This is something I’ve thought about for years and routinely wrestle with. Some of the things that my hands and brain do most naturally when I pick up an instrument or sit down to program are the things that I am least interested in ever doing musically - and some of the things that I most want to actually create or do musically feel the most unnatural or even unpleasant, like I have to work against my rotten intuition to actually steer away from what I want to do naturally in favor of what I actually intend to do.
My first instrument was guitar and to this day, my fingers want to play the wankiest blues riffs and solos when I pick up a guitar. I hate the blues and never want to intentionally do this and yet if I let my mind wander, my fingers’ first intuition is to start bending those notes and vamping those sevenths like John Mayer backing up Michael Bolton and Bonnie Raitt at some godawful Stevie Ray Vaughan tribute. I hate that stuff! Why does it feel so good and natural for my ape-hands to do it? Even back when I was writing songs on guitar, it always felt natural and intuitive to do things that were farthest from what I actually wanted to do on the instrument and it felt difficult and against my nature to, with great effort, do the things I actually wanted to hear.
I encounter this with electronic gear just as much. If I just went with my gut, with my intuition, first thought best thought, whatever “feels good” to my hands, I’d churn out music that I do not want to intentionally make or hear. To create what I want to hear is possible, but it takes attentive work - and as soon as I start improvising or jamming, all of a sudden I’m back to making something that feels good to my nature and hands but is not what I actually want to accomplish. There are times that, like some sort of hypnosis, I get a few minutes down this wrong path and kind of snap myself out of it and go “no, man, you were working toward an intentional vision and now you’re wanking that filter tweak like DJ Bobby Bitcoin at a plague rave in Ibiza!”
Does anyone else experience anything like this? I knew a guy once that could only write the great, heartfelt songs he wanted to through immense effort but could practically freestyle entire obscene/parodic/silly-stupid songs in realtime that he would be mortified to ever have associated with him.
I 100% understand that feeling that the stuff that comes out naturally can feel wrong…but I think I try to approach things like that self-doubt/feeling of it being wrong is actually the wrong part.
Maybe you like to noodle in the minor pentatonic because it feels good…but maybe rather than letting yourself dismiss that it’s dumb you try to embrace the feeling, but expand and move laterally (start hitting the wrong notes, kraut out on a super hypnotic lick, whatever).
I think I’ve learned over the past few years that my intuition is usually right, but I have to trust myself to know how to “curate” it and try to actually listen to it for what it is and wants to be (in a non-competitive mindset, including non-competitive with yourself, which can be extremely difficult).
At least fo me, the things I’m most proud of (and enjoy the most) that I’ve made are the creative moments I happened to capture, almost unintentionally as they usually have a kind of quirky expressive character that even surprises me sometimes. it’s not usually the more overwrought (or super planned out) stuff.
I think, on some level, most compelling, novel, innovative or experimental art requires the artist to be able to short-circuit some of the natural feedback loops in their creative brain and strike out, in intentional and perhaps bold or drastic ways, into unfamiliar or uncomfortable territory. I think a lot of us default to somewhat pedestrian or cliche impulses if we don’t do that - personally, I seem to instantly default to New Order or Orbital melodic tendencies if you get me in front of a traditional keyboard and get a standard beat going. Not the worst place to be, all things considered, so it rarely causes much cognitive dissonance, but it’s still something I have to push against, gently or not-so-gently, to get to the more interesting stuff. Or, go sideways/lateral rather than push against. But I think this is a conflict and tension many people are familiar with. I don’t think you should feel the need to 1) embrace those tendencies, nor 2) synthesize or harmonize those tendencies with less intuitive stuff. I think a lot of interesting music comes directly out of grappling with the exact stuff you’re grappling with. Maybe there’s no need for resolution. As the saying goes, “sit with the discomfort.”
