How to start _actually_ making music?
November 10, 2020 7:40 AM   Subscribe

I am a perfectly adequate musician--I've played guitar for 20+ years, bass for maybe 7, have dabbled in electronic music production, and have been teaching myself piano during lockdown. I have a fine ear. However, I never actually do much more than plonk along with my favorite recordings--I never write a complete song or record anything. If you've been like me, how did you pivot to doing more?

I have all the gear I could ever need. I have Ableton (Suite, no less!). While I frequently record short passages that could be something, I never actually turn them into anything.

I'd be happy if I even recorded just a cover of the songs I play along with (almost daily), but I never get around to doing that either.

If you've been like me, how have you gotten off your musical ass and actually accomplished something? I don't currently have a band or many musical friends, and I'm not currently taking lessons (my self taught piano only goes so far, and I could use help with Ableton0--though that's certainly something I would consider once lockdown ends.

posted by Admiral Haddock to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
1) Commit to finishing something! You know the format! Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse, chorus. It doesn't have to be good. Don't let it stop you. Make a whole bad song! Then, identify what you don't like about it. But more importantly look for whatever gem in it you DID.

2) Don't feel inspired? Write it anyway. Use ice cream chords. Don't know what to write about? Find a writing prompt online. Or use nonsense words.

3) Collaborate! Harder to do in these covid times but it's still possible. Offer guitar or piano on a track for a friend! You say you don't have many musical friends. But that means you have some...

4) Rewrite an existing song. Take the chords or lyrics from a song you like and rewrite it for practice.

I was 16 when I first started writing songs. They were terrible and I was prolific. I was so excited just to do it! Then I improved and I wrote some songs that friends thought were good. Man that has slowed me down. Because you gotta be bad to get good.
posted by pazazygeek at 7:59 AM on November 10, 2020 [2 favorites]

As someone who has basically a 20-year gap in being any kind of active musician (said 20 years spent being even less focused & active than you are) - it was definitely easier to create & finish stuff when i was younger and had lots more time on my hands. A lot of stuff I made back then was done because I had hours and hours to just repetitively noodle around and casually let things sort of percolate - if I spent 2 hours toying with the same tune and only added one line in the verse, I considered that time well spent.

So I feel ya - cranking things up to the next level while adulting can be tough.

What kickstarted my current activity was joining a band; which I know you're not in a position to do at the moment BUT part of what being in a band does is set aside 1-2 hours a week when making music is all I'm doing. Maybe consider setting aside definite specific regular time every week when you're intentionally working on a project - finishing a song, building a recording, put those short passages on repeat and play around to see if you can come up with additional parts or the next section so on and so forth.
posted by soundguy99 at 8:18 AM on November 10, 2020 [3 favorites]

A great technique to completing songs is to consider song form. Some common forms are:

Ternary Form (A-B-A) - Probably the most used musical form, you start out with a Main Idea (a melody/chord progression/motif etc.) - figure 32 bars to start. Then you have a contrasting section for 32 bars, and then return back to A section for 32 bars. This will get you to a song over 3 minutes in length at 120bpm.

Ternary Form with Intro Outro (I-A-B-A-O) - Same as above with 8 Bar intro and 16 bar outro

Song Form (I-A-B-A-B-C-B-O) - This is the typical form used for Pop music. Intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, outro.

When you write, try to stick to one of these basic song forms and stay with one song at a time until it's done. The length of each section can certainly vary, but it generally sounds more "even" to write in groups of multiple of 8 bars per section. With practice, it will get much easier to write songs to completion.

Good luck!
posted by FireStyle at 8:29 AM on November 10, 2020 [4 favorites]

Find an audience — which, at first, might just be finding people to play with, or even just practicing where your housemates can hear. You will feel motivated to make art when there are people in the world who you can connect with by making art.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:31 AM on November 10, 2020 [3 favorites]

A few things to get your internal monologue out of the way and not worry about why you’re doing a particular thing or what it means:

- Take some attributes of existing songs, like structure, or chord progression, or lyrics, and use that as a backbone for a new song. In general, removing degrees of freedom like this is a great creative kickstart.
- Commit to executing a really stupid idea very well. Once you’ve already decided that the thing you’re doing is silly, it opens your mind to a lot of creative avenues that you might be worried about following if you were trying to make something Serious.
- Hate create. You ever hear a song that’s up your alley on paper, but you hear it and they just did it wrong, those idiots, and you could totally do the thing better? Do that! Rage is incredibly motivating.

