Music tips

The Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro Technique is a great way to stay focussed, maintain a flow state and get things done quicker. It was developed in the 1990s by Francesco Cirillo to divide sections of focussed work and break time into blocks of time. Pomodoro in this case refers to the tomato-shaped timer the Italian used to develop the idea during his university days. The blocked time schedule works as follows—25 minute of focussed work (also called a pomodoro) on the task at hand and then 5 minutes of break time. These blocks are to be timed and adhered to strictly with the premise being that short spurts of focussed work can increase mental clarity and focus. It’s also recommended to break specific steps or tasks down into pomodoros—so you could break your routine into a 25-minute pomodoro for chords, a 25-minute pomodoro for lyric writing and beyond.

Stream of consciousness

Stream of consciousness is especially popular in writing circles. Poets and authors have used the technique to spur on ideas and tap into the subconscious mind. The technique translates fairly well to writing music but there’s a few things to keep in mind when trying it. Sit down, relax and grab your instrument of choice, forget everything you know about music theory and rules or structure, and dial in a great tone and pick some effects you like. Now all you have to do is stare out the window and play whatever comes to mind. Let your mind and your fingers guide you and have a little unstructured self jam. After a while, you might notice some patterns, chords and notes you like. Make note of them and start working out a riff or lick you’d like to try building a song around.

Do a sound walk

Your neighborhood is full of interesting sounds. Why not go find them, record them and put them into your own context? Just grab your field recorder (the smartphone in your pocket is a great starter) and hit the streets. Think of places around you where you could get an interesting snippet to sample—loud conversations at your local Italian coffee shop, college students wandering home late at night during frosh week, birds in the morning, church bells ringing, rainfall… the list goes on and on. Once you record them, they’re sounds that only you have. So get inspired and find some songwriting inspiration with a carefully considered sound walk.

Use a tape machine

Setting restraints around your songwriting workflow is always a great way to fuel creativity. It’s fun working inside a box and it can help with finding the right musical colors to paint inside or outside the lines. One such box that’s stood the test of time is the classic four-track tape machines that were popularized by TASCAM in the 80s and 90s. It’s essentially an analog DAW that makes it possible to record up to four tracks onto tape. Even today many artists use these simple vintage tape machines to flesh out demos and even get a lo-fi sound. Recording with one is easy if you play guitar or keys and have access to a mic and pre-amp. Start out by writing down your song structure, then decide on a chord progression to record onto track one, after that write out the harmonies, vocals and lead lines on the remaining tracks. Of course, if you don’t want to buy all that gear you could always use a free songwriting app, like Spire, on your smartphone—to me it really emulates that classic tape machine workflow and you can take it anywhere!

Learn a new scale

Diving into new music theory concepts is always a great way to stimulate your songwriting chops. As much as they’re useful, minor, major and pentatonic scales can seem stale and dry if you’re stuck in a rut. Why not try incorporating some lesser-known scales into your songwriting workflow? Do you know your modes yet? What about the whole-tone scale, or the microtonal world of Euler-Fokker scales? You don’t need to spend time learning how to play a lesser-known scale on your instrument either, there’s plenty of MIDI sequencing tools that make it easy to sequence notes to a specific scale.