While there are no foolproof ways to get a piece of music going, a useful strategy is to think in terms of broad strokes first, then smaller details. This is the musical equivalent of the writer who gets an initial rough draft down, then refines it later. It reminds me of something I heard a graduate school classmate, Dan, once say: If I have words on the page, then I have something to build on. Using the broad strokes first strategy means that you begin with the most general parameters to guide what you’ll be doing. For example, you might decide on a tempo*, a key, or a set of sounds to establish parameters for your music. My go-to broad strokes first move is finding a chord progression–even if it’s just a few chords. A useful thing about chord progressions that’s easy to overlook is that they always go somewhere over time: they literally progress within a tonal space and in so doing set up a structure for your attention. While I aim for a perfect take, usually I record a progression that’s not entirely right that I then edit into something better.
Depending on the sound I’m working with, I often like the chords but not the sound. When this happens, I alter the sound until it’s compelling in some way. Since I’m still working on broad strokes though, I keep the process moving along. Rather than sound-designing from scratch to alter the sound, I use effects or effect racks I’ve already made to hear how they shape it. Whether I improvise something in one pass or edit it into a better timbral hue, the goal is these broad strokes is generating something interesting on its own–something I could listen to on its own without getting bored.
Once a broad stroke sound is happening, its smaller details tend to come to the foreground, inviting my further attention and finessing. For example, as I apply an effect I might notice an interesting artifact such as a faint harmonic. When this happens I quickly look for its source–Is there a volume control for this?–so I can boost the artifact to make it more obvious. If there aren’t details coming to the foreground, I return to the chords themselves and try ways of building upon them. Remember that even the shortest chord sequence can be copied to other parts, halved or doubled in length, transposed into higher or lower octaves, inverted, and so on. Chords contain multitudes too–their root notes might become a bass part, and their top notes a melody. Between sound designing and chord deconstruction, the producer has endless options for timbral and tonal invention. In sum, the powerful thing about a broad strokes first, then smaller details approach is that it clarifies a workflow, gets your momentum rolling, and contains everything you need to build a piece of music.
*I often keep the same fast tempo (north of 140 bpm) for a collection of pieces, not because it suits the pieces but because I forget to change it and usually begin a piece by playing without listening to a metronome click. This sets up a situation in which I play slow against a fast moving pulse I didn’t know was there.