire to get some particular aspect completely perfect. For example, maybe you're preoccupied with getting the sound of your kick drum just right. Lots of time can be spent in this phase, and it often becomes frustrating, sapping your will to continue working on the track as a whole.
Since you know that you'll eventually have to refine every aspect anyway, can there be a downside to doing at least some of that refinement as you go?
Especially in the early and middle stages of your work on a track, when the ideas themselves may not exist yet, it can be detrimental to go into too much depth in any one particular area. Yes, you'll need to do detail work eventually. But the idea-generation phase is vital and very, very fragile. By definition, it's messy and doesn't hold up well when confronted with outside pressures. Idea generation requires experimentation, risk-taking, unbounded thinking, etc. Detail work, on the other hand, is an entirely different kind of working process and requires an entirely different mindset. Detail work requires narrow, focused thinking. It's often more about applying known processes than it is about exploring radical new directions.
When you're in idea-generation mode, it can be useful to work broadly—getting ideas out of your head and into the sequencer as quickly as possible—before working deeply on a single part. This way of working can be valuable for a number of reasons:
‒ It helps you to learn how to listen for potential rather than for perfection. During broad idea generation, parts might sound bad for a variety of reasons. Maybe you have a terrible mix balance, or the wrong sounds, or even some wrong notes. But you've drawn inspiration from music that has none of these problems—finished, mastered tracks have a professional sheen that's miles ahead of where your particular track is right now. This can be discouraging, because even though we know that we can add polish at the end, we want to hear it right now. If your music doesn't compare to your inspiration at this moment, how can you be sure that you're going in the right direction? The key here is to practice learning to listen past the imperfections: Instead of thinking "this bass line isn't powerful enough," think "this bass line can be powerful enough after some sound design work and mixing. But how are the notes?" By hearing past the immediate lack of impact, you become a better judge of whether or not a particular part (or the whole track) is going in the right direction.
‒ Creative time is short, and you have to move fast. As mentioned above, the idea-generation phase is fragile. It's the one part of the music creation process that you can't "force" to happen. This means that when it actually is happening, you need to squeeze out every idea that you can, working as quickly as possible and generating as much material as possible before your mind moves out of this phase. Once you've captured the ideas, the work of actually refining them can sometimes require much less truly creative energy.
This suggestion runs directly counter to the chapter called One Part at a Time. The reality is that there is no one way to work; different types of creative blocks may be solved in fundamentally different, and even opposing, ways.
Problems of finishing /
Arranging as a subtractive process
You have more than enough ideas to make up a finished song but don't know how
to actually put the arrangement together. Even the process of arranging sounds like an intimidating commitment. How can you even begin, let alone finish? In the context of music creation in a DAW, the arrangement refers to the layout of the parts of your song along a timeline. You may have assembled a rich pool of material, but the actual act of putting that material in some kind of order that unfolds over time is what will eventually turn that material into a finished song.
Getting from "pile of stuff" to "song" is a difficult process, both conceptually and technically. The most common way people approach creating an arrangement is the most obvious one: Gradually fill the empty arrangement with various combinations of the material you've made, moving from left (the beginning) to right (the end). In this workflow, the arrangement timeline is analogous to a blank canvas to which you apply paint until a finished painting appears from what was originally empty, white space.
This process works, of course. But facing emptiness can be scary. Even though you've already put in a considerable amount of time preparing the materials that you plan to use, you now face something that might feel like a reset to zero. Beginnings are hard, and a blank canvas (or empty timeline) can be a difficult mental bridge to cross.
If you're finding that you're stuck at the arranging stage, here's one process that might help: Start by immediately filling your entire arrangement with material, on every track. Spend as little time as possible thinking about this step; the goal right now isn't to try to create a good arrangement. You just want to start with something rather than nothing. It's OK that you don't know how long the song will eventually be. Just fill up an average song's worth of time (or even more) in whatever way is the fastest for your particular DAW—either by copy/pasting blocks of clips over and over again, via a "duplicate" command, or (in some DAWs) by dragging the right edge of clips to extend them.
Perhaps you've already given some thought to how your material will be divided. Maybe you've named certain clips things like "Verse" and "Chorus" so that you can better organize them when arranging. Don't worry about any of that for now. In fact, don't even try to use all of the material you have. Just grab a pile of ideas from each track, and fill the empty space. This process should take no more than about 20 seconds. If you're spending more time than this, it probably means you're trying to make creative decisions. For example, maybe you're thinking "I already know that this chunk of ideas will go before this chunk of ideas, so to save time later, I'll just lay them out in that order now." Resist the temptation to organize anything in this phase, and simply move as fast as possible.
As an example, here's a six-minute arrangement timeline, filled as quickly as possible.
Now that you've filled the timeline, the process of actually making your arrangement into music becomes one of subtraction rather than addition. If the traditional arranging workflow is analogous to painting, the subtractive workflow is analogous to sculpting. You're beginning with a solid block of raw material and then gradually chipping away at it, creating space where there used to be stuff, rather than filling space that used to be empty.
This can be a much more productive way to work for a number of reasons. For example, it's often easier to hear when something is bad than it is to imagine something good. If a particular combination of ideas doesn't make musical sense, you can generally feel this right away, and the steps to fix it may be obvious: Maybe an element is simply too loud, or the bass line clashes with the harmony. Also, because you're listening back to an actual flow of sound over time, you'll probably have an intuitive sense of when a song section has been going on for too long—your own taste will tell you that it's time for a change.
If you're working in a genre in which textural density tends to increase and decrease as the song progresses, you may already have your "thickest" sections of material finished at this point. You may find that you're actually able to work backwards from the end of the song towards the beginning, removing more and more elements as you go back in time.
Bonus tip: Most DAWs provide a way to insert or delete chunks of empty time in the middle of an arrangement. When using this subtractive process, these tools can be extremely helpful. For example, you may have finished editing work on what you originally thought would be two adjacent sections of material but then realized that something else should come in between, or that the first section needs to be twice as long. Inserting time in the middle automatically shifts everything after this point to the right, which is much faster and safer than trying to cut and paste many tracks' worth of material manually. Likewise, maybe you've realized that a section you've been editing is too long. If your DAW has it, use the delete time command to remove the excess material, which will cause everything to the right to automatically shift to the left to fill in the gap.