Breaking Familiar Patterns


One of the most crucial techniques in making music, or any creative field is finding fresh inspiration and avoiding blocks. It’s the all-too familiar situation of sitting at a piano, picking up the guitar, or opening your favorite soft synth and reaching for the same chords and melodies. Things sound tired and don’t reach that important “clicking” point where the ideas snap together and form something new and exciting. So how do you avoid this creative rut?

This first step is to identify your familiar patterns and even superstitions lurking in your creative process. I used to make mixes at 129 BPM, and used the same outboard reverb for 10 years, for stupid reasons not grounded in reality. If you’ve got a strange work process with no clear rationale, identify it and get rid of it. If you reach for the same chords and scales and they sound boring and tired – take note of what they are, and where you hands reach first on the instrument. Often times we reach towards chords and scales that are physically easier to play, which can limit our creativity. If you get stuck with an 8 bar loop, there are simple ways to escape this.

Here are several ways to escape physical limitations, old habits, and stubborn muscle memory. These are some of the best ways to inject some inspiration into your creative process:

Change your core writing instrument: If you normally write with a soft synth or piano plugin, try a real guitar. The physical limitations will push you towards different keys, chords, and melodies.

Modify your chords: modulate your chord with a 7th scale degree from the bass. Make your chords more interesting than basic triads (root note, 2nd degree, 3rd degree) and your progression will be more inspiring

Transpose Key: Change from a familiar easy key to something more exotic and difficult to physically play. This is especially useful for taking a progression you like and transposing for a vocalist’s range or bass power notes like G and F. Use a capo on guitar, or realtime MIDI effects in your DAW. Also try restricting your key to narrow down choices – you can use this with MIDI scale FX or Auto Tune.

Change the tempo: try starting with a slower tempo than usual, which makes playing manual arpeggios much easier, and speed it back up if needed. Try and faster tempo if you’re used to something slow. 100 BPM is the tempo of indifference and most natural to the brain’s sense of timing.

Change your treatments: try adding rhythmic effects with LFO Tool, turn on a longer portamento or glide, shorten or extend your notes, and try automating new parameters.

Swap your sample packs and patches: This is probably the cheapest and most effective change. Buy some fresh soundbanks and get rid of that stale drum kit in your template.

Rebuild your template: Start your template from scratch, as “living” templates can become too complicated, and as workflow habits change.

Break out of the loop: If you’re stuck in an 8 bar loop, mute elements, chop out chunks,  shorten the loop length (try 2 or 4 bars), try soloing different combinations of tracks, and move a few elements into test arrangements. Experiment with the Rule of Three.

Change your schedule: It’s good to build a consistent writing system, but try changing it up. Start your morning earlier and see what happens. This can be surprisingly effective, even changing your schedule by only one hour.

Embrace collaboration: work with a new partner in-person for the first time to spark new ideas and work processes.

Collect seeds: Instead of doing everything from scratch, compile a list of idea starters over time. Lyric phrases and themes, short melodies and chord progressions. Eventually you’ll build up a collection that will spark new ideas

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