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Inspiration and Music Composition

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Inspiration and Music Composition

Postby zekeyheathy » Fri Dec 27, 2019 11:35 pm

Hi everyone,

I wish to get some advice on the way that inspiration helps create those ideas which then turn into full blown tracks/songs.

I've always found the art of music-making particularly difficult & frustrating to undertake, even though there's always been a deep desire to do it. I've spent many, many years listening and learning to play other people's music and obviously get inspired by doing that, but that alone doesn't get me very far past the ominous blank project screen. I don't have any major problems with the technical stuff such as sound design, music theory, mixing, etc...it's more the fact that I give up on projects after noodling in the DAW for a short time.
Recently I came to the realisation that I might be doing this because I don't have any attachment to the ideas and that noodling (though a common practice amongst musicians/producers) might not be the best approach of composition for me. This is when the idea of inspiration hit - and hit hard, I'd spend ages trying to make music without inspiration or even purpose!

Does anybody here have any methods or resources that could educate me more on artistic inspiration itself? Maybe I should start by watching a film or reading a book whilst composing, or even write a short paragraph detailing a fictional plot/setting before opening the DAW. I've even heard of people just writing a word or name and then composing to what that word brings out in them.

It probably sounds very weird to a lot of you that can't quite grasp this concept. I've spend a long time comparing myself to the creative abilities of others and therefore have become fixated more on the technical side of music-making than the emotional side. This left-brained thinking does dominate in how I listen to music too, where I get easily as much enjoyment from fast, crazy electronic music (i.e. Venetian Snares) as I do by some emotionally-charged ballad. But artistic inspiration was also not really explored in my own formal musical education, where learning the strict formal rules of composition triumphed...

Cheers in advance for your replies
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Re: Inspiration and Music Composition

Postby Eddy Deegan » Sat Dec 28, 2019 4:41 am

This rings a bell with me. Making music means different things to different people. Some do it for money, some do it aspirationally, some do it for theraputic reasons and I'm sure there are many more motivations.

I do it, and I'm equally sure many others do, because I have a deep need and desire to regardless of whether other people like, or even listen to, it (although it is a bonus if they do of course).

That said, it's not just a question of sitting down and 'turning it on'. I can bang out stuff that sounds 'nice' to me all day but coming up with a track that stands out to me as a 'proper' piece is far from simple.

When I was doing formal classical training, I spent countless hours learning to play my primary instrument (piano) and working on technique, exercises, theory and preparing recitals. Although I am extremely glad I did, I stopped working in that way after about 10 years because I felt a stronger desire, namely to compose my own original material. After all, there are any number of people who can play the classics materfully and I did not want to expend huge quantities of my life becoming another one of them, rather I was driven to make my own stuff.

A lot (though by no means all) of contemporary music is really nothing more than cliched chord sequences with nice sounds, beats and arrangements and that was something I have always tried to get away from with varying degrees of success.

Speaking for myself, I feel that my best work has been based around melody rather than chord sequences. A good melody has a lot more potential than a nice timbre or an interesting chord sequence.

Thus, if inspiration is lacking I usually sit down and jam for a while until something starts to emerge, then I'll focus on that and develop it.

For some years I tried to 'break out' of a rut I perceived myself to be in, insofar as the music that comes naturally to me didn't compare favourably in my head to commercial stuff. I therefore was trying to write music that was more commerical sounding, but having discussed this with Zukan at some length recently he advised me not to worry about it and stick to what I was good at.

And he's right. I've since stopped trying to be what I'm not and follow my instinct, and I am very happy with the way that's working.

I have also thrown much theory out of the window and gone with what my ears tells me works rather than what a book on music theory says I should do. Listening to music you like also helps, in my case often Jarre, Oldfield, Floyd, Zep etc. If I'm feeling I want something more energetic then I'll chuck on some VNV Nation, Apoptygma Berzerk or similar.

