how to be a composer 3): don’t wait for inspiration

As a high schooler who wrote songs for his ska band, I relied on inspiration to compose my songs. You all know the feeling… something inspires you to create and you are filled with a surplus of motivation and ideas. It feels good, it all sounds right, and then, as if someone snuffed out your flame, it ENDS in a fizzle.

When I was writing pop/punk/ska songs, I would get a verse and a chorus and then the inspiration-flame would burn out. Afterwards, I was stuck for weeks, sometimes months, with the second-verse cursethe inability to continue writing the song once you wrote the first verse and chorus.

So I waited for inspiration to come–like it was a random wind that blew my direction once in a blue moon to bestow upon me all of the good ideas I was looking for.

I was held hostage by my limited understanding of what “inspiration” actually was.

Understanding Inspiration

This is the first definition of inspiration:

“the process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative”

Songwriters, composers, creators–we are first wooed by inspiration’s touch–as if it is a gift given to us that stimulates our creative juices. We understand it as something that happens to us.

Don’t wait for inspiration. It may be the generative gift that started your creative process, but it is misunderstood. Instead of something you have to wait for, inspiration is always out there, waiting for you to grab it and get to work.

Take a look at the second definition of “inspiration:”

“the drawing in of breath; inhalation.”

When you contemplate the physical act of breathing, by the definition above, you realize that “inspiration” is something you are in control of. YOU determine when it begins and when it ends.

By choosing to “draw in a breath” you are taking the fresh air and making something with it. You are actively reaching out and grabbing that inspiration for your creative use.

Sounds easy, right? Of course it’s not. So let’s talk technical.

Practicing Inspiration

As a composer of music, when musical ideas “come” to us, we have to be ready with the mindset and the tools. We have to write ideas down (words, music notation), record them, orchestrate them, understand the music theory behind them, etc. All of those activities require years and years of study and practice. When you build those skills, your ability to record, notate, and manipulate your inspired ideas becomes greater. Your capacity to document musical ideas increases but only because you practiced the skills necessary to do so.

If you are beginning your creative journey, it is important to start composing as a daily habit. Or at least an every-other-day routine.

I am a big proponent of the project-based life–so I often start composing with a specific goal in mind. Simply put: pick an ensemble and have a general vision of the scope of your project. If you are just beginning or need a palate cleanse, start with a solo instrument like piano, or any other unaccompanied solo instrument, or a simple duet.

Once your instrumentation is set, give yourself a simple task like one of the following:

  1. compose a melody with an antecedent and consequent phrase.
  2. construct a chord progression or harmonic rhythm
  3. build a series of textures that can be overlaid on a chord progression, separately or together
  4. write a two part free counterpoint
  5. etc.

Continuing the use of simple tasks (self prescribed assignments) can extend beyond the start of the piece into the construction and completion of complex music. I often look at it as a binary decision. Every time I am confronted with an option, I turn it into a “yes” or “no” question. I answer it, and then I move on. This forces you to not linger on decisions and to simply move forward. Once you get past the initial frustrations of starting and continuing, composing becomes easier.

Editing with Inspiration

Editing. No one likes it (usually) but this is where the magic happens. Here’s a funny thought: you don’t need to be inspired to edit your music.  The first thing you do need to do though, is avoid the playback button on your software at all costs. STOP listening to what you have done as a means of considering what will come next or what to change. Instead, audiate through what you have composed, or where you left off, and move forward with new material. Once you can break your habit of constant playback (what I refer to as “playback disease”), you can really get into the editing process.

Here’s what I suggest: Audiate through your piece and as you go, make a list of concerns, ideas, edits, suggestions, experiments to try, etc. Write these down somehow. Once you have made it through, simply go through your list and complete the tasks you assigned yourself. These may be things like:

  1. add dynamics to m. 25-37
  2. orchestrate a building crescendo by adding instrumental layers
  3. add two more measures between m. 101 and 102
  4. clarify the chord progression in m. 42
  5. etc.

or less specifically:

  1. why does the B section sound bad?
  2. does the last recap need more percussion?
  3. what would Philip Glass do instead?

By doing this, you create a dialog with yourself that strengthens your inspiration and your ability to compose. These “edit lists” can even generate new ideas, new epiphanies, and foster growth in your ability to “draw-in” inspired ideas.

So don’t wait. Practice your inspiration and watch it cultivate and grow!