We’ve all heard the stories: Some composer or inventor or some other creative person is in the shower, unwittingly working up a fine shampoo lather when suddenly out of nowhere – BAM! The most glorious idea magically strikes them, and they race out of the shower – still dripping water with a headful of shampoo – to the piano/notebook/aisle/etc to pour out and record this amazing new gift from the creative ether before it passes by and is forever lost in the river of time.
Recently, someone asked me a question via email about the “lightning bolt” ideas that just “come to people.” This aspiring composer explained that they had read/heard interviews with composers whom he admires and kept hearing about that moment when they’re in their shower or doing something mundane and then – BAM! A melody strikes them out of nowhere and they suddenly have a new amazing piece of music. He went on to express a troubling question: (A) Do you have to be born great in order for those “lightning bolt,” ideas to strike you, or (B) can you compose without that seemingly-magical source of musical inspiration?
I answered his email with some of my thoughts below, but I wanted to dig a bit deeper. My answer? Secret option “C”.
Eureka! Deconstructing the Magic of “Divine Inspiration”
Sometimes, impactful creative works or brilliant ideas are attributed to a moment of pure creative inspiration that seems to come out of nowhere. This phenomenon is often referred to as “divine inspiration,” which is the concept of a supernatural external force causing a person or people to experience a creative desire. The concept is thousands of years old and most often attributes the source of creativity to some deity or another.
My personal opinion: For 99.9% of the creative population, I’m gonna go ahead and call “bullshit,” on that one. I actually think there are 3 different processes that go into engineering these moments of creative bliss, and I’m going to break them down for you now and describe them to the best of my ability:
I believe the three main steps of artistic creation are the following:
- Building competence
- Generating ideas
- Developing ideas
Let’s look at each one in turn, shall we?
Step 1: Building Competence
When was the last time you heard about an influential piece of music composed by a person without any musical training or experience? While I look forward to whatever random examples internet trolls drum up about a pastry chef who suddenly became an inventor or whatever, I think we can all agree that almost all great musical works are created by (spoiler!) musicians.
I know, I know. It sounds crazy, am I right? All jokes aside, there’s a reason that musicians experience musical inspiration and carpenters experience… uh… carpenterial inspiration? If you spend hundreds/thousands of hours of your life practicing, playing, experiencing, and listening to something your brain is going to be wired for that activity. Every music teacher who brings their high school choir to competition listens to the other competitors and thinks to themselves, “Why, if I had 5 minutes with that choir I could fix X, Y, and Z.” They’re listening analytically. Basketball players watch basketball games through a lens of understanding and kinesthetic appreciation, while I’m just impressed that nobody ever seems to get hit in the face by a chest pass gone wrong. I don’t have the same level of competence as a basketball player, which limits my ability to understand and enjoy what’s going on.
“So, is that a piano?”
If you’re a musician or composer, you’re listening on a completely different level than a person who has never played a note in his life. You understand what’s going on, even if you just intuitively understand certain things and don’t have formal theory knowledge. You can probably anticipate some of the notes that come next in the melody as you listen to a new song for the first time, as an example. This is because you are competent at music, and without a baseline level of competency you really don’t have the tools to recognize, interpret, and record a musical idea regardless of when and how it comes to you.
This came as a bit of a shock to me during college when my father and I were driving somewhere and listening to/talking about music. He’s an engineer and a very smart guy, and although he grew up listening to Rodgers & Hammerstein records as a kid and classic rock as a teen and into adulthood, he’s never had any real music education or personal experience. This gap between his musical competence and my own became painfully clear during that car ride when an instrument began a solo and he asked me, “So, is that a piano?” I remember being so surprised by the question that I wasn’t sure if he was making a joke or not, but he went on to explain that he legitimately couldn’t distinguish very well between different instruments just by hearing them. If he saw them, he could probably tell you which was making which sound with the visual aid – but he couldn’t pick out even common musical instruments purely by their sound. Whoa.
Bringing it Back to the Creative Process
Whether you’re uniquely gifted or through sheer willpower trying to force creativity to happen, if you have no idea what the hell you’re talking about then you’re probably not coming up with many ideas. I teach music to children, and when I ask most 3rd graders to improvise a drum solo they stare blankly at me or look panicked before shrugging their shoulders and saying something like “I can’t do it!” Alternatively, if I ask them to use quarter notes and eighth notes to come up with their own patterns, suddenly they’re improvising within the field of their own comfort and competence. If I tell them to use both high sounds and low sounds on their drum on their second try, they are magically empowered to make even more sophisticated solos. Any musician who is capable of basic decision-making is able to create within the limitations of their musical comfort zones.
