Electronic Musician FEBRUARY 2002 - by Frank Jones


There's a great scene in the movie Slacker in which a spaced-out but kindly hippie amuses her friends by trying to solve their problems with a deck of cards. Upon greeting someone, the woman fans the deck and asks the person to select each of which is inscribed the a Zen-like, ambiguous suggestion for approaching a dilemma. The results are some of the funniest moments in the movie.

Created in 1975 by producer Brian Eno and painter Peter Schmidt as a way to break through creative blockage, that deck of cards is called the Oblique Strategies. Over the years, the Oblique Strategies has developed a cult-like following of musicians and artists, largely because of the universal nature of the inscriptions. Although four editions have been printed, there are only a few thousand decks in existence, and those are highly prized by collectors.

Luckily, several digital versions of the deck are available online. If you have ever found yourself creatively blocked or feeling uninspired, the strategies just may be your ticket to summoning the muses - provided you can find the right interpretation.

Although inscriptions such as Take away the elements in order of apparent non-importance and Just carry on seem self-explanatory, others are not so obvious. To address this, I've compiled my favourite Oblique Strategies and added ideas for using them in desktop music production. These interpretations could serve as a starting point - or better yet, inspire you to come up with your own creative strategies. So let's shuffle those cards and begin.

Are there sections? Consider transitions

Is that verse-to-chorus transition sounding a bit rough? How about adding a two- or four-bar bridge to smooth it out? Does your song begin with an instrumental version of the verse? You may want to write an introduction that is more elaborate. Transitions are an excellent way to spruce up what is otherwise a traditional arrangement.

Turn it upside down

Vicki Sue Robinson had a major hit by advising people to turn the beat around, but this Oblique Strategy applies to more than just the beat. If you rely on musical notation or your sequencing application supports it, consider inverting the notes for a few measures.

Be dirty

All those valuable recording techniques you've learned? Forget 'em for a minute. That old distortion pedal lying in the corner? Run the snare drum through it - even if it's broken. Take one track in your piece and use it as a textbook example of what not to do when recording. Keep the results.

Change instrument roles

Swap the bass and organ patches, assign the piano part to the string patch, and vice versa. This trick almost invariably leads to interesting results.

Emphasize repetitions

Add a repeating figure, apply a digital delay, or repeat a lyric for dramatic effect. (She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah!) This strategy leaves a lot of room for exploration.

Breathe more deeply

Oxygen is surprisingly useful when you're composing.

Honour thy error as a hidden intention

Probably the most famous of the Oblique Strategies, this thought should be kept in mind in all situations - creative or otherwise. Whenever possible, save your interesting mistakes. They may come in handy later in the composition process.

What are the sections sections of? Imagine a caterpillar moving

Is your latest composition just a movement in a larger opus? It's something to consider.

Only one element of each kind

This is a great way to clean up a track quickly. Are there two chordal parts - a pad and a piano comp, perhaps? Pick your favourite and delete the other one. Once the track has a bit of breathing room, you'll better be able to judge where you're headed.

Is there something missing?

Is there?

Emphasize differences

In the mixing realm, it's important to give each element its own distinct identity. For example, if a highlighted flute passage has a bit of reverb on it, slather on more and then remove reverb from the rest of the instruments. Applying this strategy to the arrangement process, you might choose to make a legato string phrase even more flowing, while shortening the notes of a solo instrument.

You don't have to be ashamed of using your own ideas

Are you changing your song so it sounds more like something on the radio or by your favourite artist? Don't.

Tidy up

Tidy up is one of my favourite strategies because I've never been able to determine whether it's a suggestion to reconsider the arrangement or an admonishment to clean my studio.

Do the words need changing?

Nothing kills a song faster than an awkward couplet. Take a moment to evaluate your lyrics.

Use an unacceptable colour

How about some jazz saxophone in that industrial dance track? Or polka accordion in your latest classical opus? Pedal-steel guitar might sound wonderful in a salsa piece, but you won't know until you try.

Make a sudden, destructive, unpredictable action; incorporate

First, back up your song (just in case). Then, try one of the following: randomly highlight one or more tracks and hit Delete, randomly select a track and apply a radical effect to it, or (my personal favourite) randomly reassign MIDI program numbers to each track and continue from there. Live with the results for a while- - no cheating with the Undo button.

Humanize something free of error

Turn off the quantization every once in a while. Or, as an alternative, sing one of your favourite sequenced elements and record the results. What could be more human than that?

Look at the order in which you do things

Do you always start with a drum pattern or chords or lyrics? Next time, try beginning your composition with the bass line or a melodic riff.

Use filters

Especially swept, resonant filters.

