Writer’s Block Isn’t Real: 4 Limiting Beliefs in Music Production
SEPTEMBER 6th, 2018
“You can’t think yourself out of a writing block; you have to write yourself out of a thinking block.” – John Rogers (screenwriter, television producer, and comedian.)
Here’s the hard truth: writer’s block isn’t real.
The feeling of not knowing what to do next comes from putting an unhealthy amount of strain on your creative muscle. It happens when you tell yourself “I’m not good enough to start” or “If I only had a new synth plugin I could ACTUALLY make music.” Not the case. The moment you let uncertainty trump instinct is the moment the creative engine starts to die. The battle is truly over as soon as you give yourself a reason not to continue – and those reasons could be countless. There’s only one thing stopping you from finishing music, and that’s a part of the brain that desperately needs rewiring.
Any time you feel stranded in the sea of writer’s block, know that there’s always a way out: action. You don’t write music by thinking. You write music by doing. The purpose of this article is to give you four actionable strategies to help you let go of the limiting mindsets that are developed in the early years of producing music.
Two Types of Learning
If you could look back at the road that led to being the producer you are today, what would you see?
There’s more to the journey than just the knowledge you’ve gained — the limitations you’ve left behind are just as important. Many of us, though, still carry limitations with us today. They can come from anywhere, but are guaranteed to find a foothold within our music and creative lives.
The longer my music career, the clearer it becomes that the path to making professional sounding music is anything but paved and well-marked. There are twists and turns — unexpected learnings and opportunities — and the information acquired along the way determines what you encounter next.
When I see my students make leaps and bounds in their productions, it normally comes from internalizing two separate but related mindsets.
The first is a hunger for new information: honing technical skills, building a smart workflow, seeking out new and interesting sounds, and setting aside egos to understand that your process can be improved. Immersion, instruction, accountability, deadlines, repeated exposure — these tactics strengthen the neural pathways for long-term retention of new strategies. That’s what the Hyperbits Masterclass is all about.
Don’t get me wrong — you need the right information and techniques, but there’s a different, ridiculously effective way to advance your music production skills. And it doesn’t cost a cent. It’s often forgotten in a world of acquisition bias, because it’s the opposite of loading your brain with new information.
This is the second type of learning. I’m talking about letting go of limiting beliefs.
Improvements can be born from hard-fought breakthroughs… or by shedding the baggage that’s holding you back.
A hungry student once asked me during class, “What is the most important quality you see in students who improve the most? Or what is common amongst your best students?”
The answer is simple: the students who improve the most are the ones most willing to change. The ones most willing to let go of their limiting beliefs.
The 4 Limitations of Music Production
Unlearning the wrong information is as important as learning the essentials.
These are the limitations I’ve fought in my own journey, and I see many young producers struggling with them too. Learn to recognize these false beliefs for what they are: creative poison. When we feel their effects we pass it off as writer’s block, but that doesn’t address the root cause. To improve requires letting go of these beliefs through empowering actions.
- Preset Prejudice
- The Self-Made Myth
- Risk Aversion (or “Playing it Safe”)
1. Preset Prejudice
“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch… you must first invent the Universe.” – Carl Sagan (astronomer, cosmologist, and author)
In a bias known as “imposter syndrome,” we have an inherent and irrational fear of being thought of as “fakes” or “inauthentic.” In the world of music production, somehow we equate the hard way with “the real way” — this is what we call Preset Prejudice. It’s a cause of needless struggling, and it’s hurting your growth as an artist.
Last week, I saw this post on facebook that sparked immediate controversy:
“Hey guitar players – I saw a show where someone used a capo, and I couldn’t help but judge them because it felt like they were cheating. As a jazz/neosoul player, it seems like a total crutch. What are your thoughts on using capos?”
**For context, a capo is a clamp that allows you to transpose keys using known chord shapes. Placing a capo on the first fret and playing a C chord shape would mean that the actual notes are that of a C# chord.**
The discussion that followed was divisive — purists clamored their agreement, others lampooned the poster for being an arrogant brat. But, most responded with some version of “Does it really matter?”
The answer is so obvious that at first it seems laughable (clearly, using a capo isn’t “cheating”), but the underlying assumptions are seriously detrimental and all-too-common among musicians and all creatives.
There is simply no such thing as a crutch when it comes to making music. All that matters is the finished song.
Let’s clear this up once and for all — there is only one thing that’s “cheating” when it comes to music production, and that is taking someone else’s work and calling it your own.
But where do you draw the line? I’d like to introduce you to a solution that will allow you to crush Preset Prejudice once and for all.
