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Sounding Off

Beating The Block

Article from Sound On Sound, August 1991

Rowland Jones on how to beat writer's block when composing.

Why is it that a large percentage of records in the charts are covers? Are people in the 90s incapable of writing songs? Obviously not if Brenda Russell's 'Get Here' is anything to go by. I have a suspicion that technology has to take some of the blame for the situation. Let me explain.

In my last two (roughly annual) contributions to Sounding Off I've tried to point out the dangers of Technolust (definition: hoping that newer and better equipment will bring satisfaction and success), and also the pleasures of composing songs, particularly with other musicians, rather than building incomplete ideas into apparently complete arrangements using state of the art technology. This second point is one of the reasons for 'coverglut' — musicians who have grown up writing 'grooves' and 'feels' then find that these rhythmic elements are even more effective when combined with a song which is properly constructed and has a form of its own. And those people who have recognised this and write songs, rather than simply grooves, will I suspect produce the best material. Isn't Lisa Stansfield's 'Been Around The World' more satisfying (and memorable) than 'Pump Up The Volume'? Well, I think so!

So why not give it a try? Resist the temptation to get stuck into multi-timbral excesses and drum machine frenzy as soon as you have two or three chords that work together: use your beloved equipment to write a song and then arrange it, rather than end up with another nearly great idea.

Just to prove that I'm not a musical Luddite (I think I was actually named after the patron saint of Technolust, St.Ro(w)land!) I'd like to suggest a few ways in which I've used the technology to clear a 'block'. Let's face it — it's not always easy to come up with good ideas, let alone earth-shattering ones, so try these ideas and see if they help.

Adopt a new style. If everything you do falls in to a certain musical category, then try something completely different. Hooked on House? Re-assess Reggae! Maniac for metal? Imitate some Indie!

Now one thing you may need to do is listen to some music. I don't mean have it playing in the background or in the car, but actually listen carefully to a song and look for what makes it sound the way it does. You may find that when you've listened, analysed, and re-created a style, you may find that you're not very keen on the end result — even though you've accurately reproduced it. If this is the case, then try and extract the essence of the style and turn it into something that you do like; the Police did it with Reggae. So use the feel as inspiration, and remember that there are no hard and fast rules.

Imitate your favourite track. I'm not suggesting that you steal the idea Lock, Stock and Waterman — just try to re-create the feel which makes the song so good! Take one of my all-time faves 'Slave To The Rhythm' which has a kick drum and bass line locked so tightly that they're nearly the same instrument.

You could take that feel and use it as the basis of an idea, and then when you have completed your song, erase the rhythm from your sequencer and build the arrangement up from the song that remains. You might even find that you can change the tempo to create something completely different — it doesn't matter as long as the process gets your creative juices going.

Start from a different point. I would suspect that many writers tend to start from the same point each time they sit down to write, and that the starting point — bass line, piano chords or whatever — is probably determined by their first instrument. So try something different: play a chord, pick your starting note for the melody, and write the melody with the chords to support it. Work your way through the song like one of those writers in an old black and white movie who has nothing to help him but a pretty girl, a grand piano, and a pot of Brylcream. Or if that's a bit ambitious, try writing the melody first, and then adding the chords. Or even writing the words first, and develop the melody and chords from this starting point. Get the idea? One final thought: have you ever written in a time signature other than 4/4? And if not, why not?

Use a new sound. This doesn't mean rushing out to spend the next three month's mortgage repayments on another expander. No, I mean go through the sounds at your disposal and find one you've never used. Don't lie to me — there's at least one, if not dozens. Play around with it. Does the 'cello' sound good as a bass; you mean you've never used the pizzi strings on your D110!? Do it! Trust me, I'm a doctor.

Use a non-musical approach. OK, we may now be running into a controversial area. Start by writing a 4 bar phrase into your sequencer, then try a few of these ideas:

Use a triplet quantise.
Reverse the notes in the middle two bars.
Change the time signature.

The more sophisticated your sequencer, the further you can go with this approach. And if you don't have a sequencer then try doing something with your multitrack or portastudio: record a very simple bass line, then turn the tape over and see what happens. The purpose of this exercise is to create something new and interesting. Personally I don't think it matters where that germ of an idea comes from, because once you've got something, you have to develop it, so I won't put up with any of those "computers writing music" arguments.

Re-visiting old ideas. Now let's be honest: we've all got hundreds of unfinished idea on cassette, floppy disk, or whatever. The 'riff cupboard' as a friend of mine called it. And what do we do with them? Nothing. So be bold — pull out a few and either finish them off or throw them away. Look at it this way: if the idea is worth keeping, then use it; and if it's not, then why are you keeping it? So be brutal, call up the file, dig out the cassette, listen for the good bits, and bin the rest.

So there it is. The Gospel according to St. Ro(w)land? Not at all. Just a few ideas that you might find interesting, and which might make you think a little more about actually writing music. I have to admit that I do feel that every now and then it is time to remind ourselves (myself included) that all this technology is to do with making music, not just knob collection. See you in 1992.

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Publisher: Sound On Sound - SOS Publications Ltd.
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Sound On Sound - Aug 1991

Opinion by Rowland Jones

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