8 Creativity Hacks: How to Start Your Song in an Empty DAW

8 Creativity Hacks: How to Start Your Song in an Empty DAW

OCTOBER 13th, 2017


“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it – they just saw something. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.” – Steve Jobs


How many times have you sat down at your computer with the intention of producing a track – only to be intimidated and hindered by the blank DAW staring back at your face?

Creative road blocks in the beginning stages of the production process are a very real hurdle – something I consider super close to my heart (in that I hate a blank DAW just as much as anyone else).

For this reason, I decided to develop several go-to methods for starting songs from scratch. I wanted to be able to sit down and create music without feeling like I was forcing the music out of me. I wanted to have a creative process that not only made starting new projects fun, but also made it easy.

I’m about to go deep into my creative process and share some of my favorite creativity hacks, as well as provide fleshed out examples of all the techniques shown.

3 pillars of a song…

Before we dive into these creativity hacks, I wanted to explain the foundation of my songwriting process. In order to create a successful song, we need three main components working together cohesively:

  • Melody

  • Drums/Percussion

  • Harmony/Chord Progression

These three elements are the pillars of the track. At any given instance in a production, one of these three pillars is the main focal point. For 99% of the songs I write, the pillars have to work together and not fight with one another in order for the song to be successful.

Each pillar can be used to start a song. The end result is often very different depending on which pillar I choose to be the main focal point. I think it’s important to establish the benefits, drawbacks, and level of ease for starting a song based off of each of the three pillars.

Melody

Melody is natural place to start a song – in fact, in most of the songs you know and love, the melody is the defining characteristic that keeps the song stuck in your head. We’re defining melody as any sort of hook – this means it can be the bassline, the lead synth, the vocal melody…really any part you sing back to people when identifying a song.

For this reason, starting a track from a melody can be extremely beneficial in creating a memorable song. The main benefit here is also probably what makes this method the most challenging. Once you nail a melody, you have to create all the other parts around it. Having the melody be set in stone restricts a lot of the chord choice you can use as well as the rhythms that work in accompanying the melody. It can often be hard to find the right accompanying pieces to fit a melody, especially if the melody is more complicated.

Moving a song forward from the melody as a starting point is definitely possible, but for me it usually takes a lot more work and restricts my creativity. By no means am I saying it’s not possible, I’m just saying that if you start with a melody, you better be prepared at spending a good amount of time searching for the right accompanying pillars.

Drums/Percussion

Another pillar you can have some success starting with is drums and percussion. The rhythm section of any piece of music really drives the song forward and gets your body moving. It makes total sense to have the focus of a drop be the kick snare combo and really get the listener to feel the groove of the track. I mean, there are even whole genres of music that are defined by the types of drum sounds used (dubstep snares, rock & roll drum kits, etc.).

The biggest problem I have with starting from drums is putting too much into the song way too early. Because drums are short transient sounds, I often feel that I need much more complicated drum loops in order for my drums to sound full and complete. This often has me running into the problem of my tracks sounding messy when I try and add other pillars to the mix. I’m almost always having to go back and remove or simplify my drum pattern to make the melody cut through or the chord progression shine.

Now you’re probably saying, “Why don’t you just keep your drums simple knowing that you have to fill in that gap in fullness with something else?”. Now I mean that’s a perfectly valid way to write a drum section when starting a song. I just know from personal experience that my drums always tend to sound less full and complete when I purposely leave them a little open for other elements. Something about forcing myself to leave something incomplete sounding just lends itself to a more incomplete sounding final product.

All of us are different, but I think that being able to finish the completeness of each pillar before moving onto the next works really well for my songwriting process.

Harmony/Chord Progression

As you’ve probably guessed, my favorite way to start a track is with the harmony pillar.
For me, harmony is the most important factor in my music. The chords chosen often dictate the emotional appeal of my music the easiest. It’s often the chords in other songs I like that I’m most drawn to.

Now I make more pop oriented electronic music. Emotion in chord progressions is everything. If you’re doing crazy festival trap drop you might not need as much harmony emphasis as I’m preaching here (although combing both is a pretty cool sound ). For me a chord progression makes the most sense to start with for several reasons…

  1. Chords can make building melodies and rhythms really easy.
  2. Chords place me into a creative mood quickly.
  3. Chords are the backbone to good popular electronic songwriting.
  4. Chords can feel full all by themselves.

Chords make building melodies relatively easy. Unlike starting with a specific melody and building a chord progression around it, starting with chords allows for much more variation in melody when composing. Basically, for any given melody there are a handful of chord accompaniments to choose from. But for any given chord progression there are basically infinite melodies to write.