After listening for an hour or so I find the creative juices start to flow a little easier. I've also found it helpful to pick up a guitar once in a while. I can't really play it in any decent sense but it takes me in directions I wouldn't necessarily have gone on a piano, and it's a good instrument for chancing across nice melodies with if you play lead rather than strumming and power-chording. I then use these as a starting point on a keyboard where I'm better able to develop them.

Sometimes I'll flip through the gazzilions of timbres available on the various synths in my working space, and occasionally I'll pick up inspiration from some interesting timbre or other.

Mostly though, it'll be improvising on a piano for a while that gets me started. If I'm lucky I'll wake up in the night with something 'ready made' in my head and capture some of it using the voice recorder on my phone for later. I've got dozens and dozens of recorded snippets of humming and whistling on there, some of which will languish for months or years before I pay them any heed. Sometimes a track will emerge when two or more of those random momentary inspirations can be combined together into a single work.

Not sure if that's helpful, but it's my take on it ;)
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Re: Inspiration and Music Composition

Postby blinddrew » Sat Dec 28, 2019 11:42 am

There's a thread here about tackling musical blocks that has a lot of stuff that may be useful:
https://www.soundonsound.com/forum/view ... 92#p533380
The few couple of things i'd add are:
1) like Eddy said above, try swapping your composing instrument sometimes. I struggle with middle eights sometimes and jumping to something else frequently helps.
2) following on from 1, mix it up. Go for a walk and take a notepad. Lie on the floor and see a space you know well from a different perspective. Change your clothes and wear a hat. Watch a film with the sound off. Buy a newspaper you don't normally read. Read the personal small ads. Live in the city? Take a drive to the country. And vice versa. And when you do these things, really focus on what you feel at the time, and the small details that make it different or memorable.
3) picking up on a point The Red Bladder has mentioned a few times, have you got enough melodies in your song? You'll need half a dozen distinct pieces to make a complete production, don't think the writing is finished too soon.
but bearing 3 in mind,
4) finishing is it's own discipline. Focus on one thing until it's complete. Even if you're not happy with it, finish it. THEN move on, not before. Imagine you're being paid to produce a complete piece and get something out of the door.

In the same way you spent hours to learn your skills as a player and a mixer, you spend hours to learn as a composer. And your early work will contain a lot of junk, just as your first playing and mixing was.

Hope that helps. :)
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Re: Inspiration and Music Composition

Postby Folderol » Sat Dec 28, 2019 12:05 pm

I could have written almost word-for-word what Eddy did :shock: although I had much less formal keyboard training - something I'm a bit disappointed about now. I won't say regret, because the time was spent doing things that gave me my current skills in other areas.
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Re: Inspiration and Music Composition

Postby IAA » Sat Dec 28, 2019 12:24 pm

Focus on one thing until it's complete. Even if you're not happy with it, finish it. THEN move on, not before. Imagine you're being paid to produce a complete piece and get something out of the door.

I got some great advice last time around on this topic, this being one of them!

Here’s some other things - many suggested by folks here which help me;

Inspiration- what is it that is guiding my musical ideas, a picture, words, video? I’ve started putting a picture or video into logic to focus my thinking.

Write more and write quickly, edit later not during. Get the broad structure first rather than work on details.

Take breaks when you’re struggling, a coffee, a chat a walk.

Make your writing space as conducive as you can - not just a lava lamp!

Avoid mixing whilst writing (this is just what helps me because putting an engineer hat on stops me writing almost instantly)

Don’t worry too much about sounds (unless that’s what inspired you in the first place), getting a motif or melody and working through piles of presets makes me lose Focus.

Collaborate. Share ideas/projects with other musicians.

Organise your writing so that it’s able to be reviewed and reused where necessary. This is a work in progress for me as I have a Combination of hard copy, Kronos sequences and Logic drafts. I’m thinking if moving in the new year to a structure based on description,, key and
BPM

Laugh rather than cry over unproductive sessions!

