Share on Myspace Share on Tumblr Share

Where does inspiration for a song or score come from? Does it come from the supernatural? Do the Greek Muses Euterpe and Erato hover around us to whisper lyrics and song structure into our ears? Nothing against the Muses, but in  my case, inspiration usually comes from far more mundane sources — a phrase I heard on a newscast, some interesting word I read in a book, an unexpected rhythm coming out of the car (cool sound, but better get that checked).  Many times, these subliminal inspirations lay dormant for a day or more and emerge as part of a far more mentally finished product at unexpected or frequently inconvenient times and locations. The shower, for instance, or while being audited by the IRS. Would that there was a waterproof multitrack recorder available in the shower when the next Top 40 hit pops into my head while covered in a nimbus of suds and late for the day job (well, maybe it really is the Muses in there with me and they have a wicked a sense of humor). Often I must be contented with scribbles in the condensation on the shower door and hope that they haven’t run down the glass and into the drain by the time I run back with a notebook to transcribe them. Maybe I should invest in diver’s grease pencils.

Even if there is time to do so, should inspiration hit while lathered up, once out of the shower and toweled off, like dreams, that glorious arrangement I heard in my head more often than not fades to a shadow of itself before it can be completely transitioned into the multitrack recorder and/or sequencer and I end up frustrated, standing there in front of the console, wrapped in a damp towel with the dogs staring at me quizzically. I don’t care how intuitively designed  a software or hardware interface may be (and I’ve tried a lot), it’s the man-machine interface that gets me every time. I have a Tascam multitrack hard disk recorder (don’t knock it — there are no interrupts from Windows or OS X to contend with), Reason, Pro Tools, Sonar and Ableton Live on the laptop to capture ideas. Although they’re all really powerful tools with a bazillion features and hyper-ergonomic work flow streamlining, they can’t record what I hear inside my head (not yet anyway, perhaps in the next release, right?).  If the legends are true, Mozart could do that directly from mind to paper. He died at the tender age of 35 after the production of over 600 works in nearly 30 years of composition, so maybe there’s something to be said against that kind of continuous brain dump. I’m no Mozart, so what I usually end up with after the struggle with the man-machine interface is hard drives full of little pieces of songs and notebooks filled with scribbled lyric fragments and interesting words.

Most of the time, these little snippets just sit, sometimes for years. Some don’t ever get used (or haven’t so far). But what is there can be a treasure trove under the right circumstances. Songwriters get writer’s block too and it’s good to step back and get a little distracted from that vicious loop of indecision or musical monotony when you’re in a writing rut. When I’m stuck for a song bridge or some other transition while in the middle of writing, I’ll go through my files to see if there’s something adaptable to the current project. If like me, your snippets and samples aren’t well-organized, categorized and descriptively labeled, a lot of surprises can come out of this musical and lyrical scavenger hunt. Occasionally I come across the odd bit of a “what-was-I-thinking” kind of snippet that ends up fitting into a project  in a really unique way as a counter melody or background element. This is especially true in the realm of sound design where recordings of everyday devices and events can get morphed into wildly distorted musical nirvana.

I read and listen to new material a lot and I never stop trying to learn new techniques and theory. I don’t know about you, but I have to refresh all that dull theory I learned years ago from time to time in order to avoid writing the same kinds of songs over and over. I’m not a big fan of formulaic writing but it works for some artists, at least for a time. But those who don’t reinvent themselves after the popularity wave has hit the beach are doomed to the bargain bin at Walmart. Had he lived today, what would Mozart sound like now? How would he have reinvented himself? I’m not a big, signed artist (or a decomposing composer, for that matter) but I, for one, am not content with producing the same sound repeatedly. I make it a point to keep learning in order to have that inspiration at hand when I need it.

I have books and recordings stacked up all over the place. Yes, I’ll admit it, sometimes I read music theory books in the bathroom. If you ever have the opportunity to visit my home, the magazine rack in the downstairs facilities is a testament to my fragmented psyche, sporting a myriad collection of music books, history, sci-fi and humor magazines, paperback novels, trade magazines, equipment catalogs and dog-eared copies of National Geographic, Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone.  Not to mention the bales of outdated magazines and catalogs that end up in the recycle bin before the ensuing avalanche buries the important parts of the room. These too,  provide inspiration at times.

I usually have half a dozen books and magazines going at the same time all over the house, not just in the magazine rack, shifting from one to another throughout the day. Perhaps not the most efficient way to get through things but it’s the way I work. I may not always get all the theory of what I’ve read and the technical aspect of a particular playing style is often beyond my ability (especially in the bathroom) but I make an effort to keep my mind open to whatever is out there. Applying and adapting what I’ve learned against my collected music and lyric snippets often leads to some really fruitful material.