Basically all of these are designed to get you to jump in with an intuitive process without needing a lot of planning or thought beforehand, because making things becomes self-sustaining if you’re doing it regularly.
posted by invitapriore at 8:53 AM on November 10, 2020 [7 favorites]

Lots of good suggestions here in terms of the process of crafting a complete form, but I think this is really important to say --

If you're planning on doing this 100% on your own, and not joining a band or collaborating, be sure your expectations are realistic. Either a) you're not going to get stuff to a point of total polished completion, or b) you're going to spend an absolutely insane amount of time per finished track. I really do not believe there's any in between, unless you happen to be 100% singer/songwriter-ey, and you can just record the guitar part, record the vocal part, eq a bit, and release.

Since it doesn't sound like you'll be doing that, just don't expect to be putting out music very quickly. There's a reason almost no one releases more than one album per year, and it's not fully to do w/ the business side. Even with support, it takes a LOT of time to finish something.

For comparison, I have songs that I have probably spent over 100 hours apiece on that are just approaching completion now. Yes, that is insane, and yes, the music is relatively complex, but still. This shit takes time.
posted by nosila at 9:20 AM on November 10, 2020 [2 favorites]

If recording a cover would be enough, just do that. There’s not much planning or effort involved there; just hit record and play. Put it in your calendar that on [day] at [time], you’re going to record the lead guitar part of [song]. Then the next day record the bass. Etc. For me, that would get the proverbial ball rolling and I could probably keep it going. If that’s not enough for you, book time on your calendar for writing too. This is the classic prose writer’s trick; you just sit down and write for however many hours you’ve blocked. The hard part is getting started, and you’ve gotta commit to that.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:33 AM on November 10, 2020 [3 favorites]

Jeff Tweedy of Wilco just published How to Write One Song, which should be a good start on the "writing a song" piece of what you're doing.
posted by Special Agent Dale Cooper at 10:48 AM on November 10, 2020 [2 favorites]

Agree with the comments above about taking other songs that you like as models. I've learned a lot by doing this. One of my earliest original songs was modeled structurally on a song by someone else. Having that structure gave me the confidence that my song was "valid"... and then made me feel free to try all kinds of innovations. The end result is great, but sounds almost nothing like the song I used as my model.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 11:39 AM on November 10, 2020

I absolutely feel this; I've been in (and currently am in) this rut.

One thing that helped: I did a sort of musical version of NaNoWriMo a couple of years back - I set myself the goal of recording (and, crucially, uploading and sharing) something - (almost) anything - every day for a month. I didn't set myself any constraints regarding length/complexity/quality/completeness, other than that I actually had to have tried (i.e., I couldn't just record myself strumming a single chord just to say I'd done something). A lot of really interesting stuff came out of it, and a couple of things I later built on to become some of my favourite recordings.

I should probably do it again.
posted by parm at 12:58 PM on November 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

Oh! And the other thing about the month project is that I learned a lot about the gear and software I had (in a similar position to you - have a bunch of instruments and things acquired over a couple of decades - and Ableton Suite, too!) because I was being forced to use it for an end, not just for messing about.
posted by parm at 1:03 PM on November 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

Further to what Artifice_Eternity wrote, sometimes I find it helpful to 'copy' whole albums, especially records that I'm really familiar with. It's a great writing exercise that might start off as a bunch of pastiches but then often finds its own path. Doing things _quickly_ is also a favourite method - I've posted tracks on music that took practically as long to record as they do to listen to, usually electronic noodles. You just have to accept that if you ever want to play the track again you're essentially going to have to cover your own song.
posted by srednivashtar at 1:54 PM on November 10, 2020

Lately, I've been more honest with myself about how I work, what I can do, and what I can't do as well. I've realized that I'm always going to be sporadic about actually writing my own songs, but that I am pretty good at listening carefully to other people's song ideas and helping flesh them out. I have a longtime friend that comes up with lots of good songs, but isn't as good at the home recording/fiddling around with lots of instruments thing. Since we complement each other well, I'm realizing how important it is for me to keep up my working closely with him.