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Re: Inspiration and Music Composition

Postby MOF » Sat Dec 28, 2019 1:37 pm

Following the suggestions given by other forum members might do the trick, but to me it sounds like you’re not a composer, concentrate on other roles that you enjoy and are good at.
Sorry if this sounds harsh but that’s my take on your situation.
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Re: Inspiration and Music Composition

Postby ManFromGlass » Sat Dec 28, 2019 2:54 pm

All previous comments are valid and definitely show how different we all are. But for me the mind always got in the way until I put a sticky note up on my computer monitor staring me in the face every day
It said "Shutup and do it".
And I did. It was slow and mostly resulted in crap but then I got better at it. I earn a living doing it. Sometimes I cringe when I hear some of the work I created, other times I’m bursting with pride, but none of that matters because my little mantra gets me through.
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Re: Inspiration and Music Composition

Postby Eddy Deegan » Sat Dec 28, 2019 4:00 pm

MOF wrote:Following the suggestions given by other forum members might do the trick, but to me it sounds like you’re not a composer, concentrate on other roles that you enjoy and are good at.
Sorry if this sounds harsh but that’s my take on your situation.

That's an interesting thought. My theory (unproven, it's just what I think) is that virtually anybody can be a musician if they want to be. The same goes for composing. If you can listen to a piece of music and enjoy it, then I believe you can potentially create your own and it largely comes down to how hard you're willing to work at it.

Although composition comes more naturally to some than others, perseverance and practice is key to that process much as it is with anything else you want to get better at.

"Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they're yours."
- Richard Bach


The human brain is the most advanced and complicated machine in the universe that we know of. It makes little sense to me to assert that it cannot create good original music if it wants to ;)
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Re: Inspiration and Music Composition

Postby ManFromGlass » Sat Dec 28, 2019 6:02 pm

Why even impose the words "good" and "original "? They are too daunting in my book. Although I take your point. Sit down have some fun and see where the rabbit hole takes you. Judge later, if at all.
I hope I don’t sound too much like a simpleton but this is all based on growing up as mostly an improvising performer. 50/50 chance of creating "good" vs "bad" music when improvising and no matter how bad you think the show went there is always 1 person who dug it and vice versa. So judgement can be irrelevant and even paralyzing. And what if some of the heaviest compositions and tunes we revere were just those geniuses goofing around and having fun?
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Re: Inspiration and Music Composition

Postby Eddy Deegan » Sat Dec 28, 2019 6:10 pm

ManFromGlass wrote:Why even impose the words "good" and "original "? They are too daunting in my book.

I was alluding to my earlier comment about being able to pump out 'nice' stuff almost any time, with 'proper' tracks being harder to arrive at.

"Good" and "original" in the above context were intended as references to the composer's subjective appreciation for, and satisfaction with, their own work rather than being objective terms.

I agree, I could have made my meaning clearer there so thanks for pointing it out :thumbup:
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Re: Inspiration and Music Composition

Postby zekeyheathy » Sat Dec 28, 2019 11:54 pm

Thank you all for the honest replies, lots for me to think about now. Definitely most of my downfall when starting projects off is a lack of confidence in my own ideas and therefore I should just try to make the effort to not be afraid of making stuff that's sub-par in the short term. Trouble is a lot of my spare time -like a lot of people- is spent listening to music that I admire and anything I create comes across as being nowhere near as good (in my mind) and that stops the flow. Like was mentioned though it seems it involves a practice regime like any other discipline. The whole 'write first, tweak later' approach certainly resonates with me as well, can get so bogged down in how things initially sound rather than looking at what matters most: the music itself.

Another thing I might try again is writing music to video. When I dabbled with it in university I found it so much easier to have a finite block of time to fill rather than the infinite possibilities of a blank screen. The material on screen also got the ideas/emotions flowing a lot more too, Maybe I could compose the music then remove the video.

MOF wrote:sounds like you’re not a composer, concentrate on other roles that you enjoy and are good at.
I totally understand this opinion and am not at all upset by it because I've told myself this so many times. Trouble is whenever I stop trying to make music for a short while I always feel drawn to go back to it eventually, that magnetism of being drawn into composition (even though it frustrates me at times) makes me feel like completely giving up on it might be the worst decision I'd make...you never know what's round the corner I guess.