Take Action: The Power of One Small Change
That’s it. That’s all you need to absolve yourself from the artificial guilt you may feel from using presets, samples, or any other creative tool. It’s extremely simple: all you need to do is make one tweak or edit.
Let’s say you found an awesome synth preset — instead of passing it by or trying to re-create it from scratch, make one small change to fit it to your track. That could be tweaking the ADSR envelope, filter cutoff, effects, oscillator shape, or octave. The Power of One Small Change can be applied to samples, too — repitch, reverse, distort, modulate, or layer the sample, tell yourself you’ve done enough to make it your own, and move on.
At the end of the day, making one small change is meant to keep your inner critic from flaring up and halting progress. If the preset sounds perfect as-is, just use it! Stop putting so much pressure on your creative muscle. You don’t need to make everything from scratch all the time.
But look, if you’re still feeling guilty and need a good laugh, read this:
“I thought using loops was cheating, so I programmed my own using samples. I then thought using samples was cheating, so I recorded real drums. I then thought that programming it was cheating, so I learned to play drums for real. I then thought using bought drums was cheating, so I learned to make my own. I then thought using premade skins was cheating, so I killed a goat and skinned it. I then thought that that was cheating too, so I grew my own goat from a baby goat. I also think that is cheating, but I’m not sure where to go from here. I haven’t made any music lately, what with the goat farming and all.”
2. The Self-Made Myth
If you want to suppress your learning curve and ensure you never have any new ideas, then there is nothing better than believing every aspect of your music career needs to be done completely, 100% by yourself. I’m going to assume you don’t want that…
I get it — it’s an attractive fantasy to think about sticking it to the man, of showing the music industry (or your ex) that you’re just so damn good you don’t need anyone else.
That’s an insane amount of pressure, so here’s the liberating truth: you need other people to create the best music you’re capable of. The longer you ignore this fact, the harder it will be. The sooner you embrace it, the quicker you will start to make music that matters to yourself and others.
As an artist, you must draw on a deep reservoir of personal drive. It involves commitment, practice, and life experience, and those can only come from within. Harley Quinn produced music in his room for years, putting in the hours and honing his craft. But when you buy a Flume record, the liner notes don’t just have his name inside. He specifically thanks his team — from the visual designers to the label — for helping to bring his vision to life.
We need each other. “Collaboration” isn’t broad enough — we’re lost without the emotions, stories, and ears of people we trust. Our lives don’t exist inside a vacuum, and our music shouldn’t either.
Take Action: Involve Someone In Your Song
Think about the people in your life and the unique perspectives they offer. I was recently at a loss for lyrics in a second verse the night before a recording session. My sister shared a verse of her poetry, and I jumped out of my seat. “Whatever you just said – say that again!” With one small change it fit perfectly, and was exactly the spark I needed to finish the song.
Lyricists, visual designers, photographers, videographers, friends, other DJs — these people can all add a perspective that may lead you in an unintended and exciting direction. Find someone you trust who isn’t afraid to tell you a) what’s working, and b) what needs to be improved.
3. Playing it Safe
“You can be cautious and you can be creative, but there’s no such thing as a cautious creative.” – George Lois (legendary ad man)
Playing it safe isn’t safe. In fact, there’s great danger in feeling the need to fit your music in somebody else’s mold. Yet I often see new producers pouring time and energy into creating a song that’s meant to sound like someone else. I started the same way. We all do.
There is a period in everyone’s life for emulation. It’s how we learn to walk and tie our shoes. But… your voice as an artist is only as relevant as it is different. Different is good. Different is what makes us pay attention.
Those who are remembered as trail-blazers and luminaries are defined by their ability to be different. You are the world’s leading expert in what sounds good to you, and your unique sum of life experiences and influences make your perspective your most valuable asset. Don’t sell yourself short by believing you’re not good enough. Those who are at it the longest know for every mile you travel, another two emerge. The important thing is to be on the path and moving.
Taking a risk shatters the glass wall of writer’s block.
Challenging yourself to use instruments and effects in new ways can give you a sonic edge — Kevin Parker of Tame Impala asks himself “how hasn’t this been used before?” when hunting for new ways to use instruments and effects. You can often find untapped sounds at the outer limits of effect and synth parameters.
Ultimately, I believe the greatest risk you can take is connecting what you’re writing to real emotion you’ve experienced. Shared humanity resonates, and it’s what makes songs meaningful. The only risk is what feels to be the risk of vulnerability, but that’s just your brain telling you to keep those emotions guarded. Take a risk and share with the world, and you’ll be surprised at the effect it has on your listeners and yourself.