This is precisely the reason I started my modular synth; I made it with no keyboard or conventional manner of creating melody and rhythm. In this regard it forced me to think differently about what melody and rhythm might be. In contrast it was all to easy to lean on habits when playing keyboard. More than that, I’d often make music that I think others might be happy to have made, but isn’t really what I aspire to: this has been a challenge for me that I’ve been addressing in various ways over the last year or so.
One “keyboard trick” that works for me sometimes is to chromatically (or even diatonically, across modes) transpose. In particular each piano key tends to make certain riffs and movements easier or harder than others. If I play in one key and mode and transpose it chromatically and correct it diatonically to another key/mode, I’ll have made quite different choices.
I’ve also found that listening to what is already in place is absolutely key to making new things. If I rush to play I rely on the things I know and end up going down commonly visited avenues. If I spend the time to listen and deliberately try and turn things I do around, I can device more interesting figures. Combine this with the modular (even if it doesn’t feature in the final track), and I find I can still play the keyboard, but on a foundation that is far removed from what I would ordinarily. This lets me make something new.
TL;DR: when you work in the moment too much you can fall into familiar patterns. Give yourself time, space and permission to explore and you can find something new.
I saw a vid called What Key is Hey Joe in? by Adam Neely where he talks about how often the most common chords and notes associated with an instrument relate to how the instrument tuning is laid out. The most common chords of G, C, D, Emin, Amin are that way because it’s extremely easy to play them on guitar and show up in variations of Cmajor. Similarly piano is easiest to hammer something out when only using the pentatonic black keys or only using C major white keys. In DAWs or grooveboxes, there’s often a default template such as a default BPM, key, and mode.
Often you’ve just got to catch yourself when you’re playing yet another E minor pentatonic overdrive AC/DC riff. I’ve forced myself to only play at a very slow / very fast BPM. I’ve set the key to G sharp locrian even if I hate that mode I figure it out and try to discover something. Whoops, I’m playing yet another 120BPM Cmajor synth arp melody, got to stop and google “how to do polyrhythms”.
Also straight up copying another person’s style for practice opens up worlds of perspective. For guitar, I had trouble playing and writing slow music, so I loaded up some Earth songs and realized they’re playing much slower than I had realized and it takes a different part of my brain to do that sort of task. Similarly megadeth plays even faster on their live albums I’m pretty sure. Fully Automatic Pentatonic Blues Riffs might be the default for some but others have yet another open tuning emo math rock riffs as their default, but each might look at the other and wonder how they do that.
I think a big part of this can be helped by really intentionally practicing an instrument. Noodling and riffing should be easy and comfortable, and is often the unconscious stuff we picked up in the early days of leaning the instrument, because then, every time we played was practice.
Practice should be hard and uncomfortable. It should be something you can only sustain for maybe half an hour a day, but in that process it should re-write the automatic responses. For guitar, that could be coming to the instrument as a complete beginner again and learning to play classical guitar, with all the discomfort and difficulty that brings. If its not coming naturally to you, that’s good, that means it is breaking down all those automatic pathways, and if you practice a lot and regularly, you will start re-writing those pathways.
I play clawhamer banjo outside of electronic music and that relies 100% on muscle memory to pull of the fast rhythmic style, which means often you end up sounding the same every time you pick it up. To add some variation, I need to learn new techniques, which is REALLY hard because it completely disrupts the automatic muscle memory. All the automatic speedy playing disappears and I sound like a beginner again, even through 90% of the techniques I am using are familiar, adding the one new thing completely disrupts that. But I do it again and again every day for just half an hour and the automatic patterns start to form again, this time including the new technique. Eventually I have enough techniques that are automatic that I can sound pretty varied and interesting.
It’s a little bit less obvious with electronic music how to practice Vs jam, and how to know which one you are doing. I think intentionally seperating those and dedicating some time to actually practicing, which it sounds from your original post you are already doing, would help. And then trying to apply something you picked up from the practice session into a jam, the stuff you play automatically will slowly line up with the sounds you want to make.