*Note* in the final paragraph of my original post I should have written: "It probably sounds very weird to a lot of you that I can't quite grasp this concept". - Missing that one letter totally changed how it came across haha!
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Re: Inspiration and Music Composition

Postby Folderol » Sun Dec 29, 2019 8:39 am

Trouble is whenever I stop trying to make music for a short while I always feel drawn to go back to it eventually
That is the key point that makes you a composer... whether you like it or not :lol:
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Re: Inspiration and Music Composition

Postby Sam Spoons » Sun Dec 29, 2019 11:35 am

zekeyheathy wrote:Definitely most of my downfall when starting projects off is a lack of confidence in my own ideas and therefore I should just try to make the effort to not be afraid of making stuff that's sub-par in the short term. Trouble is a lot of my spare time -like a lot of people- is spent listening to music that I admire and anything I create comes across as being nowhere near as good (in my mind) and that stops the flow.

I'm not really a composer/writer* but a guitar player. I always used to listen to other local guitar players and think they were much better than me (and, TBF, many were). What turned my confidence around was when, one day, another local guitar player expressed the same sentiment about my playing. I realised then that I was better at what I do than him and he was better at what he did than me, he admired my playing for exactly the same reasons I admired his. Put another way, the fact that you do it makes it 'ordinary' 'cos you do it every day, what others do, however familiar to you, is automatically 'different'.

* I have composed the odd thing but my focus has always been on playing.
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Re: Inspiration and Music Composition

Postby ManFromGlass » Sun Dec 29, 2019 2:55 pm

So true, Sam. I consider myself a terrible guitar player and yet I have a few moves I do well. I even performed in public last year for 3 nights which was a very brave thing for me, well it scared the sht out of me but I got through it.
And this ties in to the OPs insecurity. I finally said the hell with it, I’m going to do this thing for me, in spite of my insecurities. I don’t need other people’s approval. And I won’t die if I muff a few notes, which I did do.
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Re: Inspiration and Music Composition

Postby Folderol » Sun Dec 29, 2019 6:04 pm

A piece of advice I was given by my piano teacher in 19{mmfty}{mmmf} when I fluffed a test.
"Never stop playing. Always play though your mistakes. Most times the audience won't even notice, and you'll gain respect from those that do."
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Re: Inspiration and Music Composition

Postby MOF » Mon Dec 30, 2019 2:24 am

Another thing I might try again is writing music to video. When I dabbled with it in university I found it so much easier to have a finite block of time to fill rather than the infinite possibilities of a blank screen. The material on screen also got the ideas/emotions flowing a lot more too, Maybe I could compose the music then remove the video.

What type of music do you want to compose, is it the catchy melody/theme tune or supportive mood music for a film?
If it’s the former, then removing the video will leave you with something that generally doesn’t cut it, since mood enhancement rarely uses the catchy bits. I hear examples of this on Classic FM where they’ll play ‘the battle scene’ from a film and personally it doesn’t work for me.
I saw a BBC 4 programme about film music and one composer said he actively avoids using recognisable themes because it distracts the viewer.

whenever I stop trying to make music for a short while I always feel drawn to go back to it eventually, that magnetism of being drawn into composition

I would say concentrate on getting melodies down, I use the sound recorder utility on my iPhone, I sing and click my fingers for a basic rhythm and then transfer the best ones into Logic Audio to work on.
I also use Garage band on the phone to work up more involved basic tracks and then put those into Logic to finesse. The Alchemy sounds and automatic Drummer styles get you quickly to what sounds like a finished track.
The other method is sitting down with Logic and a decent keyboard in my studio. The latter method is fairly rare these days as I tend to play the same old riffs and chord sequences.
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Re: Inspiration and Music Composition

