Artistic goals and fulfillment (or: How to focus, a self-help thread)

I’ve got a problem: I can’t complete anything musically.

Every time I sit down and play with some of my instruments, I find that I lack some purpose, some creative goal. And I mean that in the shape of a song, a piece, anything that has a form that I could be drawn to.

I thought that it’s because I love and listen to lots of music, and I’m inspired by several genres and artists. One day I want to make huge sample loops and let them go forever drifting with other sample loops; the other I’m chopping breaks until I got mad; the other again I’m sequencing infinite monophonic synths; on the fourth day I’m patching weird physical models on Max/MSP; and so on.

And, believe me, I love the ride. I love the time spent with machines, music software, acoustic instruments; but when I realize I’m not going anywhere, frustration creeps in and I soon stop making any kind of progress in terms of completed forms (and then the most dangerous beast creeps in: GAS. Because new instruments provide that kind of excitement and naiveness that leads to the unexpected). To like and to try different styles, genres and processes makes it somehow worse: frustration is subtle and tells me that I stop enjoying my current music making because it’s not what I really want to do. And I crave for completed forms because 1. I’m stuck, so I need it 2. I believe that music is a form of communication, like words and sentences, and even though you can go out in the streets and scream made up words at people no one will understand you (or even listen) if you don’t make sense to them.

I checked hundreds (probably!) of videos, forum threads, reddit topics, about music making and process. Everyone has his own process, I guess. I asked some friends, some musicians friends, their take on my issue, but all I can see is that everyone that accomplishes something has some focus. And I don’t.

SO, here are my questions:
Are you (or have you been) in my current situation?
Do you set yourself a goal when creating music? A genre, a form, something else?
How do you choose your focus?
How do you manage your love for different kinds of music, when it comes to your own music making?

34 Likes

Not sure if it helps but a couple of friends of mine just enjoy playing with their instruments and have struggled with a similar lack of focus for completing things. They’ve embraced that as a creative vent nonetheless and don’t pursue completing songs or releasing things. Is it so that you definitely want to be able to do both? Play your instruments and forge that playing time into a finished end product or piece?

9 Likes

sure about that? you seem to enjoy what you are doing, embrace it with all the contradictions.

18 Likes

I’m feeling exactly the same.

At the start of 2020, I set goal for making records publish in this year, before that I was in a band but got dormant in 2019. I (at least what I think I was) the leader in the band, always sharing notions and idea and let my mates materialize to actual sounds. I cherish this very much, as before nobody could understand what I wanted to say and my mindset. Now I started to do it on my own, I feel very frustrated to have a good process that suit my very own. I almost went to my studio every days when I off my day job, and urge myself to ‘do something’ when my equipment besides me, I feel so tried and lack of inspiration. Also in my country (Hong Kong), facing a tremendous threat on human rights and freedom of speech, I should’ve much more emotions than ever before, should’ve eager to express more louder than before, but all this emotion baggage get me voided in music.

I’m still finding a way out of it, things I am trying are:

  • Embrace this ‘writer’s block’, relax a bit, try not to think too much on your progress
  • Learn something else/ do something different that related to music. To me I am studying the mixing/ mastering techniques that I am weak of
  • Talk to people. Find someone who know what you’re doing, share your thoughts to them, or maybe work/ collaborate together, let someone take care of it even a little can help.
14 Likes

This, exactly this. As long as you’re enjoying it, do you need to change it?

5 Likes

I think all people are musical, but I think part of the issue people experience is that has gone from - particularly in the West - from a communal activity to something representative of individual genius and effort. Not that there hasn’t always been some great music created through idiosyncratic musical expression and individual skill, but I sometimes think we have lost something in our increasingly atomized culture.

Perhaps a little off-topic but I think it speaks to the tension some more of us feel when our efforts do not translate into a work. We should just embrace that playing with sound is fun and deeply human without worrying as much about the end result. Albums and other works of individual musical expression are a relatively modern expression of human musical culture.

