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Kickstart Your Inspiration

Tips & Techniques By Paul White
Published February 1996

Most of the time, inspiration doesn't so much strike as go on strike — so what can be done to coax it back to work? Paul White proffers a few suggestions.

Music is an odd kind of artform — its ephemeral nature makes it very hard to quantify, but like most other artforms, there are far more people capable of appreciating it than of creating it. I've often wondered why this should be the case. If you can hear a piece of music and appreciate its intricate harmonies and complex rhythmic structure, then surely you should be able to apply what you like about it to your own work. Yet that's obviously not the case, otherwise everyone who liked Mozart would be able to 'imagine' new pieces in Mozart's style.

Those of us who dabble in music — and let's face it, most pop music does qualify as dabbling — have a greater or lesser capacity for original composition, but very few people can be creative all the time. Some have to get in the mood to be creative, while others find that ideas simply flash into existence, and all too often evaporate again before they can get to a recorder or sequencer. I'm one of those people who finds it very difficult to be creative to order, so this article is really a selection of different tricks and techniques you can try to help stimulate your creativity.

Record Everything

One thing I discovered early on is that it's little use running for the sequencer when a good idea pops into your head, because by the time you have everything up and running, the idea has more often than not been elbowed out by the mental demands of loading the software, making any necessary connections, turning that old Akai sampler out of 'Omni' mode, and calling up a set of appropriate sounds.

A more practical, lower‑tech approach is to keep a cheap cassette dictating machine with you at all times, so that if an idea does come along unannounced, you can at least hum it for posterity. This is particularly relevant when you're in the car, as here the creative part of the mind isn't usually required (unless you get stopped for a traffic offence, in which case it tends to become very creative). It's when a part of the mind isn't being used that it's usually most fertile.

The same is true when you go into the studio for a dabble on your keyboards, guitar or whatever — leave a cassette machine running, because a few worthy bars are quite likely to emerge from half an hour's unfocused rambling. If you have a sequencer, try switching off the metronome, put it into record, and then just play as if it wasn't on at all. Having a metronome breathing down your neck can be very counter‑creative!

Allow Yourself To Be Uncreative

Part of the problem with composing is that you tend to get annoyed with yourself for not coming up with the goods, and this starts a vicious circle — the more frustrated you get, the less creative you are — and the more frustrated you get. If this sounds familiar, use these times to sort out your patch libraries, or practise something you already know. The chances are that by turning your back on your creativity for a while, it will feel left out and try to join in.

If you consider compositional software as a catalyst to creativity rather than as a substitute for it, I think you'll find the whole experience more rewarding.

You've probably noticed that I've been talking about creativity as is it were in some way separate from the individual. Physiologically, this quite clearly isn't the case, but as it so often behaves like a free spirit, that might be a good way to treat it! Interestingly, the Aborigines believe their music is passed onto them by the spirits — they never claim to have written it themselves. Who knows, but at least it lets them shift the blame for a lousy tune!

Another very worthy non‑creative pursuit is to sit down and listen to somebody else's music, especially when you're doing a mechanical task that requires no creative thought — driving, washing up, formatting a box of disks, lying on a sun‑soaked beach in the Bahamas and so on. Not only will you soak up ideas (and every musician on the planet has absorbed ideas from other musicians), but your creativity may decide to flex its ego, because it thinks it could do better. Any trick to lure it into the open is fair game, that's what I say.

Two's Company

The creative muse is a gregarious beast by nature, and if forced to work alone is prone to long bouts of non‑productive sulking. That's why composers often work so well in pairs — they can bounce ideas off each other, filter each other's ideas, develop each other's ideas; even compete with each other at a subconscious level.

Another reason composing teams work so well relates to my introductory comments about how everyone can be a critic, but few can be original. If there are two of you, one person's creativity may come up with the germ of an idea, allowing the other person's critical faculties to focus on what could be done to make it better. In my own experience, it's always easier to spot what's wrong with something, or suggest ways to improve it, than it is to come up with something from scratch. It may be that this symbiotic relationship between the critic and the creator within us is what makes some writing partnerships so successful.

Do Androids Dream...?

If you don't have a composing partner, how about striking up a relationship with a machine? If this sounds pointless, keep in mind that any form of music composing software is written by human musicians, and if they've done their job properly, when you interact with their software, you're interacting with some aspect of them, not with the computer running the program.

Take Band In A Box for example; I know a lot of people scoff at the idea of auto‑accompaniment programs, but this particular package has become very sophisticated, and I feel that anybody who writes it off completely is using it the wrong way. I come from a live music background, and for more years than I'm prepared to admit I played guitar in what might loosely be described as a rock band. At rehearsals, we'd always put some time aside for jamming, and more often than not, we'd decide on a rhythm and a chord progression, then see what evolved. From these jam sessions would come most of our ideas for new songs, and I see programs like Band In a Box as the MIDI equivalent of a band to jam with. It doesn't matter if none of its output makes it into the final composition — if it's helped to provide you with the inspiration to get the tune finished, then it's done its job.

