Q&A: Getting Ideas Out of Your Head & Moving Beyond the Same 3 Chords

Here is a message I received from a former private and current ScoreClub student where he expresses some very common problems composers face and that i have also worked through early on in my writing career.

Hey Alain, hope you’re doing well. I’m in a bit of a rut and I was hoping you could give me some suggestions..

Getting ideas out of my head and into my hands or computer. I’ll get specific melodic and rhythmic ideas in my head. But once I sit down to sketch ideas on the piano, I can’t translate what’s in my head to the piano. It’s like there’s a disconnect between my head and my fingers.

Developing a piece to be more than the same 3 or 4 chord progression. Coming from an alternative/pop background, sometimes it can be hard for me to break out of the repetitive chord progressions and develop harmonic variety. I know about borrowing chords. But besides a few that usually work, often they don’t always feel right. Maybe I’m overthinking it? Not sure.

Recently, I’m having more pressure to turn in work faster. So, obviously these things hinder me from being able to work faster yet still delivering something I can be happy with.

David Molina

Hi David,

I have gone through these two issues in my own development and have worked hard to move beyond them. A few things I will share here a few things I did and some ways I changed my thinking so that it’s no longer even close to an issue for me.


Mastering your writing process is a crucial part of being a composer, and your process will change as your musicianship develops. A few tips for you now.

Now, I am going to assume that you know how to figure out music by ear on the piano. This is something you have done from recordings before.

Here’s my first tip: don’t go to the piano too quickly.

If I was to tell you right now to play a melody you already know (let’s say Brahms’ Lullaby)  you would be able to. You have the melody in your mind and you would just do it.

The problem you are explaining to me could be that you are going too quickly to the piano and the idea you have was not clear in your mind and dissipates before you can capture it.

Don’t go to the piano too quick, play the idea through in your head a few times, let it be a bit clearer before you go so you have your idea memorized and then it will be more like taking that Brahms Lullaby and figuring it out.

Now, something happens when we start playing an idea and playing and writing it out, it can change. And that’s OK! I sometimes compare it to the “Observer Effect”, where the act of observing changes what is being observed.

Second tip: Do ear training

If you haven’t done ear training or it’s been a while, do it. Do it silently as well, build your ability to have a clear mental image of the music.

With a solid ear you could potentially capture the music you are imagining as it happens as well, but then it’s possible you don’t remember it after either! So my first tip still applies!

A great exercise would be to imagine a few notes completely in your mind and then play them. Do this with three notes let’s say to get started, then build to four then five etc…


 This is a very, very common concern students express. A few thoughts on this.

Write Melody First

If you are writing music aimed to be melodic, then focus on the melody. Write the melody first and then let the chords be a natural outgrowth of your melodic line.

Don’t focus on how many chords or the complexity of the chords. The “Raider’s March” has basically just the three primary chords with a single occurrence of the Neapolitan. That’s it!

The Melody-First approach is what you’ll find in my course “Orchestrating the Line” [Note: David is a student of that course] so that course which is perfect for you!

Also, the harmonizing chapters in “Essential Composer Training” would be of great help for that.

Develop your harmonic vocabulary

If you tend to do the same 3 or 4 chords, this it is likely that you would benefit from expanding your knowledge of chords.

Now, and this is important, I don’t mean know them on paper, I mean know them like you know a piece of grammar and language, know it to the point that it becomes a natural part of your creative thought.

(Again, this is exactly the approach taken in “Essential Composer Training”.)

Be fine with Failure

Going back to the same three or four chords means you are not getting out of your comfort zone as well.

Try new things and be prepared to fail and to have your music suck. Only then will get out of your comfort zone, stop playing it safe and writing the same safe chords and progressions and expand your horizons.

Fear of failure. That’s what it is, no more no less. We all have it.

And the ironic thing is you’ll write faster and better too and meet your deadlines!

You have to dig through the dirt to get to the gold!



October 25, 2016

3 responses on "Q&A: Getting Ideas Out of Your Head & Moving Beyond the Same 3 Chords"

  1. Really helpful! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks for this Alain. I had never thought about starting with melody as a way help with chord progressions and harmonic variety but I started it this week and it has made a big difference already. My next step is to go through the orchestration course this week. Thanks for all these resources!

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About Alain Mayrand

Alain is a working composer, orchestrator, conductor and orchestrator. His credits include "Elysium", "Ender's Game" and more.

Read more about Alain on the About Page

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