33 Likes

definitely. this year has been especially difficult, too. be kind to thyself. i implore you to read art & fear.

yes and no. i have a general oeuvre region i explore. usually subconsciously i’ll zoom in on a particular theme or inquiry. in starcraft (and all rts games i guess) there is a term called macro/micro. macro is base and resource management (studio, process, GAS) and micro is individual unit management (patching a cv to an oscillator). i’ll often set a macro vision and then i’ll set micro goals. also i just pretty much always record everything while playing, or at least have things setup to just push record.

i’ve learned to work with my intuition here. i trust myself in that, with all the books i read and music i listen to and things i experience, something interesting will come of it. i have dozens of releases out so i’ve built up a lot of trust for myself.

“manage your love”?!?!?! love need not be managed, as if it were a finite resource!!! what you love is what is going to make your music uniquely yours. let it rip.

13 Likes

I recognise some of the feelings you expressed in your original post and humbly offer some actions which worked for me in overcoming these.
As an inveterate tinkerer, who didn’t finish any tracks to share, I searched around for a solution online. I found some information on deadlines which resonated with me, from my professional life. I never miss deadlines. Sometimes the work isn’t as good as it could be, but it is always good enough. Maybe applying a deadline could work for you?

I chose to support a deadline with socialising my goals. About once a year for the past 4 years, when I feel the need to complete some units of music, I write out to other music making friends that I am running an ep challenge. 4 tracks to be shared among the group, by such and such a date (3 months from the email in my case). Some reply that they will join me, some of those fail to complete the work, but that is largely irrelevant. I have committed to a date and a volume of work and others are now expecting me to deliver on time. So far, I haven’t been late yet. A few progress emails as the weeks tick by help to keep everyone focussed on the end goal and to terrify you into decision making if you are still on track 1 when others are starting track 4.

I have found this enormously beneficial. I have a body of work I can share, I have learnt so much from having to tackle new parts of production such as arrangement (gasp!), mastering etc. I can track my progress through time. Delivering on the commitment and finding out what the music sounds like at the finish gives me a real boost in self esteem and confidence.

Sometimes the work isn’t as good as it could be, but it is always good enough. There will be a next time.

19 Likes

I`ve found that working in short “projects” works well for me. I usually set myself a goal of finishing something within 3-4 months, in my case the result is always an album. When I start off on a new project I establish a pool of inspiration and ideas. This can be music I like and get inspiration from, tools I want to explore, words/phrases, pictures etc. This helps me get into a certain mood that shapes the project.

I always make a new folder on my computer dedicated to the current project. Recordings are considered “seeds” (picked that up from @andrew). A lot of times audio parts end up being part of something completely different than expected/planned.

Working like this is also a cool way to archive my own stuff, I think.

13 Likes

as others have said in different ways - why do you need a goal? if you never finish anything but you just enjoy yourself maybe that is enough? I can understand the desire to communicate, so maybe think about who you are trying to communicate with or for- to throw another thing into the void of the internet, or for a small group of friends, maybe just for yourself. maybe its fine that its a jumbled mess of unfinished things and sketches.

I think especially with electronic music or a lot of experimental music where maybe a lot of people came out of the tape trading scene early on, then cd-rs, and now its even faster/more accessible with the internet there has become more and more emphasis on creating a finished thing to be put out/published on bandcamp. it went from a need to network to even find people to what seems almost like puritan influenced work ethic - ie nothing is good enough unless its ‘finished’ or ‘published’ or becomes some sort of job or side hustle otherwise one’s time and interest can’t be justified. but think about how many people used to just play piano in the home for pleasure to play and hear music, how many people learn guitar just to noodle around or maybe play once a year at an open mic just for fun even if they aren’t any good, how many violinists maybe were classically trained and never joined an orchestra or chamber group but still found joy in it or it relaxes them. why can’t that be the case for synths or beats too?

