Category Archives: Emotion

The Black Dog: More thoughts on writers’ block

In response to a recent post by Zack Moir, I thought I might wade in with some related musings and give offer suggestions to banish the ‘black dog’ that is writer’s block.

In common with Zack, I struggle to balance my musical practice with the teaching and administrative demands of academia, and the general push and pull of simply living life. I recognise all of the worries that he outlines – and, I dare say, that they are probably universally experienced by those who compose music. The act of committing musical ideas to paper (or hard-disc), for posterity is a daunting prospect. Improvisation, albeit differently challenging, doesn’t run the same risk of sustained critique – when it’s over, it’s over and quickly becomes just a vague memory (good or bad). Composing, however, exposes you to the judgement of fellow musicians, listeners and critics. And, most frighteningly, they have the ability to review your work over and over again, giving you never ending fresh insights into what’s wrong with your it (or, on a brighter day, what’s right about it).

Personally, I find the following strategies provide some motivation. And motivation is generally the first stumbling block over which to jump:

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Writers’ Block

Introduction:

I have writers’ block, when it comes to composition.  I have had it for nearly two years. I have not written a full piece of music that I have been happy with in a long time.  It is starting to stress me out…

What is writers’ block, though?  Many people say that it doesn’t even exist, and that it is just a combination of procrastination, trepidation, and fear of artistic commitment.  That’s probably true , using the term ‘writer’s block’ as some sort of catch-all term for one all encompassing monolithic problem is probably not helpful or appropriate.  Regardless, it feels like an appropriate term and the notion of ‘blockage’, is particularly apt in my case as many of my problems seem to stem from not being able to get close enough to this type of work to develop any ideas or to encourage any artistic ‘juices’ to flow.

When I sit and think about my dearth of ideas and what seems like a crippling lack of creativity, I feel like I can see a number of reasons why this may be the case.  While this is, in some ways, useful as it helps me to see the potential causes, it also has a compounding effect as I know how difficult it will be to try to get past some of the hurdles.  This leads to a spiral of worry about the potential of being in this position permanently and leads to bigger and more important questions such as:  What effect might this have on my teaching?  How might this impact on my musicianship? What on earth can I do to get over this?

The following is my explanation of what I think the main problems are:

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Penguins, Snowpeople and a Man on the Moon: The ‘John-Lewis-isation’ of Pop Songs

Introduction:

The other day I was playing a game with my three year old daughter in which we were making up funny songs, based on themes that we each took turns to suggest.  So, I had to come up with songs about sheep, or busses, or cakes, for example.  One song that she sang sounded particularly happy and upbeat – a fun kid’s song.  Just out of curiosity, I then asked her to sing me a ‘sad song’, and what she did was (a) hilarious, and (b) really interesting.  She basically just sung the same melody but slower, in a breathy, fragile voice, and did so while pretending to look ‘sad’ (in the same way that a mime-artist might do).  This was wonderful as it linked directly to something that has been floating around in my head for the last few Christmases.  Namely, the phenomenon of the ‘Christmas advert’ – typified by those for John Lewis(a UK department store), for example – which seem to have become (inter)national events, in recent years.

Christmas Adverts:

Most people reading this, certainly those from the UK will be familiar with the phenomenon that I am referring to.  Essentially, these are adverts (commercials) that last for approximately 2 minutes in which a supposedly heartwarming, Christmas (or winter, at least) narrative is played out, often with an emotional message or display of seasonal good will.  Importantly, however, the songs used in each of the adverts are cover versions of famous pop songs.  If you are not sure what I am referring to then the following example is the most recent John Lewis advert (‘The Man on The Moon’) featuring a cover version of ‘Half the World Away’, by Oasis.

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Six things that I REALLY like about music

1. Music is Simple

Striking a bell creates a beautiful resonance; it swells and then fades to silence. Bizarrely, we find the experience beautiful. Music really is so simple. Make things vibrate and enjoy the consequence, that’s it! Overanalyse it and miss the point?

