Often I find myself re-listening to certain parts of a piece repeatedly when composing it, generally hundreds of times in a short time. This creates a pattern of behaviour that becomes dull and unproductive, but is hard to change. How do I avoid being "stuck" in such a rut?

I have tried changing my environment, flooding my ears with irrelevant music, getting up from my computer and doing something else, but next time I listen to my composition it always sounds a lot more "dull" than at first listen. How do I revive this "first-listen" vibe?

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    Huh, I don't listen to any of my compositions a hundred times before I finish them, let alone hundreds of times. Maybe try listening to your pieces fewer times in total? – Dekkadeci Feb 13 '18 at 1:03
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    You need only one question: “Why am I listening?” Your answer to that question may bring others, and it’ll illuminate where you are in the creative cycle. If you listen without purpose then you operate without purpose. Even in the presence of purpose if your reason does not ultimately lead to strengthening the piece, then you are wasting your time and energy. It doesn’t matter if you use a computer or an instrument to play back, because the focus is the impetus. Answer this first question and then listen, or not. – jjmusicnotes Feb 13 '18 at 2:38

I know that temptation well, and it's one of the reasons I strongly prefer to compose with the computer shut off entirely. Paper may seem boring, but it enforces a workflow that keeps your head much better open for thinking ahead, forming a holistic concept before getting lost in details, and it doesn't allow you to be lazy and copy too much around.

  • Best answer! Should be accepted. – Stinkfoot Feb 13 '18 at 3:06

Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt explored this exact problem with their Oblique Strategies, a series of prompts and thoughts designed to break loose of repetitive processes and loss of creative thinking. Here is a handy web application that shows you random picks from the strategies (and there are several others if this link goes down).


Brian Eno discussing the strategies, in 'Keyboard' magazine, 1981

"Most of the Oblique Strategies deal more with approach than with specific techniques, so in that sense they imply a philosophy about working. As the list became longer it became more unwieldy, so I transferred the ideas onto cards about the same size as playing cards. During recording I would pull a card at random and spend a few minutes pondering how the message on the card related to what I was engaged upon. The usefulness of this exercise is that it temporarily removes you from the nuts and bolts of what you're doing. It asks you to reconsider the work on a conceptual level. Often I decided before pulling a card to accept its advice even if that advice seemed distinctly inappropriate. These occasions have proved to be some of the most pertinent uses of the cards. Shortly after I had transferred the list onto cards, I showed them to my friend Peter Schmidt, the painter. It transpired that over the previous few years he had been making a similar list, and that our two lists contained a number of almost identical propositions. What was so interesting was that many of our ideas were transferable. Strategies that he had evolved in relation to painting made sense musically, and vice versa."


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