This is similar too with percussion. Having a nice chord progression written out first allows you to need less happening rhythmically to feel fullness in the rhythm section. It makes it easy to feel a track coming together right off the bat, even with something as simple as a kick snare kick snare pattern.

Chords really make me feel the music. Almost all the emotional aspect I love from the songwriting process comes from the chords and chord progressions used. I almost always feel like my song is lacking a musical soul when I don’t really nail the chord progression before focusing on anything else. For this reason, I think chords really are the backbone to most modern electronic pop music hits. Yes, the vocals and topline melodies/lyrics make the world of difference, but without that emotional and well thought out harmonic pillar, I think most good music falls really short.

It’s also really easy for your track to feel full from just the chords themselves. Because chords hold so much emotional weight as a pillar, they really help fill out the completeness of a piece of music without having to even have too much sound design or a complicated rhythm. You can literally write whole songs around two chords going back and forth. This makes the song writing process get easier as you move through the track creation process. If your song feels full and epic with simply just a chord progression, you can really see how much easier it is to take your music to the next level by adding simple parts to fill in the other pillars.

Note
So, I’m a chord guy. Most of my examples in the rest of this post are going to be fueling the harmony pillar in creating a song idea from scratch. But don’t be afraid to try the same techniques on the other pillars! I do this too.

Fueling the pillars

I’m going to be demonstrating 8 ways to start with a blank DAW and fuel your pillars. These creativity hacks will help you start the songwriting process and get killer results quickly. Here are the 8 ways we are going to start a song idea…

  1. Based Off Sound Design
  2. Based Off MIDI packs
  3. Based Off a Movie or Video
  4. Based Off a Mood
  5. Based Off an Image
  6. Based Off Sample Packs/Construction Kits
  7. Based Off Another Song
  8. Based Off a Vocal/Acapella

Based off sound design

Sound design can the most logical non-composition based way to start a track. Starting with sound design is really beneficial because sound design can lead to or spark several ideas. Building a pad for instance can spark an idea for a lead or a bass. Because software synths like Serum and Massive are so easily capable of manipulating sounds, starting with sound design really lets your creativity shine through.

It’s also really important to experiment in working with what is presented to you, as opposed to trying to force your way into a song. A lot of times certain melodies and harmonies are driven by the type of sound design used. Working with the sound design first can almost make it easier to compose because certain keys and notes will sound better.

Make sure to experiment a lot here. If you set out to make a bass, try playing it as a chord. Don’t be afraid to modulate everything. Really try things you wouldn’t normally do here. I often spend whole days just playing inside a synth like Serum and end up coming up with only two to three awesome sounds. The more time you spend doing this the easier it will be to get professional results.

Based off MIDI packs

If you’re not the best at playing the piano and it’s hard to play the voicings and chord choices you hear in your head, MIDI packs are a great resource for you. Whether you create these on your own over time or buy a bunch online, being able to hear chords quickly and create custom chord progressions by combining and editing them makes a lot of sense.

I often spend hours listening through loads of MIDI content searching for not only individual chord voicings that I like, but also chord to chord movements that make me feel good. Things that work for my ear as just a MIDI preview sound I know can work really well with just some basic production value.

Trick here is to just make sure you manipulate the MIDI a good amount. Change the key, rhythm, or combine different progressions. Subtle changes in voicing and key can go a long way.

Based off a movie or video

Movies and video can really aid in getting you in a state to create good music. Most of the time we naturally gravitate to certain compositions and sounds when referencing videos to put ourselves in a creative context.

Try collecting moments in movies or films of nature that make you feel certain emotions. Save these so you can bring them up while producing and use them to fuel your creativity. You can even download the videos and put them directly into your DAW. Chords are often the easiest way to compose to a video or a scene. I’d start with a simple string patch or pad sound to start here. Make good choices with your composition. Don’t be afraid to use more music theory knowledge here to really help obtain the emotion of the scene you’re watching effectively.

Based off a mood

Try starting a song off of a mood. Unlike starting the song from a physical medium like a lot of the other concepts explained, a mood is a much looser term. I’m talking about any feeling or state your body goes through on a given day. Are you feeling tired? Are you pissed off at your roommate? Did you go on a really good date recently? Any feeling you can remember feeling or that you are currently feeling can be great fuel for creating an emotional piece of music.

The trick here is to pick a mood and assign traits to it. What types of sounds best represent this mood? What sort of tones and instruments feel like they describe this mood? What kind of melodies and chords really make you feel this mood. All of these questions can be answered and essentially guide you into choosing the right tool for the job. I recommend writing down some ideas so you don’t forget.

From there, every time you add a sound make sure you can justify how it’s adding to the mood in a beneficial way. Don’t just throw things into your music because! Think about the composition, sound design, and mixing choices when you’re trying to create a mood. Do they fit?