If you want to compose music, you need to ask yourself if you have some basic competency before putting any pressure on yourself to create good music. Can you read music? Can you notate music? Can you transcribe what you hear? Can you play an instrument? Can you sing? Do you know basic music theory concepts? Have you analyzed any of the music that you like? The more of these answers you can give a “Yes!” to, the more comfortable you’re going to be with creating new music out of thin air and the more building blocks you’ll have at your disposal to do so.
My point here is that all of these “geniuses,” were immersed and well-versed in their craft. They spoke the language of their craft, and you have to be able to as well. A good idea can hit you, but you won’t even know what a good idea sounds like if you aren’t proficient.
Step 2: Generating (and Recording) Ideas
Here we are at the part of the process where – in my opinion – most people think they have a problem, totally psych themselves out, and get stuck. Little do those folks know that the next step is where the real work begins! But for now, let’s focus on idea generation.
The legendary Koji Kondo, composer of the Super Mario theme and countless other Nintendo gems, has said in many interviews that he’ll be showering or walking or something mundane when a melody idea comes out of nowhere. This is a very common description given by someone who is both competent and experienced with composing. HOWEVER, if you check out this excerpt from a lengthy interview he did back in 2001 for Game Maestros Vol. 3, he describes his process a little differently:
Interviewer: What was the pace like for writing songs? How long did each one take?
Kondo: It depended on the song, but on the long side, maybe about a week. A short one might be done in a matter of minutes. (laughs) That doesn’t necessarily take into account all the time spent at home trying to come up with a good idea, though.
This distinction is huge! Aside from the fact that he’s probably been asked the same interview questions a million times, his process is probably so internalized that he himself may fail to see the distinction between idea generation and the next step: idea development. Good Ol’ Dan caught him on it, though: Koji Kondo clearly describes that idea generation is a separate process that he completes before actively working on an idea through to completion.
Musical ideas can take many different forms: an unusual instrumentation, a chord progression, a short piece of a melody, etc. But where to they come from? Just as the writer fears the dreaded blinking cursor on a blank white screen so does the composer fear the empty staff paper, so is there a way to avoid it or bust through? Sort of.
Ideas are Improvisations
When you get right down to it, “inspired” musical ideas are spontaneous pieces or concepts of a work while improvisation is the spontaneous creation of music. It’s the same damn thing. Don’t get me wrong; you don’t have to become a jazz expert or anything crazy like that. But let’s get some things straight, here:
If you’re reading this, you have an interest in creating music. If you are that interested in music, you have a discerning ear that can tell – probably better than you give yourself credit for – when something sounds good VS. when something sounds bad. If you’re reading this, you probably have fingers and can type with at least one of them. Ergo, you have everything you need to peck around on a GD keyboard randomly or otherwise until you accidentally come up with something that sounds good and – like everything else in this existence – the more you do it the better you’ll get at it.
So let’s talk about how to get better at it.
Creating Time & Space
I strongly believe that it’s 100% vital to deliberately set aside time, space, and energy for idea generation, improvisation, or composition (however you’d like to describe it to yourself). This doesn’t mean that you aren’t allowed to be spontaneous ever, but it does mean that you have to prioritize music creation by giving this part of the process the physical and mental space that it requires and deserves. This skill is a skill and requires disciplined practice and lots of room for mistakes to happen.
For me, I like to come up with new ideas at the piano away from the computer. Most of the time, I use a full-sized digital piano that is not hooked up to my computer and I do this on purpose because OH LOOK FACEBOOK! Know what I mean? You should also be mindful of and leverage times of the day when you feel mentally relaxed and have some energy to spare. Finally, until generating ideas is second nature to you it is a habit that you need to build for yourself. Come to grips with the fact that some days you’ll generate nothing, others a bunch of crap, and on some you’ll come up with some great stuff.
Recording Your Ideas
I have 3 different ways of recording these ideas: the voice memos app on my iPhone, staff paper, or – my personal favorite – whiteboard slates with music staves on them that I later take photos of. Eventually, everything ends up in my staff paper notebook or my iPhone this way and I can transfer it to a DAW or notation program later, but I do this to keep production and development separate from the task of coming up with new tune ideas. Otherwise, the pressure would be too high or I’d get hung up/distracted by crafting the sound as I’m concurrently coming up with and recording ideas. Some people do both simultaneously, but I either cannot or do not want to and that’s A-OK with me.
