Audio Week: 5 Creative Exercises for Producers and Composers

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Whether you’re into pop, rock, hip hop, EDM, jazz, or anything other style, every producer or composer finds themselves in a creative rut once in a while. If you’re like me, this may happen quite a lot. Here’s a list of things to try to break the spell that have worked for me, and maybe they’ll work for you, too.

Check Out New Music

This is my number one go-to when I’m in a creative rut and is usually all I need to do to get inspired. I don’t care who you are, if you’re not exposing yourself to new music and new ideas, you’ll eventually hit a creative wall. While this might seem obvious, finding new music that you truly like takes time and effort. But on the other hand, now that we’ve got streaming services like YouTube and Spotify, it’s easier to find new musical inspiration than it ever has been. If you want to take it a step further, take the time to learn how to play some new songs on your instrument of choice. Learning songs is the best way to get inside a songwriter’s head and can help open your eyes to new musical possibilities.

Make Music in a “Strange” Place

Sometimes, working in a new place can give your music a whole new vibe. Case in point: in 1996, Radiohead decided to switch things up from their normal studio routine, and record at St. Catherine's Court, a historic manor house in a secluded valley north of Bath, Somerset, England. The result was “OK Computer,” their seminal 1997 album that continues to inspire legions of listeners more than 20 years later. Of course, you don’t need to rent a mansion to make music in a new, exotic location. With music technology becoming more and more portable every day, it’s easier than ever to work creatively in the wild. My favorite way to do this exercise is by throwing my laptop, headphones, and Audioquest Dragonfly Red DAC in my backpack, heading to Central Park, and finding a bench to park on to work on some music. Personally, I love making music with a piano roll, but there are plenty of great portable MIDI controllers that you can throw in your bag, as well.

Learn Some New Chords or Scales

Working with chords or scales that are new to you is a great way to open your eyes to new musical pathways. If you’re a rock guitarist, learn some jazz chords and try to incorporate some into the next rock progression you write. If you’re an EDM or hip hop producer, learn the Dorian Mode and compose a new melody. There are tons of resources for learning chords and scales online, and also many books you can buy on the subject. Also, some of today’s DAWs have scale and chord banks built in for you to experiment with, which can be very useful for coming up with new ideas.

Solid State Logic Nucleus² 16-Fader DAW Controller with 2-Channel Mic Preamp

Bang Out 5 Basic Ideas in Under 30 Minutes, then Flesh Out the Best One

Sometimes the best creative ideas pop out of you when you’re not trying too hard, and this exercise aims to encourage this kind of a circumstance. The goal here is to churn out a bunch of unrelated ideas quickly, listen to them, and then pick out the very best one to work on further. An “idea,” in this case, can be a chord progression, melody, riff, bass line, drum beat, or other song element that has the potential to be a main driving factor for a song. When I do this exercise, I find that coming up with a musical idea and then quickly moving on to the next idea makes me feel less “attached” to any one particular idea, and I can evaluate them more fairly, and therefore make the best decision on which idea to pursue further.

Switch Up Your Workflow Often

If you’ve got writer’s block, sometimes a fundamental shift in the way you’re working can snap you out of it. This doesn’t necessarily require buying new software or gear, and there’s usually something new you can try with what you’ve got. As for me, I like to switch up my workflow often. For instance, I may start one song by recording a bunch of guitar ideas to a click, then listen back to find ideas I like, comp some loops, and move on to bass and drums. Next time, maybe I’ll start with a drum groove or a synth arpeggio using the FL Studio step sequencer. And then next time, maybe I’ll pull up some stock loops in Ableton Live, trigger them using its unique “Session View,” record the whole thing in the “Arrangement View,” and then go back and listen to pick out some ideas. Learning new workflows is a great way to keep your production skills sharp, and will hopefully open your eyes to new songwriting possibilities in the process.

Ableton Live 10 Suite - Music Production Software

I hope you enjoyed this list of exercises to get your creative juices flowing. What helps you get inspired? Let me know in the Comments section, below. Interested in expanding your knowledge, fine-tuning your workflow, or figuring out what gear to get? Visit B&H’s Audio Week page to read tutorials, comparisons, and buying guides about audio for video, podcasting, live sound, music recording, and more.

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