Now for an analysis:

Much of our western harmonic system can be thought of in terms of the harmonic series, which is simply whole number multiples of a common fundamental frequency.

An Octave – 1/2 (yes, pedants it’s the reciprocal)
A Perfect 5th – 2/3
A Perfect 4th – 3/4
A Major 3rd – 4/5

Don’t let yourself be fooled by the language in Ramou’s Treaties on Harmony (1722) or the The Lydian chromatic concept of tonal organization for improvisation (Russell, 1961), underneath are simple primary-school fractions.

Composers and musicians from Mongolian throat singers to Nigel Osborne understand this powerful simplicity and utilise it with varying degrees of consciousness and sub-consciousness. It seems we are innately tuned in to these ratios that nature has handed us. Nevertheless, simple systems give rise to emergent complexity.

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Improvisation Between Compass Points: the debt to and burden of jazz

In response to the excellent contributions by Dr Zack Moir [1] and Dr Richard Worth [2] I thought I might add my tuppence worth on the subject of jazz improvisation from an autoethnographic perspective.
Like many of my fellow jazz musicians, I was bitten by the jazz bug somewhere in my mid-teens. Having grown up listening to the popular music of the day (I’ll avoid examples so as not to give away my age), I began to take guitar lessons from the extraordinary Edinburgh based polymath, Francis Cowan. Francis, who is sadly no longer with us, was an internationally acclaimed double bass player – the go-to bassist of choice for visiting musicians in the days where itinerant musicians would perform with a local rhythm section. Double bass was only one of many musical instruments that Francis played to ‘concert standard’. He was also a highly regarded lutenist, reflecting his passion for Early Music and was adept on a range of instruments ranging from cello to trumpet. He also reputedly fluently spoke nine languages and was an avid twitcher (bird-watcher).
I went to him initially for classical guitar lessons but while waiting in the hallway outside his sitting room for him to finish his personal practice sessions (sometimes for several hours), my ears were opened to the melodies and harmonies of jazz – jazz guitar being another of his talents. It wasn’t long before I persuaded him that this was the music that I’d prefer to play and my efforts in classical guitar were confined to a footnote in my musical development. Continue reading Improvisation Between Compass Points: the debt to and burden of jazz

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Top 5 Records:

OK, if you are reading any of the posts on this site you are probably a bit of a music geek (compliment, not pejorative)!  So, be honest – is there anyone who doesn’t (at least secretly) enjoy the ‘Top 5 Records’ game?  If you’re not quite sure what I am referring to then have a quick look at this clip from the film ‘High Fidelity’ from 2000 in which a group of record store employees indulge in a round of the game (as they do throughout the film).  Not only do they  demonstrate how the game works but they also show, and caricature, a lot of the other interesting attitudes that surround the choices that people make when asked to list their top 5 records.
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From Debussy to Pharrell: How extended harmony ‘brightens up’ a pop landscape.

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Mapping the Future for Music and Health Research in Scotland

Everyone who enjoys music knows it can make them feel good. They recognise the welcome of an old favourite, or the excitement of hearing for the first time something they know they’re going to love. Musicians and healthcare professionals have long been aware of the potential for music, played or heard, to affect our health; the earliest applications of music in clinical settings in the UK date back more than a century (1). More recently, research interest in these links has burgeoned across the life sciences, particularly here in Scotland. On June 23rd, the new Scottish Music and Health Network brought together more than a hundred researchers, musicians, clinicians and patient group representatives from around Scotland (with a few from further south) to discuss how to build the evidence for music as a means to improve wellbeing.

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Naturally Musical

Viewing landscapes “employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it; tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it.” That quote is from pioneering American landscape architect Frederik Law Olmsted. But it could apply equally to music listening. It’s well known that music encourages a mood, can support a sense of well being, and associates with place. But many environmental specialists and health researchers claim similar benefits from natural environments.

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