Every few years I make an effort to return to the “lost” basics. Things I’ve glossed over in manuals, music theory that was dry and boring, and simple techniques I’ve simply overlooked. It’s amazing how much we can miss. Sometimes it’s the presentation of the material – like a cryptic manual written for academics, and sometimes I blame my own impatience, trying to run before I can walk. In most situations, it’s very easy to overcomplicate things and become your own worst enemy – stacking plugins and using advanced techniques that could be remedied by starting with a better foundation that provides more effective creative momentum.
How do you beat writer’s block? Creative staging. Many artists get stuck in a sub-stage of the creative process that derails their progress, but if you separate and understand each specific stage, knocking down each one before progressing to the next – you can beat writer’s block before it happens.
Creative staging: CEASR
Understanding the creative universals that cross between all artistic professions: producer, designer, chef, or architect can make a major difference to your process. How do we approach our “art” and why do we get stuck? Most of the time we get stuck in a single stage of the process, rather than fluidly gliding into the next phase, or we skip ahead without properly completing each phase. Creative flow is tightly bound to the sequence of creative phases and how they steer you along the path. Let’s look at a useful acronym I put together that neatly organizes these stages: CEASR. Collect, Experiment, Arrange, Subtract, Refine.
Writer’s block can often be caused by incomplete palettes – where an artist hasn’t done enough research, gathered enough sources, collected enough sounds, or assembled enough ingredients – depending on their profession. This stage is crucial for building that initial momentum. With music production, this is the prep work that needs to be done: building templates, creating palettes of sound, making sure everything is named, tagged, keyed, and color-coded correctly, grouping instruments, labeling tracks. This is where it pays to be organized, building banks of preset favorites instead of scrolling through useless sounds you never use. It’s important to have a diverse set of sounds and raw materials to work from, so you can forge unexpected combinations. For songwriters, it can help to start with a list of key phrases or titles that will spark lyric ideas.
Once everything is collected and ready, it’s time to experiment. It’s basically throwing paint on the wall, and seeing what sticks. This stage is all about trial and error, making mistakes, building creative connections, and working till you reach a “clicking point.” It’s about avoiding snap judgements, and embodying an emotional state. Using your gut instead of logic. It’s often frustrating, but eventually you reach the clicking point and it’s time to consolidate and arrange your ideas. Try to stay within a defined loop like 4 or 8 bars, so you can really find the strongest chord progressions and lead ideas. For vocalists, this is where you’ll often mumble ideas from your subconscious into melodic placeholders that turn into full lyrical ideas. Stack your ideas until it sounds full, then arrange.
Take your ideas and consolidate them into sections. Most people create A, B, and C sections. A is the verse, B is the chorus, and C is the bridge or alternate section. There are lots of variations on this, so just use this as a general guideline. Use the arrangement stage to lay out your ideas for maximum impact. Try “folding” the chords in the verses, and let them unfold in the chorus. Try moving the chord order around in the bridge to create a refreshing departure, then return to the chorus one last time. Let each section serve it’s purpose – let the build be the build, let the verse build tension and interest into the payoff of the chorus, and let the chorus provide the main impact.
Now that you have a full arrangement, what can you remove? My favorite quote is “a song is done when nothing else can be removed.” Try muting and solo’ing combinations of tracks and see what you miss. You’ll often find lots of redundant tracks competing for bandwidth and taking up energy in the track. Isolate small sections so drum fills really shine and verse to chorus sections have more impact. Strip verses down to the essentials – using less chords, less notes, and less backing vocals. If you really miss something, add it back in. Just remember that contrast is everything.