Ever since I embarked on my career as a musician and producer, I set off to find the formula or science behind what makes some songs better than others. I studied jazz, music theory and music production. I learned to play multiple instruments and analyzed all of my favorite songs.
I produced hundreds of songs in different genres and wrote a significant amount myself and after looking at the process from every possible angle, I reached the conclusion that musical knowledge and technique are simply tools which help us carry out our vision while the real magic ingredient is actually: inspiration.
When inspiration strikes everything falls in to place. Suddenly a new song is playing in your head and if the conditions are right you find yourself listening to a great demo within a couple hours not being able to wrap your head around how it all happened so fast. The problem with inspiration is that you can't really force it to come and even when its finally there, staying inspired can be very difficult and frustrating.
So where does inspiration come from?
The main thing I've come to realize is that inspiration is not a random moment where the universe is calling out to you. It's actually more like a small tree that's slowly growing in your subconscious until its branches reach your conscious mind, offering its fruits when they're ready to be picked.
With that realization I started thinking more like a farmer, keeping my subconscious fertile and seeding it with the right type of seeds and though it requires patience, I highly recommend trying some of these exercises the next time you're feeling blocked:
Listen to something new
Listening to something you've never heard before is a great way to get your creative juices flowing and there are many ways to find new music. Follow your favorite record labels, find out who produced your favorite albums and see what else they produced, look for side projects of your favorite artists and if none of that works you can always try the "start radio" button on Spotify while listening to your favorite artists.
Go to the movies
The cinema is also a great place to get inspired for many reasons such as state of the art sound systems, a great sounding room and most important: it's a distraction free zone which allows you to really focus on the soundtrack. Good films combine visual, sonic and lingual arts and are guaranteed to keep your artistic mind stimulated on all fronts.
If you're a songwriter a well phrased sentence or idea might be all that it takes to start up your next song - and what other place to find that than in a good book.
With a little help from your friends
It's very easy for artists to get caught in their own bubble, slowly loosing perspective on things and ending up feeling extremely bored. Having a good conversion with a friend and reflecting on it can really help to put things in a new perspective and you'll probably get some music, film and book recommendations from them as well.
If you're lucky, inspiration can strike you right after you've done one of the above, but in most cases your subconscious needs time to digest everything you put in to it. Remember that your subconscious is always at work (even when you're asleep) and even if it seems like nothing is happening, sooner or later the first buds will start to surface.
In the meanwhile - explore your instrument and try other ones
Messing around on your instrument and finding interesting chord progressions is a great way to get inspired but at some point you might feel a bit bored with your main instrument. Playing certain chords shapes might limit your fingers from going to places they usually don't go - which is where the magic happens. See if you can find another way to play a "boring" chord progression, tune your instrument in a different way, experiment with effects and if you're able to, try playing your idea on a different instrument - who knows where that instrument will take you.
Don't force it
I also find that forcing things only creates frustration and the best thing to do is to just leave everything altogether and go for a walk, clean the house, fix something that needs fixing or basically anything else that will give your mind some rest.
3. Keep the momentum going
When you're finally feeling inspired it's important to get as much as you can out of it before it goes away. Focus on the big picture and keep it as simple as possible while resisting the urge to fine tune every subtlety that comes to mind.
Foundation is everything
With so many virtual instruments available today its very tempting to start adding layers of strings, brass, synths etc before the basics are finished. Ask yourself What is the song about? What are you trying to express with this song? What is the basic melody? What are the basic chords that accompany that melody? Which octave are either of these on? What is the beat and tempo of the song? Which key is the song in? Are you comfortable singing in that key/ tempo? There will be plenty of time to add a complete orchestra and tom fills after you've got the foundation done.
Remember what the initial inspiration for the song was
Even with a great foundation it's very common to encounter obstacles along the way as the song starts to take shape. Remember what was it exactly that inspired you to begin with (a record, a movie, a conversation, an idea etc) and come back to it whenever you're having problems taking your song to the next step.
Taking breaks while working on a song and letting your mind rest is crucial for staying inspired and if you find yourself loosing interest in something that was initially exciting it might be that you've overworked yourself and lost perspective of the big picture. Taking a break will help you gain some energy while your subconscious keeps working on the song. And just as it happens with inspiration you can never tell when the solution you've been waiting for will present itself.
Collaborate and get some fresh perspective
If you've done everything you could with your song but it still isn't there, a possible solution would be to collaborate with another artist who is able to bring their own interpretation to the song. This will also help you see things you haven't noticed and take the song to places you've never imagined.