that said if you feel like you need a stylistic focus, I think separating technical exercise/interest from one’s ‘art’ or core practice can be helpful. I listen to and enjoy tons of different types of music, and sometimes I get interested or motivated enough to dabble around seeing if I can make my version of it, or see if I can technically figure out how something is done (important: with what I already have, no new equipment). but often I put that aside after a bit because I lose interest quickly or the exercise is done for me and I find my way back to what I mainly do, and occasionally something I learned can work its way in to that. maybe I’m fortunate to already know very clearly what I’m interested in, but then the work becomes guarding that in a way from every kind of dumb impulse based on what I’ve been listening to that week/month (what if I put beats on it, what if it was more dubby, what if it was blah blah). I remember Fenriz saying something in interviews talking about how he listens to and likes a lot of different music but that he doesn’t let it into his playing black metal- that you have to learn to not let everything creep in to everything else, not let unrelated things influence the core work. this can also become self defeating if you become too dogmatic about it, but if you feel your problem is the opposite of that maybe it would be a helpful thing to practice or focus on. listen to what you have done before that you really enjoy- what is the thread that ties it together?

12 Likes

this is pretty much my process too : ) lately i’ve been getting more comfortable with projects taking years rather than months

I feel this - periods of focus have come for me after focusing in on my strengths rather than veering off & it’s ended up feeling more me

& i think as artists we have space to ignore the word “genre”

6 Likes

@carlosbigne - your words resonate with me. I don’t have the answers but I am searching so watching with interest. Thanks

5 Likes

I’m my most productive when I find a theme, goal or larger scale concept. This concept might be a principle by which you work as a musician, a theme for an album, a goal for a track etc. These elements provide me with a framework around which to build. This stands in contrast to making a series of things I like, then trying to figure out how they all come together into a coherent whole.

The second step for me is planning. This often means filling a whiteboard with thoughts related to my chosen concept. These thoughts might be specifically musical but often they aren’t. They are word associations, short thoughts, synonyms, antonyms, little sketches and anything else.

Often this leads to a third step which is also planning: curating this list of thoughts into something more specific. Here is where I try and make something that could be described as art. To me art is about intent; a piece of art is made with the intent of eliciting a certain thought, or feeling in the consumer. The more specific I can be about what I’m trying to convey, the easier it’ll be going forward. In the best case I can write a sentence which represents my artistic intent, e.g I want the listener to feel a sense of dread which is slowly replaced by optimizm reflecting the experience of 2020, and the early deployment of Corona virus vaccine. This ‘tag line’ sentence is joined by several key (clarified) bullet point items from the prior list.

The fourth step is the first one that really pertains to music (note this might have been at the granularity of a multi albums, an album, an EP, or just one track). I try and imagine and define a structure that I feel best conveys my main artistic goal. The main tag line becomes a touch stone I use to test ideas. I dig back through my “thought heirachy” to try and find inspiration. I try and describe the sound, mood and purpose of each part (be that parts playing together or section). I might draw diagrams, make tables, write bullet points but in the end I aim to write down enough detail for me to finish what I’m working on. I also try and indicate certain elements that are key to the concept (usually by circling them); This helps when there are compromises to make. I try and also choose “number 1” among the concepts to keep in strongest focus. This might include things like key, time signature, mode, tempo etc but often not.

At this stage I usually have enough clarity to start to imagine what the parts sound like: translating emotive descriptions into technical ones. I try and imagine what the parts might sound like and how that would be realised. I might make decide on an instrument, try and write a chord progression of Melody, make sound design notes etc. This is done without getting my hands on the final instrument (I test melodic and harmonic ideas on the piano usually) or whatever source material. In the best case the output I have at this stage would be enough for another musician to make my piece of music. Not specific enough for it to sound like I imagine but at least enough that they’d feel like they could take a stab at it.

At this stage I’m finally ready to start working on the material that will end up in the finished work. This might be taking samples, recording melodies, designing sounds, patching the modular, breadboarding a circuit or whatever else I had in mind; the key point is that I already have (to a greater or lesser extent) the sounds and movements I want in many head. At this point, then, I could say I was trying to implement my design. For each element I can compare to me planning material. In the best case I start with what I consider the most important element so I can use it as musical context around which to build. Obviously I allow myself artistic license and deviate/allow inspiration to shape things, but I try and make sure it works towards my one sentence summary. On the relatively infrequent occasion that I hit on something I like that I’m not going to use I make a note for myself to try and develop it; I occasionally record the part to refer back to, but my expectation is never to use that material in another project, just to use it to drive another thought process.