Fill every beat with something

This doesn't have to be a note; try changing the panning, EQ, or effects-send level of a track on every beat. Or try spreading a sixteenth-note phrase among instruments on multiple tracks. The old Yamaha TX802 sound module had a cool feature that triggered a new sound on every note, rotating among eight sounds. This can be duplicated in a sequencer by repeatedly selecting every other note in a track, cutting and pasting the notes to a new track, and changing the new track's patch. (It's even easier if your sequencer has a select every nth note feature.)

Decorate, decorate

A flute trill here, a wah-wah lick there... Add a percussion fill and a piano gliss, or an orchestral filigree. Remember, decorations don't have to be pretty.

Listen to the quiet voice

Too often we ignore our gut instincts, Sometimes it's necessary to give up on a piece that isn't working. Maybe that guitar riff you love so much just doesn't work on your latest ballad. Learn to trust your intuition.

Is it finished?

Desktop musicians should ask this question hourly. It's far too easy to fall into the it's almost there trap. If you're not sure about a song's status, save a mix to tape or CD-RW periodically. (Be sure to note or save your current settings.) Wait a day, and before you begin your work again, review those rough mixes, You may be surprised at what you find.

Put in earplugs

This is a neat trick because it forces you to listen differently. Alternately, listen to the mix from a different room or down the hall. Changing your acoustic environment can often give you a helpful perspective.

Abandon normal instruments

Are you using acoustic instruments (or realistic samples)? Switch to synth textures, or better yet, use an alternate controller. Using drum pads to play a guitar patch can open new directions.

Repetition is a form of change

This classic Eno-ism might form the basis for most of today's electronica, but it's always an interesting approach. Rock 'n' roll and almost all its subsets are based on this principle. Can it apply to your composition?


Back in 1975, when the Oblique Strategies were created, this feat required a bit of preparation. In today's era of sequencers and hard-disk recording, it's embarrassingly easy to do. Start experimenting with playing tracks or phrases backwards).

Distorting time

This might include slowing the tempo, doubling (or halving) the durations of individual notes, or applying an unusual time-stretching algorithm such as granular synthesis to a sound or track. But it might also involve juxtaposing sounds or styles from different historical periods.

Discover the recipes you are using and abandon them

Do you always compose in the studio? Take a small tape recorder to an unusual place and hum melodies into it. Do you frequently record in the late evening? Wake up early one Saturday and lay down a few tracks. It doesn't matter what it is; just do something to change your usual - and possibly limiting - approaches to creating.

Mute and continue

If this trick isn't part of your mixing repertoire, consider adding it immediately. Muting various instruments periodically is a great way to shed light on which parts are enhancing a track and which are merely taking up valuable space.

Cut a vital connection

Delete a melody or the snare drum or the vocals. Don't look back.

Convert a melodic element into a rhythmic element

This is another trick that is made blissfully easy with MIDI. Simply reassign a melody or harmony track to a drum or percussion patch. It's sometimes helpful to add a synchronized echo effect to the resulting track. To do this, divide sixty thousand by the tempo; the resulting number will give you the value in milliseconds for a quarter-note echo. Use forty-five thousand instead for a swinging, dotted-eighth- note echo.

Do something boring

Here's yet another delightfully ambiguous strategy; one interpretation might be to add a droning pad sound. Alternately, you could balance your check-book and resume work later. Your call.

Emphasize the flaws

It's been said that our flaws, more than our strengths, define who we are. Try this interpretation: select a track that contains a few flubbed notes, make a copy of that track and delete everything except the mistakes.

To this new track, assign that cool sound you've been meaning to use. Evaluate the results.

Left channel, right channel, centre channel

One of the most common causes of a cluttered mix is a lack of stereo placement for individual tracks. The next time you encounter a mushy sounding arrangement, consider the placement of the instruments. Is everything crowding the centre channel? Try different pannings, and be radical if necessary. If you doubt that this will work, go back and listen closely to your favourite mixes. You'll probably be surprised.

Do we need holes?

Maybe so. Several bands, notably INXS and The Who, made stopping and restarting a song - and leaving a hole - part of their style. Think Need You Tonight and My Generation.

Use an old idea

Unless you are just starting out, chances are good that you have a few older songs collecting dust because you were unable to finish them. Why not try recycling the hooks?

A strategic advantage is yours

If the approaches that are enumerated here do not fully address your creative endeavours, by all means, feel free to add your own strategies. The original decks came with several blank cards for just that purpose. The most important thing to remember when you're using the Oblique Strategies is that you are ultimately in control of your music; the cards are simply a way to highlight solutions that might otherwise not be immediately apparent.

Good luck - and happy summoning!