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How Musicians Can Boost Their Creativity and Cope with the Challenges That it Brings

The creation of innovative new music requires drive, commitment and an abundance of talent. We explore how musicians can boost creativity and overcome the challenges of the creative process.

Last updated: 27 October 2020

Few moments can inspire and excite in music quite like the creation of a great new song or composition – a potent hookline, a haunting motif, an achingly beautiful lyric or an innovative new sound. These are the moments when musicians, songwriters, composers and producers push boundaries, defy their own expectations and take themselves and their music to new creative heights.

Most musicians develop their own patterns and processes for writing but the truth is that even those with enviable back catalogues may hit creative walls at times and fear that their ‘mojo’ has deserted them. At such moments it can be worth reassessing the way that you work, noting how others do it, and trying different approaches. By shining a light on your working methods it may be possible to refine your processes and empower yourself to create even more inspiring and innovative music. 

How to get inspired

Creativity by its very nature is a highly personal and individual process with the imagination, thoughts, emotions and memories of the creators fuelling the idiosyncratic whole. This is abundantly clear when it comes to the first stage in the process – the inspiration.

“There are countless things around us, sights and sounds that can trigger our creativity,” says Craig Stratton of Modulus Quartet, a London-based string ensemble that prides itself on working with contemporary composers and performing new material. “We can be inspired by listening and watching others. Let’s not forget too, that great art, music and literature were created through love and tragedy.”

The possibilities are infinite. A title or feeling alone can spark an entire narrative, as can an overheard phrase, a powerful emotion, sorrow, elation, discontentment or a desire for political change. The key is to be attuned to spotting inspiration and acting upon it. Many simply wait for inspiration to hit. But for working creators this is not an option.

Dedicating time to being creative

“I have long been impressed by the Nick Cave method,” says singer-songwriter and musician Emily Breeze, who also teaches at BIMM in Bristol. “Apparently he has an office with a piano and a typewriter and works on his songs from nine to five as opposed to waiting for the planets to align and a fully formed song to emerge out of a dream. He says, ‘inspiration is a word used by people who aren't really doing anything. I go into my office everyday when I am in Brighton and work whether I feel like it or not is irrelevant’.”

The key is to dedicate yourself to the craft of songwriting or composing, putting in the hours even when you appear to have little to show for it at times. As Breeze notes: “If I turn up and dedicate my time and focus, something will happen and the more frequently I do it, the quicker and richer the results will be,” she says.

Using creativity unlocking techniques

For most songwriters and composers, the simple germ of a good idea is enough to compel them to begin. “Sometimes, I'll wake up with an idea that I have to sing into my iPhone immediately,” says Bishi Bhattacharya, a London-based singer-songwriter, musician, producer, composer and DJ. “Sometimes musical phrases come to me when I'm on the tube. Sometimes, ideas arise from just improvising with instruments & pedals.”

As a teenager, Bishi says she would deconstruct songs, which she says was a great method to unlocking why she loved a piece of music. “I apply the same approach when I study orchestral scores or Indian ragas. I want to experiment with techniques to unlock my creativity more. As I manage myself and run a platform called WITCiH, I am always looking for creative techniques to discard the associated stress with spinning a lot of plates.”

Lyric-led music writing

Songwriting and composing techniques vary wildly of course. Some writers will flesh out a motif, a skeleton chord sequence or a top line melody, by which time a lyrical phrase or theme may have presented themselves. Others, like Emily Breeze, will focus on lyrics first, and these will drive the direction of the song.

“I am a lyric-led writer, so without a theme or a line, a chain of chords carries no meaning,” she says. “I recently wrote a song about Anna Nicole Smith after seeing her wedding photos. A pretty pastel chapel, rows of vacant foldaway chairs and Anna, statuesque in a virginal white orgasm of frothy lace and roses, gazing down fondly on her intended, 89-year-old Texan oil billionaire J Howard Marshall (63 years her senior) in white tux and wheelchair.

“The photo is genuinely beautiful and struck me as the most extreme example of the transactional nature of love. Female anti heroes inspire me and I think she is brilliant, terrible and thrillingly three dimensional.”