Postby The Bunk » Mon Dec 30, 2019 7:17 pm

Possibly a controversial idea here but why not try a bit of plagiarism?
I would by no means think of myself as a composer, and TBH that's not really what I want to be. But I would like to be able to at least have a go at it. The trouble is...give me a blank sheet of paper from which to start something and it will stay blank.
However if I try and create something very much based on a particular chord progression (ideally a not particularly obvious one), melody or "style" that I have basically lifted from someone/something, what few creative juices I have start to flow. And you can actually be quite subtle about it once you add your own ideas to things. Or you can be bleeding obvious about it and somehow get away with it if your name is Gallagher.
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Re: Inspiration and Music Composition

Postby The Red Bladder » Tue Dec 31, 2019 3:11 pm

I don't write music. But I have spent a lifetime watching people who do write music - and they ALL have one thing in common. They all had something to say.

Story -

I was working backstage (well, back lawn, as it was an open-air) and the star was holding court with a few of his musicians and others. We were sitting on the grass, drinking beer and he had a guitar in his hands and talking about music in general.

He was one of 'those' people who just produce massive volumes of successful work, both for himself and for countless others. 23 LPs, 11 number-ones, 19 top-10s, seven film scores, 14 prizes and five books - so no doubting his creative talents!

Someone asked him how he gets his ideas for songs and tunes and he said: "Something must be burning before there can be any light."

He went on to tell us that if you have nothing to say, nobody will want to hear you saying nothing! That, he told us, is the foundation upon which all art must be built. Yes, a jobbing composer-arranger can bang out a pretty tune using known patterns and progressions, but that he said is not art. It is only art when it is saying something - something that you think is important.

That burning need to tell the world something is the foundation upon which art can be built.
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Re: Inspiration and Music Composition

Postby Marcus D » Sun Jan 26, 2020 11:41 am

This is a very interesting subject and there are lots of relevant information in the replies above.

I’d like to share my own experience and recommendations as I was previously in the same situation as the threadstarter.

1. Focus on melody
I used to focus on chord progressions before, trying to find elaborate chords and building around these. This led me to nice grooves but usually not much further.
What I am doing now after having done some online courses in songwriting is to focus on melody. I start as before with a chord progression but directly after, I focus on the melody.
I also try to create several melodies to the same chord progression in order to identify the strongest ones. A great example of this is Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of you”. Throughout the song he uses the same chord progression but he has different melodies for the verse, pre-chorus and chorus. Try this as a challenge to yourself - Use a simple four bar chord progression and work on different melodies according to your preferred song structure.

2. Finish the song
It is more important to finish a song than to make it “perfect”. Most successful songwriters are very productive. The more you write, the more you will get better at it. Even though you are not always finding the “holy grail”, finish it.

3. Build on creative ideas
I have listened to numerous famous songwriters and how they develop songs. There is one thing in common - they all use different approaches! Therefore, there is no “right” way, you have to discover what works for you.
Many of them however start with a conceptual idea or a title. Based on this, they usually ask themselves “What does this title MEAN?”. Then they take it from there, mostly starting with the chorus or the hook and work their way “backwards” to the verse, bridge etc.

4. Explore new music categories
Choose a new category of music which is not usually part of your songwriting style.
I for example decided to work on a blues song which was something I hadn’t done before. I tried to learn how the blues scale works, looked at common chord progressions and listened to blues classics and instrumentation. After a couple of days I had a finished blues song which I was very pleased with. This experience brought me new ideas for other song categories as well and helped me as a songwriter.

5. Find a professional who can give you tailor-made advice
This is probably what can really make a huge difference in your songwriting.
I had the opportunity of working with professional people who gave me very specific advice and made me progress immensely. There are numerous professionals offering this type of service and if you are serious in your ambitions, it can be worth the investment.

Good luck!
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Re: Inspiration and Music Composition

Postby zekeyheathy » Sat Feb 01, 2020 4:41 pm

Awesome stuff Marcus! Thanks very much for giving to time to lend such thoughtful advice. Will investigate further :)
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