Inspiration can come from imitation. My MP3 playlists are highly varied, to my embarrassment at times. Embarrassment to the point where I won’t put it on “random play” against my whole song catalog unless I have ear buds in or I’m by myself and the windows are firmly rolled up in the car, for fear of freaking out passers-by or other motorists. Bruno Mars-followed-by-Frank Zappa-followed-by-Chopin-followed-by-Coldplay-followed-by-Dread-Zeppelin-followed-by-Bob Dylan-followed-by-cartoon-theme-song kind of embarrassing. A weird playlist mix can shake things up mentally and a chord progression from one song melded into a chord progression from another has led to the production of more than one tune. You can’t copyright a chord progression and there are a lot of great ones available — but do enough with someone else’s progressions to make them your own.

There are good songs and bad songs, as everyone can attest to. To be sure, a negative example can be as valuable as a positive one, especially in the creative sphere. As a songwriter, some of the songs out there getting airplay amaze me because they’re just so bad. Like many more before me, that can be enough to inspire me to write — because I believe I can do better than that.

To me, chord progressions and rhythms are relatively easy for me to assemble. Lyrics are tough. It’s all too common in current pop  to just repeat the same lyric over and over again and although it might work to establish a hook, it’s not something I like to do. That’s not to say I haven’t written a song or two like that, but it feels like a cop-out. Isn’t there something more profound or creative to say? Crack open a rhyming dictionary and you’re sure to find something better than “beat-feet-meet” to inspire you.

A lot of times I’ll listen to pop songs and ask myself, “Hold on a second, what did he say? Was that a drug reference, a nonsensical word or just a really badly enunciated line?” Years ago, before Al Gore invented the Internet, you couldn’t look up lyrics very easily to figure out what had been sung in a particular song unless you had the liner notes in front of you or, heaven forbid, the actual sheet music if you could find and afford it. Sometimes you ended up with a hit based solely on mystique. Take a classic like “Louie, Louie” which basically won acclaim because nobody could figure out what the Kingsmen were actually singing. Look up the real lyrics — had they been clearly sung, the song probably would have quickly ended up in the bargain bin if it got pressed into vinyl at all. Fortunately for garage bands since 1955, that monotonous three-chord hook and those mumbled lyrics have been around to inspire generations of songwriters to produce their own monotonous and  badly enunciated songs. And now we have Justin Bieber. But I digress.  I aspire to write something a little more thoughtful than “Louie, Louie” but it’s always a struggle to complete the lyrics without sounding trite.

There are people far more adept at lyric writing than I am and start their songs with a completed lyric sheet or at the very least, a strong conceptual framework of the lyrical structure. In my opinion, a well thought-out lyric should be a poem. There are some fine poets out there who’ll never consider writing lyrics and many more lyricists who can’t write poems. I can write poems but I have a hard time adapting them to lyrics. A good lyricist will have a strong sense of rhythm and imagery as well as a firm grasp of language. More often than not, I’ll end up with a nearly completed song with nothing but a stub of lyrics or even just a title associated with it. The way I work, it’s better that than lose the groove of the tune. When I finally do match lyrics to the tune, many times it changes the overall structure or rhythmic cadence of the original arrangement to make everything fit. That’s OK too, the original form of the song goes into the snippets files — I never know when I might need something from it as inspiration for a new tune in the future. Because I know my lyrical skills are weak, working with a good lyricist on occasion should inspire me to write better on my own.

Time can be a big inspiration, especially the lack of it and the prospect of losing a check at the end of the process if I don’t get the job done. Not everybody works well under pressure and the possibility of being under the gun to finish a project is rarely a path a composer/songwriter is willing to take. But sometimes without that deadline to meet, the motivation to finish a project is too weak to actually complete it. It’s too easy to over think things when the goal is nebulous. Having a deadline, whether actual or artificial can help to make you write more efficiently, so setting smaller, achievable goals in reasonable amounts of time can go a long way to spur the creative process. Setting up sub-goals for a larger overall project can be a good start. Currently, I’m aspiring to write a song every three weeks with an overall goal of one a week. I don’t know if I can sustain it but it’s a goal to work towards. Like muscles, the creative parts of the mind need exercise and the old adage is more true in this realm than any other — “Use it or lose it.”

Hesiod Listening to the Inspiration of the Muse, by Edmond Aman-JeanSometimes, when there’s ample time to explore, refine and finish, the planets are in alignment, the dogs keep quiet, nobody comes to the door  and the phone doesn’t ring while recording, a mundane noise, chord progression, word or phrase magically transforms into a complete song in a single session. It’s supremely satisfying when that happens and I make sure to say,

“Thanks, Muses, ‘preciate it.”