Edit to add:
On the subject of intentionally making the music you want to create feeling uncomfortable or even unpleasant, I used to play the double bass, and spending a whole 2 hours orchestra practice with one hand held up by your head was pretty nasty, and that’s not even getting into the blood blisters on the right hand!! I dont want to be all like ‘suffer for your art’ but art IS difficult. Creating something interesting and original is hard work, and if you’d re struggling that means you’re doing something right!
As far as electronic music goes, I think this is where new gear can actually be a real boon! Each machine has a different character, a different pallette, different pathways. I’m a guitar player as well, and although I don’t really know theory, I also find myself playing into ruts (in my case, playing the same or similar shapes up and down the fretboard). Coming to electronic music (and especially, but not only modular) felt so freeing because all of the sudden I was working with a completely different ‘person’ and each piece of gear that passed through my hands was another new ‘person’ with all the quirks and idiosyncrasies and habits we would associate with a fresh new body. There’s a great little bit John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats has where he explains that he called himself The Mountain Goats (plural) because the old Panasonic boombox that he recorded a lot of his early stuff on was such a busted, obstinate piece of machinery that it felt like a second band member.
Now, I’m not suggesting that you go grabbing up every piece of gear that happens to cross your path. GAS can be just as damaging to your creativity as anything, as I’m sure we all know. But the act of learning a new piece of gear or sound-making suite or what have you is by its very nature practice, at least to begin with. I really like the analogies of making a new friend (or friends) and of working with an entirely new body part or appendage. Every workflow works differently and requires something different from you in order to function (properly or improperly ). And when you find yourself getting into a rut, combine workflows! Will my friends like one another? Is this dinner party doomed to corner-dwelling cliquing or will we all get together and dance in the living room? Can I juggle using only my front- and back-tails?
Quick edit: I don’t want to make it sound like I’m advocating over-consumption as a creative strategy. There is a wealth of Casio Bumpy-Dumps sitting in thrift shops around the world just waiting for someone to play them. So I just want to add (and this ties in nicely with the Darnielle story) that broken stuff is friendly too! Please, Bumpy-Dumps is lonely! Be their friend!
Considering the lineage of the instrument it isn’t super surprising. I have a similar thing on the double bass: strauss, bach, standards jazz, etc feel amazing to play because the instrument and the standard technique are basically designed / evolved to play them. I have to make myself work against these affordances (or repurpose them) but it’s additionally challenging because I feel like I never measure up to what the affordances could afford, and since I enjoy their feeling I spend a lot of time reinforcing them by practising standard techniques like scales and bowings and arpeggios and whatever.
It is interesting how much of playing an instrument is feel and not sound. I play bass (longest but lapsed), drums (current main), and piano (noob) and find them physically satisfying to play. I listen to a lot of guitar-based music. I’ve owned multiple guitars. I know basic chords and can manage some barre chords. I’ve realized over at least 15 years that no matter how many times I pick up a guitar I’m not going to enjoy it. My hands feel cramped; I don’t care about the upper range of the instrument at all; I find myself just chugging power chords and getting bored. I love playing with guitarists. I love listening to guitar. I don’t think I’ll ever be a guitarist.
These are fantastic points re: the lineage of the instrument / the music written for it over time. For acoustic instruments in particular, this is something that I tend to lean into as a choice. I know I will play differently on different variants or configurations of an instrument family, even when trying to play the same thing. The voicing/articulations/etc of a good riff will have a different feel when trying to work with the instrument whether (e.g. for stringed bass) it’s fretted or fretless bass guitar, upright with piezo or magnetic pickups, and so on. Allowing the instrument to have its voice as a partner, not just a tool, has lead to wonderful discoveries.
Full acknowledgement that this can lead to bad GAS. I hate having instruments — acoustic, electronic, etc — just sitting around unplayed, though, and my monkey brain simply doesn’t handle a massive table of gear with rows of instrument stands galore. So there’s a built-in limiter in effect. (Keep saying that to yourself, buddy… you’re not fooling yourself yet).