One of the great things about Band In A Box is that once you've typed in your chord sequence, you can opt to hear it played back in a huge variety of musical styles, and if you're prepared to try some of the less obvious options, you may discover some very fruitful avenues of exploration that you would probably never even have considered had you been working entirely on your own. Because the output of programs like Band In A Box can be saved as standard MIDI files, you can load them into your sequencer and then use as much or as little of them as you see fit.

Another related example of man/machine symbiosis is evident in Cubase's 'scale transpose' facility, which can throw up some interesting results. Here, the idea is that you take something written in, say, C major and then get the program to transpose it into a different key, and move the notes so they conform to a different scale type. This way, you can start out with a trite nursery rhyme type of melody in C major, and end up with a Balkan folk melody in E minor demented ninth! The results aren't always great, but often there'll be a diamond in the rough, which will prod your creativity back into life. If you consider compositional software as a catalyst to creativity rather than as a substitute for it, I think you'll find the whole experience more rewarding.

Rhythm Is King

Most pop songs are rhythm‑led, but unless you have a lot of experience playing or programming rhythm parts, the chances are that you'll end up playing along to some well‑worn rhythmic cliché that's had all the life quantised out of it. This can be very stifling, as the energy of a rhythm track is quite often what gets your creativity interested in the first place. Give it a four‑to‑the‑bar quantised rock beat, and it's likely to pull the metaphorical covers over its head and stay in bed!

Very few people can be creative all of the time, and if you try too hard, you risk taking the fun out of music making.

A popular way around the rhythm impasse is to use sampled drum loops, and there are literally thousands to choose from on CD — but if you're not into dance or straight rock, you might find the choice a bit restrictive. Even so, there's some really good stuff out there, and with companies such as Time and Space putting CD jukeboxes into main music stores, you have a chance to hear what you're getting before you part with any money. The great thing about sample CDs is that you get a finished rhythm part complete with good sounds, the right balance and appropriate effects. and because you don't have to worry about these things any more, you can move directly onto the next stage — which is having fun — and having fun is the first step to getting creative.

The downside of sample CDs is that you need either a sampler or a sequencer with hard disk audio capabilities, and while there are a lot of samplers in home studios, there are still more people without them than with them. By contrast, almost everyone has access to a sequencer of some kind.

The MIDI equivalent of sampled drum loops are now available from a number of companies, the most well‑known probably being the Twiddly Bits and Twiddly Beats disks — although more recently we've seen them joined by the Song Builder Doctor Beat disks from those sublimely talented programmers at Heavenly Music. These disks contain loads of short MIDI files in GM format, providing you with a wealth of drum rhythms and fills, all of which are recorded with a feel and energy that would be difficult, if not impossible for most of us to match at home.

Because the patterns are presented as MIDI files, the tempo can be freely changed, sounds can be substituted at will, and the patterns themselves can be modified in any number of ways. Wading through all the files on a disk can be a long job at first, but I think material of this quality is well worth the small effort required to access it. You'll also find the same companies producing disks containing bass riffs, piano parts, guitar parts, brass licks and little trills and flourishes for more instruments than I could list here. Again, these can help rouse the creative muse from its dormant state.

Sounds Matter

Read any interview with an A&R man, and you'll get the impression that sounds don't count for much — a good tune will shine through on a beat‑up old acoustic guitar‑plus‑voice recorded on the record company's answerphone. Whether this is actually true is not the point of this article, but when it comes to actually composing music, I think sounds are very important. It's the sounds you choose that make you feel excited (or not) about the ideas you're trying out, and if I'm trying to write instrumental music that involves the guitar, I'm far more likely to think of something if I've got an effects box plugged in, so that I can play off the echoes, or wallow in a Grand Canyon reverb. The same goes for synth sounds: my Emu Morpheus gives my creativity far more leads than my GM module!

Of course, we have so many sounds at our disposal that it's easy to spend all day swapping patches and getting nowhere. You may prefer taking the Brian Eno approach, and set yourself a few limits. For example, you could throw dice to select four or five synth patches, then restrict yourself to working with those and nothing else, at least for the first half an hour or so. Having something limited to focus on certainly helps dispel unwanted distractions, and there's no denying that random chance often pushes you in directions you wouldn't normally go.

The same can be said of my party trick of cleaning the keyboard with a duster while the sequencer is recording, then assigning the result to a drum machine, quantising the data and creating rhythmic loops from the more promising bits. Just occasionally, something wonderful pops out and the jaded old creativity sits up and takes notice.

And Finally...

Sometimes, your creativity will decide to stay in bed for the day, regardless of what you offer it in the way of temptation. If this happens, try not to fight it — just do something else. Very few people can be creative all of the time, and if you try too hard, you risk taking the fun out of music making. If you enjoy what you're doing, you're much more likely to be good at it than if you're having to force yourself all the time. Treat your creative self as a separate entity, and try to get its co‑operation by coaxing, not threatening or bullying — music composing is one area where the carrot is invariably more productive than the stick.