If you can find even just one other person to collaborate with, where your level is close to equivalent, and your skills complement each other, then it can really flow.
posted by umbú at 2:04 PM on November 10, 2020

1) Breakups (because you need to), 2) deadlines (because you have to. Promise you’ll do something for someone *else* especially [eg a collaboration, a gig] and boom there’s the motivation). Midlife crisis on its own, necessary but insufficient
posted by cotton dress sock at 2:56 PM on November 10, 2020

Yeah, deadlines. Make sure you’re on the hook to write something by a certain time. Literally the only time I’ve been able to finish any music is if there’s a due date. Some places out there on the internet do regular themed prompts that can be helpful (including here on MeFi Music, at least at some point).
posted by en forme de poire at 5:43 PM on November 10, 2020

Join a timed challenge! Deadlines and an encouraging community will do wonders.

There are a couple NaNoWriMo-like challenges you could jump into a little late right now—NaSolAlMo (national solo album month) comes to mind, and Novembeat, in which you aim to make and post a little music every day.

The biggest one I know of is in February—FAWM, or February Album Writing Month, 14 songs in 28 days. The quality and production can be anything you are satisfied with—just humming into a mic, or some lyrics—up to full productions. People listen to and comment on each others’ songs, and there are a lot of fun games and challenges to spark creativity.

The RPM Challenge is in February as well, but I think is more recording-focused rather than writing-focused.

50/90 is a sister challenge to FAWM—write 50 songs in 90 days. That runs over the summer and has a similar (but much less active) community to FAWM.

Songfight runs all year—a title and optional technical challenge are posted and players have a week or two to write and record a song with that title. People can then listen to them all and vote for a winner. There’s a forum with reviews and (often brutal) feedback.

/r/gameofbands is a subreddit where you get assigned a team of collaborators (you can sign up for vocals, lyrics, or music) and work together to write a song to meet the assigned challenge.

There are many more out there!

(Sorry for not linking, I’m on mobile right now—will edit to add links to each later if I remember)
posted by music for skeletons at 9:24 PM on November 10, 2020 [2 favorites]

Playing music with others is what got me on the path to being a working musician and still pushes me now. I don't tend to do a whole lot on my own anymore, but if I know I have to get something together so I can avoid wasting my colleagues' time, it's really helpful. Collaboration can be very motivating if you can find people you can handle playing with. And you don't need do it with kindred spirits or anything. Great if you can, but definitely not required. I've had some great fun playing music with people I didn't like much.

Not sure if you're interested in live performance, but starting to play for an audience increased my level of accomplishment quickly and dramatically. It was extremely nerve wracking at first, but the terror was worth it and people don't notice your nerves if you love your music.
posted by mewsic at 12:07 AM on November 11, 2020

Different approach -- it works for me for rock, don't know that it translates to every genre. But if something hasn't already popped into my head, I'll fire up a plugin. Not a subtle plugin, either -- like Valhalla Shimmer (or Super Massive or Space Modulator), or NoiseAsh's Action Delay. Usually something with creative reverb and/or delay and maybe some modulation on it, chorus or flange or phase or whatever. Depending on the plugin, sometimes an amp simulator will work too, like the Neural DSP ones. Fire through some presets until something sounds awesome. Then just start noodlin'. You'll likely start playing differently, reacting to the plug. Without something like that, I just like to play chords, in succession, but with, I'll play lead lines too, sometimes riffs.

Now you've got something -- a lead line or riff, or a progression -- and it'll feel like either a verse or a chorus or an intro. See if you don't keep playing around, trying to figure out what the next part is.
posted by troywestfield at 7:40 AM on November 11, 2020

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