Breeze says she enjoyed the voyeuristic research process and summoning words that rhyme “or can be forced to rhyme” with the refrain, “ ‘Oh Anna Nicole’… silicone, centrefold, overdose.”

“This process informed the chords, I wanted something that sounded like a cross between Link Wray’s Rumble and a Bond theme with a strip club beat and a cellophane sheen to the production. Of course it probably sounds like none of these things but I was reaching out and am proud of the results.” 

Just begin creating and explore the process

Having a strong, clear idea from the outset is invaluable when creating new work. But even if the writer only has the sketchiest of ideas – just a phrase, a motif or two chords – the general advice is to just start and not to worry if some of it sounds terrible at first. This is all part of the creative process. Don’t be tempted to start editing or seek perfection as you go along, but explore and exploit your thought processes as fully as possible.

The problems arise of course when inspiration fails to appear in the first place or if find yourself unable to start of finish a composition. In such situations the general advice is to step away and try something entirely different.

Meet and work with other musicians

“I would advise any musician who feels that they are stuck creatively to meet with other artists, to listen to music, to read, and of course to practice, even if it’s just technical work,” says Craig Stratton of Modulus Quartet. “There’s nothing like a social gathering to inspire creativity and you certainly don’t need the instruments to generate artistic ideas.”

It’s a view echoed by Bishi Bhattacharya. “I would encourage musicians to spend a lot of time exploring their interests & strengths, safe in the knowledge that these are ever-expanding. I'd encourage people to try writing different styles & experiment in the writing process with other people, where you can combine your strengths. When you are on the same wavelength, only good things will develop.”

Sustain wellbeing and a healthy lifestyle

As senior business lecturer at BIMM in London, Andrew Armour is accustomed to coaching students on productivity, self-management, challenge, creativity and happiness. He believes that creators must take a broader approach, making changes to their lifestyles and wellbeing in order to flourish creatively.

“Creative and talented people will have high drive and will put pressure on themselves. We often talk about 'flow', that feeling of almost timeless focus and dedication that people get when they are 'in the zone'.

“To some people this drive can appear unreasonable and even obsessive, and that puts a lot of self pressure on talented people themselves and on their friends and family. Recognising this and learning how to balance that kind of drive, is something all creatives have to deal with.”

Celebrate small wins in the creation process

Armour advises creators to take a more positive approach by focusing on the present and the small step-by-step achievements rather than the epic long-term goals. “Being resilient means focusing on the small gains, the small wins, the steps towards where you want to go,” he says.

He also advises creators to make slight changes to their systems and habits. “Manage yourself and be autonomous, as that is incredibly positive. What would you say to a friend? Maybe a change of routine? What do you need to stop doing? What can you start doing? What do you need to do more of?  Do you need to work more with others or do you need time to focus on something technical?”

Exercise curiosity to keep the focus

Armour advises musicians to keep mentally fit too, by exercising “that curiosity muscle”, perhaps looking at areas of interest outside the creative industries such as history, science or cooking.

By focusing on something else, musicians, songwriters, composers and producers will feel refreshed when they return to their work, he says. And when it comes to starting work, there is one technique that can reap real creative dividends he says.

“As a practical behaviour, I have seen that the Pomodoro technique is very effective, both in terms of reducing stress and simply getting things done when it comes to music students or creative people. It simply requires working very intensely, in short bursts of 20-30 minutes, then stopping, then starting again. It builds a freshness and a focus.” 

Accept the frustrations of creative work

Armour says that most creative people always feel there are more challenges, fresh projects and bigger stages to perform on. This inevitably brings frustration and stress. One important lesson all creatives must learn is to “be kind on themselves” he says, “Avoid 'regretting the past' or too much 'wishing about the future'.

“Recognising that everyone gets stuck and accepting that most creative work can be frustrating at times is a good and decent place to start. It is okay to feel like that and then move on. Everyone has to find their own way to build what suits them and take care to build what is important for you, and your work.”

Let us know how you're keeping creative

What are you doing to stay creative and keep your momentum going? Let us know on twitter.