Take Action: The Collision Exercise
Creativity can be defined as a new combination of old elements. Make a list of adjectives that describe a vibe, mood, or sound you want to convey and add the main elements of your song to the next column
There are likely some obvious pairings (like smooth vocals and overdriven guitars) but we’re looking for the non-obvious combinations. Atmospheric Bass? Gritty field recording? Syncopated delays? These collisions can open the door to new sonic territory for your music.
This is the arch nemesis. There is simply no greater threat to your success as a musician than the unattainable goal of perfection. Perfectionism is the pervasive, silent killer of creative progress. It seeps into your mind like gas and the only symptoms are increased frustration and impossible expectations. It’s the biggest contributor to how we feel when describing writer’s block.
Learn the freedom to make mistakes and you’ll be farther along than someone who studies sound design for years but spends their production hours hitting “undo.”
Every time your mind points to what isn’t working, you’re seeing the hand of perfection. The real question to ask yourself is “what value is already here?” A craftsman will have better luck seeking what’s inherently good in their materials instead of forcing it to their will.
You can beat this boss-mode limitation. Your brain might panic and light signal flares because it requires going against the rational, order-driven part that guides your daily affairs. Breathe through it and realize that to win in the end you need quantity over quality.
Nothing will stagnate your growth more as an artist than holding on to the death-grip of perfectionism. It’s the silent killer.
The only way through the swamp of perfectionism is to keep your head down and finish songs, and do everything in your power to make that the number one priority of your artistic and production workflow. Your goal is to internalize the process of opening yourself up to a flow-state where you aren’t second guessing yourself. Moving quickly helps. Working to deadlines is even better. Remember that perfection is not your goal: finishing an imperfect song is. None of your songs will ever be perfect, yet every song you write makes you better. The sooner you can let go and trust to your instincts, the quicker you’ll reach new heights as an artist.
Take Action: Speak an Affirmation
I didn’t know anything about affirmations until a particularly cold week this past February. It was gray and rainy, but I came across a book that teaches the secret to letting go of limiting beliefs, like “Oh, I just don’t have the energy to write”. Turns out there is immense power in reading a handwritten message to ourselves.
Before you go to bed tonight, I’m asking you to handwrite two sentences. Tomorrow morning, soon after you rise, find a place to stretch your arms above your head like you’re standing on a mountaintop, and visualize a time you were on top of the world, feeling the strongest you ever have. Let your body fill with energy, and read your affirmation aloud! Put the emotion you’re feeling into every word.
After I read this affirmation, I felt something shift inside. Something I once believed about myself was gone through the simple act of choosing not to believe it anymore. Here’s what I wrote (you can modify it for your own purposes).
“I let go of the limiting belief that commitment isn’t for me. My brain is a miraculous organism, capable of helping itself and creating entire worlds. My commitment can improve, but only in proportion to how much I believe it can improve. So… from this moment on… I maintain the unwavering belief that I have UNSHAKEABLE resolve. An iron will. I take pride in standing by my decisions. Every day, in every way, I am better and better.”
It’s possible to let go of any limiting belief you’re experiencing at that moment – like the limiting belief that you don’t know how to finish a song. You do know, you’re just not trusting your instincts (or you haven’t discovered our 8-Step Finishing Checklist). We all have limiting beliefs, but to let them go you just need a power-pose, some deep breaths, and the belief that you can through your own words. If it sounds too simple, that’s because it is.
Unlearning Takes Time
Though you might discover the immediate power of affirmations (especially if followed by a run or killer green smoothie), the process of letting go of limiting beliefs isn’t instantaneous. It takes rewiring your brain into new habits like collaborating, getting off our high horses, and trusting that quantity will lead to quality every time.
If you’re still wondering how to beat writer’s block, you may be putting way too much pressure on yourself. At the end of the day, these limitations come from feeling that we need to be everything at once; a sound design prodigy and self-made star with the best gear and no mistakes. Don’t wish that for yourself — it’s not a happy life! As you finish more songs, you gain trust in yourself and your ability. And you know what? You had that all along. You just had to learn how to stand out of your own way to let it happen.
Perfect is a lie, and there is no such thing normal, so let’s give it up for something way more valuable: the perspective that sets you apart. When you get back to the flow-state, the place of writing because it feels good — that’s when you’re in tune with yourself, so take a risk and keep running with it. Shed these limitations now so when you look back you’ll realize how liberating it was to let them go. Roadblocks will always come up, but I’ll be damned if I let your own excuses stand in the way of you moving confidently in the direction of your dreams.