A grain of sand…

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Sometimes you get an idea for a piece and then you begin to write with absolutely no problems. You’re on fire and the music flows from you like images from the end of Walt Disney’s animated paint brush. Sometimes the ideas may be there, but it’s an uphill slog every step of the way, each measure bought by blood sweat. For what it’s worth, that’s how it usually is. But, other times, you may need/want to write a piece but you have absolutely no ideas. Those times can be problematic. There are some ways to deal with drawing a blank.

  • One way┬áis to create just a rhythm without regard to any pitches. This often gives rise to highly energetic, motivic music. Use the rhythmic motive as a vehicle to explore chord changes or key changes.
  • Often composers will devise a series of pitches without regard to rhythm and then explore different rhythmic treatments of that. I’ve never seen the evidence myself, but I remember hearing that Beethoven did this. Apparently, his sketchbooks show him experimenting: sometimes applying different key signatures to the same basic note names, sometimes changing the clef but keeping the general intervals intact (this changes the mode of the melody), sometimes giving different rhythmic values to a given series of pitches.
  • Another way is to take words–and this can be prose or poetry, prose or free verse often seems to work best because of its irregular rhythm–and use the natural rhythm of the words to suggest melodies and the syntax of the sentences to suggest phrase structure.
  • You might create some sort of game with dice or a spinner (Mozart did this!) to come up with rhythms, or a series of pitches, or content of a section, or the length of a section…any aspect of music. The key to this technique is to not be in thrall to it! Feel free to abandon any detail of what you’ve come up with. This is approach is just to serve as a prompt. It should not be cast in concrete.
  • Sometimes it will be just a chord progression that is created first. This is a somewhat dangerous approach because it lends itself to predictable harmonic rhythm, especially the kind that changes on every measure’s downbeat. So use this carefully, trying to pay attention to creating a not-too-predictable harmonic rhythm.
  • The common thread in all these examples is that one aspect of music was isolated and an idea was generated for only that one aspect. Trying to think of too much at once can sometimes stall getting started.
  • After you’ve created your “grain of sand,” then you start applying other aspect ideas to it, just as an oyster overlays organic material. If you had a purely melodic “grain of sand,” try overlaying different rhythms. If your “grain of sand” was a rhythm, try pouring different pitch sequences into it. On and on…it’s just working with the materials, one aspect at a time.

By the way, this technique can be applied to everyday writing. You don’t need to save it for when you’re completely bereft of ideas.