So why does this work? I think it works because I front load the process with the hard decisions. In a sense I leave myself with the fun part when I get to actually recording. This stands in contrast to making a lot of material which I then have to craft a story around. I find I end up with a pile of things I like but an onerous job in trying to stitch it all together into something coherent. The result is that I can compare each element to my concept and know if it aligns; specifically this allows me to know when something I’m doing doesn’t work in which case I remove it (pull the patch, init the preset, delete the sample).

How does this apply to other people? First of all note that I didn’t mention genre at all: is about what you want to say and your musical voice in saying it. Why would you take such a methodical approach to an artistic endeavour? I guess it works because it’s easy to lose focus when you get the feeling the fun part is over. You’ve hit on a core idea but you aren’t happy with anything else, or you have a peripheral part the end up trying to make a central element fit. When music is meant to fun, and you do the fun part first it can be hard to feel motivated to finish things up. You are almost always the most energetic when you first hit on a concept. I try and capitalise on that energy by doing the hard part first. That’s to say you know your focus will decline so you make sure the parts that need that focus are already done.

Anyway, this is a fairly specific story about how I work and approach things, but I hope it resonates with some people. I rarely set deadlines for these things but I do like to get things done quickly. For me, planning helps me do that.

14 Likes

I have always been really eclectic in my musical tastes, and that translated to not really wanting to settle into any particular genre. I thought if I just kept injecting all of my interests into my music, eventually some kind of unified, genre-breaking original style would distill out of it.

Nope.

What actually helped was making a TON of music – hundreds of tracks over a couple of years – as part of a personal project to stop the long depressive periods with no creative work that I was going through at the time. And then, listening to it and critiquing it, finding what worked and what didn’t, and choosing to focus my efforts on what did work.

So I don’t make jazz chiptune bellydance EDM glitch anymore, but I make creepy “ambient” drone stuff just fine.

(Focusing on a particular style didn’t help me come up with a good name for it :grin:)

10 Likes

Find out what rules you have made for yourself (where your comfort zone is), then break those rules (step outside of it). Stay in areas which make you uncomfortable and don’t be too quick to try to escape. Problems are your friends, solve them no matter how small (leave the big ones until they shrink).

It’s hard - at least it is for me - but rewarding. Question why you do stuff and observe yourself while doing so. Everything is an opportunity to experience life. Don’t make creative choices out of fear.

8 Likes

This is an intersting thought. It’s very easy to hide in your comfort zone under the guise of style. It can also be an unwelcome shock to feel like a beginner again after years of making music. The results, though, can be a new avenue to inspire you and help you grow.

4 Likes

A lot of great stuff in this thread!!

Are you (or have you been) in my current situation?

Yes. I have had several years long periods where I couldn’t make music and could barely stand to listen to it let alone play it. (This year has been very musically productive for me.)

Do you set yourself a goal when creating music? A genre, a form, something else?

To come out of a period of inactivity I start small. If I’m thinking 'I think I’m feeling ready to start with music again." I might spend a few times a week playing around, jamming on a few synths at a time or I might think up a prompt to start with. A prompt might be: record an interesting rhythm. (I’ve never done the Disquiet Junto on this site, but I think those are excellent examples of prompts). Or I’ll roll some dice to pick between a couple of instruments, a tempo, between sample banks and spend a few hours trying to make “something with a Yamaha Reface and a digitakt that is 132 bpm and uses my ‘glass sounds’ samples”. Usually after I start on one of these simple prompts I’ll continue from there and sometimes end up with a full track.

How do you choose your focus?

After having some success with those brief exercises I’ll take a little while and think about what I might want to do if I want to I plan out my process and just move to the next step. If I say ‘ep’ maybe I’ll spend some time writing and come up with a process (start by recording a bassline to a click track then add samples then add poly synth…) And stick to that same process throughout. If I want to deviate from that, maybe start with a drum track, hey that’s no problem! I’m moving towards something. It can be really satisfying to say ‘i made all four songs this way’ but really it doesn’t matter as long as I’m moving forward.

How do you manage your love for different kinds of music, when it comes to your own music making?