Apologies if that made zero sense. This topic has been a joy and relief to read.
I really appreciated the responses here. Seems to break down to change the instrument or really practice something new.
A year plus ago I took about 6-8 vocal lessons. Each week or 2 he’d pick a song and have me sing it. Most were out of my comfort zone, but I wanted that. One (if not maybe 2) we’re John Mayer songs I wasn’t familiar with. I can now probably do a good rendition of “Gravity” at karaoke. And tbh learning it wasn’t easy. Same with actual John Mayer guitar stuff let alone Bonnie Raitt slide or SRV. In some ways practicing things you might be afraid to sound like can give you more appreciation for how hard it is to sound like that.
Side note 2 re: practice vs ____. If you look around you can find some duet footage of Thurston Moore and Cecil Taylor from near the turn of the century. I was there as an uneducated teen SY fan. I was blown away by Cecil’s playing and to this day as still just barely beginning to comprehend how Monk’s Bemsha Swing became Cecil Taylor’s Bemsha Swing. And there was TM with a jazzblaster and a peavey bandit … somehow sort of keeping up? Through sheer free gumption? But definitely (and I don’t mean this as a slight) not learned study of all jazz. Just to say that doing hard things can elevate players if the parameters are open enough.
Side note 2: I have a problem with electronic stuff where either I end up with a new sequence going stale or a stochastic sound never quite repeating enough to sound musical. It’s almost as if the Sequencer boxes itself in just like I might with a distorted guitar and Emin pentatonic.
Causes me physical pain to read this. To me, it feels natural because it IS natural. It’s what the guitar wants to play.
This is the stuff. It’s like the midpoint between your intention (the “work”) and what just naturally exists (the “grace”). A lot of the beauty was pre-existing, inherent in the geometry of music itself. That’s the “natural” part that just comes out, unasked for (and apparently sometimes unwanted). The work is shaping it with your intention. This allows you to stand on the shoulders of giants, and I don’t mean other musicians by “giants”. I’m talking about the vastness of creation, all that came before you.
Most composers find their ideas through improvisation. If you fight what comes naturally to you, you’re just going to end up feeling blocked. Expanding that world is the way to go. Lean into it. Blues can be a gateway to jazz, for one idea.
Fantastic advice. I wish I had the space to keep a bunch of guitars in different tunings at all times.
Please no, I 100% relate to this struggle and my hands default to blues pentatonics when I pick up a guitar, but don’t hate blues in general! Blind Willie Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Leadbelly, Son House, these people have made some of the most raw, gut-wrenching and powerful music of the last 100+ years.
While it’s done to death at this point by the John Mayer’s and blues dads of the world, I don’t hate blues on the whole, you need to revisit the good stuff if that’s the case.
This is all about habits to me - I learned guitar when I was a kid from a 60 year old Californian blues rock tragic, so for years all I would play when jamming with people was BB King licks. But he also taught me a lot of interesting fingerstyle acoustic technique, which comes in handy now for the styles I actually want to play (the Durutti Column style, bossa influenced fingerstyle electric playing).
Once you get new habits, you’ll default to them, and then be annoyed that you’re defaulting to playing the same bossa chords over and over!
It happens on any instrument, our brains just sub-consciously seek the intervals that are pleasing or interesting that we’ve heard elsewhere. Without even thinking critically about scales, if we’re in a melancholy mood while making a song we’ll seek out the “sad” intervals that are associated in our sub-conscious through years of music listening. You can’t be too hard on yourself about it. Notice that this is happening, and then tweak it in different ways to make it your own
Over the past year and a bit of working from home, I’ve been running to the piano at least twice a day for some “coffee break practice”. I don’t know that what I’m doing is hard, just short bursts of focus on new (and thus uncomfortable) things that maybe aren’t very compelling to play around with when I’m sitting down to try and make some music.
It’s been extremely helpful for me in terms of re-writing the automatic responses. I hadn’t really thought about it that way until @nonverbalpoetry mentioned it.