The Search for Fragments
I like to think about idea generation like I’m digging around in the dirt for precious fragments. I like the word “fragment,” because it implies that the idea is incomplete or small which takes a big deal of pressure off of me and allows me to recognize little treasures as I’m improvising. Also, it sounds cool to say “I came up with this beautiful melody fragment today.” I’ll often start by playing a a chord or a couple of chords and just peck around until I hear something small that catches my ear. When I catch something like this, I’ll massage it a bit and try a few different variations of the idea to see if it sparks my interest further. If it does, I’ll either dive right into the next phase (developing the idea) or just write down/record the fragment and move on to the next search.
These fragments – these precious little diamonds in the rough – can be much, much smaller than most people expect, I think. Several of the ideas that I initially captured in my iPhone voice memos clock in at around 30 seconds or less with my shortest fragment coming in at a whopping 9 seconds long. That’s it! The beautiful thing is that these little fragments can be enough. Some of them are definitely longer, and I did go from idea-to-sketch with a lot of them… but some of them are just pretty little fragments waiting for their day in the sun.
Food for thought: Nobuo Uematsu’s One Winged Angel from Final Fantasy VII is often admired, performed, requested, and otherwise put up on a pedestal – and for good reason. Aside from being revolutionary for its time, it’s a great piece. How did Uematsu-san conceive of such a beautifully dreadful piece of music? He brainstormed a bunch of 4-bar ideas and then figured out a way to stitch them together. If you listen to it, almost all of the singable musical ideas are 4 bars long.
Step 3: Developing Ideas
This is the sneaky one. I think that many people incorrectly imagine this phase as a magical pouring-out of ones idea until it is fully realized, but I personally find that this almost never happens and putting that kind of pressure on yourself is paralyzing. What do I mean by developing ideas, exactly? Basically, I mean taking a very short snippet of a melody or a hook or a short chord progression or even just a single chord or WHATEVER you have to start with and deliberately and strategically add new material, structure, and more to expand your idea into a completed work.
This step has a couple of major pitfalls: one is an old problem, one is a new problem.
Pitfall #1: No Tools in the Toolbox (the old problem)
There are a LOT of options when it comes to fleshing out a new musical idea. Do you know what some of them are?
Let’s use Beethoven’s 5th symphony as an example. Everyone knows the famous four-note beginning, and it’s the perfect example of a musical fragment that needs expansion and development. What’s the first thing that happens in Beethoven’s 5th? He repeats the four-note motif a bit lower using the same instrument (a technique called sequencing), repeats the motif in other voices to create harmonies (a technique called imitation), and used sonata form to give the first movement structure just to name a few examples. Not to diminish his brilliance, but he used a lot of very standard techniques that we can also use! No magicial inspiration: Beethoven had an idea and then he got to work developing that idea with the full breadth of his compositional toolbox and vast musical knowledge.
Pitfall #2: Combining Too Many Compositional Tasks
A lot of people load up a blank project in their DAW and get to work “composing,” until – hopefully – they have a finished product. This might work for some people, but I would strongly caution against this approach until you feel confident at all of the three stages I outlined in this article and then some. Why? Because when you compose directly into a DAW, you’re blurring the lines, overlapping, and often times combining the following processes:
- Generating Ideas
- Developing those Ideas
That’s a lot to be doing all at the same time. Some people can totally do that, but those people are usually well-experienced and confident in their abilities. Personally, I’m not a confident producer but I AM comfortable with generating ideas and developing those ideas. Because I have an uncomfortable process awaiting me, I separate it out completely so that it doesn’t muddle up the two parts that are actually working for me. I improvise at the piano until I have an idea and – when appropriate – I’ll immediately latch on to that idea and work on developing it into a piece. Once I have a sketch, I can always lay it into a DAW later as an outline. When I interviewed Hitoshi Sakimoto last year, he explained that he basically does the same thing: he’ll come up with an idea and sketch it out, record it in the DAW, and use that recording as a placeholder outline as he produces and re-records over it.
Closing Thoughts & Big Take-Aways
Here’s my abbreviated advice: If you’re uncomfortable with (1) generating ideas, (2) developing ideas, or (3) music production I would separate these processes from one another. It will increase your efficiency and allow you to focus on the easy parts without getting bogged down and the hard parts without getting distracted. Some people do these one at a time, which does take longer overall. Some people do all three at the same time. You do what works for you, and be mindful of which part of the process you’re in and which tools you have at your disposal. If you’re attacking these parts separately and you find yourself stuck or struggling, you’ll be able to identify which part of the compositional process you need to become more competent in instead of just chalking it up to a talent shortcoming or lack of divine inspiration.