I could be more intentional in pursuing a stylistic vision. At the end of last year I made a mix cd for myself of what I hoped to strive for. I listened to it over and over for weeks before starting work. Listening back to it now I think I captured maybe 5% of what I had hoped to capture (BBC radiophonic old synth music plus weird 80s stuff).

For me it’s all about getting started with something, anything, and then moving from there. If I can’t see my next step, no problem. I take some time, meditate on it, maybe it takes a month to come to me, but I don’t worry about it. Other things fill the time.

5 Likes

There are some very thoughtful responses and comments here and I can only be brief but I do not intend to be dismissive at all.
I have many similar feelings to the original post. I have spent most of this year trying to perfect some imperfect material. Please remind me who said art is never finished only abandoned?
In light of these two points, I have started/almost completed my next release which is based on the premise that the first pass is almost good enough and I should just work at each stage of the process on having a go at the first idea I have and moving on. I will come back and mix levels later and be done.
(Apologies if I missed the point, I read this post yesterday but only got a chance now)

4 Likes

What I noticed is there are at least two types of mentalities regarding creativity. Or two ways to look at it. Hunters and gatherers. First set out to get next target while the latter tend to their gardens :slight_smile:
Being the gatherer what helps me is to have a routine. My synths are plants that sometimes bear good fruits and I try to spend some time with them daily.
And I found that really liking the process helps and trying to confine oneself into a box doesn’t. Like trying to force a track/album in some kind established by others shape.
What works for me is going in steps: improvising/playing/patching, recording, selecting(usually from the earlier stuff that I have already forgotten and have no stress to evaluate unattached), compiling into something cohesive and mixing/mastering.
Also what helped me immensely was analyzing what I had inside as “music has to be like this”. Structure is one of those rules I think. Meaning I don’t have to but can choose to.

14 Likes

First of all, I’d like to thank you all for your inputs. I was afraid it could appear as a rant thread but I hoped it could be an interesting a starting point for a larger (even if a little too vast!) topic, as it has become.

@vinc I’m sorry about the situation in HK, and thank you for your inputs. My partner always tells me that I need to relax, that it seems that everything, even music making, is a struggle to me. It kinda is actually :grimacing: but getting my head somewhere else could be better.

@solaris and @Noisetrees yeah, I kinda feel like I need to change it. I would like to, at least.

@tyleretters I’ll find a way to have Art & fear sent to my country. And I actually laughed out loud at your answer at managing love, when I read my question, “managing love” seems something crazy to do.

@Senorakubra I think the deadline technique is a good one, and I tried it actually, but was one of the guys who failed to complete the work, eheh. Because the main issue would be the same: which kind of EP would I like to do? It’s like I’m in the middle of several music personalities, and no one is developed in any way. I’ve got this friend that it’s really into braindance/rephlex-y stuff and he knows exactly what he is doing (actually check him out, he made some real bangers imho), everyhing in his studio is a tool for him to do something with wonky leads and acid basslines (or viceversa), groovy and uncanny beats, to do something that follows a general aesthetic (the braindance idm stuff), but flexed in his own way.
I would like to know where to direct my efforts, to follow some kind of a path: that’s why I asked if you “choose” your way in a strict, loose, direct, indirect way.

@slowsounds I hear you about that puritan work ethic – and it’s weird, since I’m not in any way influenced by puritan culture, but I guess it could be another lovely relic from our beloved overlord, capitalism. I think being focused, like Fenriz said, even if loosely so, it’s crucial: drifting away from your main goal can be a choice, a way to develop something else, or just a divertissement, without being bit by the “wasting time and effort” mosquito (because time and energy are finite resources)

@brasslens I’m happy to know I’m not alone in this situation! But I guess it’s something a lot of people feel with their passions, the moment when you ask yourself “what can I do with all this?!”

I really like the @chalkwalk approach actually. The “hard decisions first” could be paramount. The fun part, for me, is in the sound itself, checking out what can I do with it, finding ways to do weird things on the music making tools I have; but after this I find myself with snippets, chunks of stuff and it’s hard to put them together (maybe because they came from different “sessions” in which I tried to do something different with them)

And, again, thank you all for your inputs. It’s an interesting pool of experiences, and the diving feels good

7 Likes