Based off an image

Making music from images is awesome. An image can be almost a creative guide in the music production process. The goal here is to take an image that inspires you and break it down element by element. You want to essentially map out aspects of the picture to certain instruments, sound design, effects, etc. You should be able to creatively think about how an image can be represented with aspects of music production. Look at the example below…

Movies and video can really aid in getting you in a state to create good music. Most of the time we naturally gravitate to certain compositions and sounds when referencing videos to put ourselves in a creative context.

Try collecting moments in movies or films of nature that make you feel certain emotions. Save these so you can bring them up while producing and use them to fuel your creativity. You can even download the videos and put them directly into your DAW. Chords are often the easiest way to compose to a video or a scene. I’d start with a simple string patch or pad sound to start here. Make good choices with your composition. Don’t be afraid to use more music theory knowledge here to really help obtain the emotion of the scene you’re watching effectively.

We can analyze this image and decide what sort of instruments will represent the different colors. Maybe we want a big brass horn section to fill the midrange like the red splashes fill up the majority of the painting. Then maybe the blue pockets could be represented by soft string stabs that act as a call and response to the brass hits. Maybe the whole song has a very crash based drum section with lots of crescendos to represent the explosion of color and texture.

If your image is complicated don’t be afraid to write down what you decide. Sometimes it’s easier to figure out your whole pallet of sounds to choose from before you dive into the writing process. It can help you not be distracted by lots of plugins and samples. At the same time, don’t be afraid to deviate from your plans either. The whole point here is to just help aid the starting process for your track.

You can see how taking the time to study an image and think of logical ways to represent that image in musical form can go a long way in creating the building blocks of a track.

Based off sample packs/construction kits


Using sample packs and construction kits is not cheating! Don’t let people convince you otherwise. Anything you can do as an artist to get inspired and speed up the creative process should be taken advantage of. Clearly just don’t steal.

Collecting loops and samples that are fleshed out a little more in terms of composition can be a really fun tool for creating an initial idea. Try taking a loop in audio and then pitch and mangle it. Make sure to mess with chopping up the melodies to make them your own and playing with warp modes and formatting to change the timbre of the sound.

You should be able to spend some time with sounds you like to create a completely different sound from the original anyway. And the best part is that you can always also REPLACE the chopped audio or the sample that you are using in the end, especially if you feel like it is too similar to the original.

Based off another song

Using another song can be fun for coming up with ideas that are unique, but still have the flavor of something you like that already exists. Sometimes this can be a little limiting because you can easily go overboard with trying to make your song sound too similar to the original, or use to much of the original song as a focal point in your track.

The best way to do this is simply to take a songs chord progression. You can spend lots of time finding your favorite song’s chords online with tools like Hooktheory and Chordify. Take the chords and change them around to make them your own. Invert them, add voicings, change the order or rhythm, spread them out on different instruments, etc. There are so many quick and easy ways to make chords from other songs your own.

Or, try taking a section of a song you like that isn’t that full and adding to it. Then strip away the original song so that you’re only left with your music. This can be a really cool way to skip the initial spark needed to start completely from scratch. I only really use this method when I’m not feeling super inspired compositionally. Although, it often always leads to inspiration after a little time adding to something that already exists.

You can also use a song as a tool for the arrangement. Although it’s not super necessary to start a track, having an idea for where the arrangement should go or what it should be definitely helps move the songwriting process along further.

Based off a vocal/acapella

Probably the most common way I start a song is from a vocal. Vocals are so important in modern electronic music, so it’s really important to make them sound good in your music. This means that not only do they have to be recorded and engineered well, but they also have to have a good harmonic pillar around them. Nothing is worse than hearing a great vocal in a crap song.

I’d just focus on getting the best chord progression you can sounding great on a piano with the vocal. From here you can produce out the track in any way you want. Ultimately, if you can make an acapella sound good with just a piano playing, anything you do to further the production from there will sound amazing! It’s also probably the simplest setup that you could justify as a full song.

Combining these 8 methods

The best way to use these methods is probably when you combine several of them. There is no reason you can’t utilize MIDI + movie references + seeking a certain mood or vibe you are currently feeling to create one hell of an idea.

Making music from a blank DAW doesn’t need to be complicated to start. After getting comfortable with these 8 methods of fueling the pillars of your song, you can start to experiment with more complicated but justified methods of starting the track. Understanding all of these methods fully will aid you in figuring out how you can use the best aspects of each to make life even easier. It’s also important to figure out which methods don’t work for you. Don’t spend tons of time on any one of these methods if you know it doesn’t work for you creatively, or if it diminishes the speed and quality of your creative process.

Between starting a song with these individual tactics, plus combinations of these strategies, you essentially have an unlimited arsenal of entry points into a music production session.