Limitations vs creative direction

It can be difficult to find inspiration in the face of unlimited options. How do you pick a kick drum when you have a thousand to choose from (and are often told to layer a combination of kick drums)? How do you start writing a bassline when you can start in any key, and use any scale or mode? How do you choose what’s right for your song when you can have every sound from acoustic guitars to full orchestras at the click of a mouse?

Modern technology is great because it gives us so many options and possibilities for creating music. Without a disciplined approach, however, it’s easy to become paralysed by indecision – spending hours trying out sounds or experimenting with different grooves instead of making progress towards a completed piece of music.

An often-suggested solution to this paralysis is to impose limitations. This might be to write a song using a particular scale or mode, or to force yourself to only use a certain type of instrument, or to write a song within a certain time period. These are often good starting points to get quickly yourself out of a rut.

These types of limitations can, however, feel unsatisfying. This is because these approaches create a workflow that is defined by what it doesn’t include – it still doesn’t provide much in the way of direction. For example, giving yourself a limitation of only using a guitar as your sound source doesn’t give you any direction of what to do with the guitar. It’s still the same problem as before.

An alternative approach is to think about creative direction. Rather than defining a project by what CAN’T be done, instead define it by what WILL  be done. Instead of providing boundaries, this approach provides focus. This works best if the creative direction you set is independent of tools or composition techniques. Don’t think in terms of what gear you use or which notes you play. Instead, think about colour, texture, pace, etc. Even better, think one level higher – vibe, attitude, mood.

For example, you might begin a project where the focus is on creating “dirty electro rock”. This doesn’t limit the composition techniques or tools you use – you can use whatever you have at your disposal, so long as you use it in a way that evokes “dirty electro rock” for you. It could be anything from pure synths to mangled samples to live drums and guitars.

Another advantage of this approach is that a larger-scale project (such as an EP or album) will have a consistency and identity that makes sense to a regular listener. Non-geeks wouldn’t know or care if an album was only made with softsynths or hardware. Ten songs with the same guitar could be as diverse as ten different genres. On the other hand, a collection of tracks all with the same higher-level focus will sound as though they belong together – even if the instruments change, the harmonies change, or the musicians change. This focus, combined with your own idiosyncrasies will form the sonic identity of the project. The stronger and better-defined the focus is, the more coherent the music will be.

You don’t need limits. You need focus.


(Inspired by this post)

    • Rich H
    • September 29th, 2009

    Right…focus! focus!

    While we’re at it…I need motivation too. Can you write the next blog on where to find that? It’s been missing for a while now.

    Thanks Kim :)

    • Michael
    • October 1st, 2009

    Kim, thank you for taking the time to post these ingenious articles! You are appreciated.


    • Deus
    • October 8th, 2009

    This post is right on point!!

    I too have suffered this :S

    • Cristina
    • November 14th, 2009

    Extremely useful! Thanks Kim.

  1. Great advice man, thanks

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