Your Music, Inspiration
How to access the grand river of musical ideas like a great composer
by Rich the TweakMeister
are sitting there at your keyboard,
surrounded by the latest wonders of music technology, waiting for
the muse to strike. You have endured the learning curves of
your gear, you have tweaked your computer into a smooth and speedy audio
processor. Some of us never get beyond this point. We finally have
the DAW in shape and its time to make music we find ourselves staring at
a blank screen. Was all of this for nothing? Maybe I don't have talent?!!
Yet some of us seem to
be born with inspiration. The music just comes to certain people like
a flash of illumination, a glint of light, coming from a never ending river
of ideas. Fortunately for us, the topic of the inspiration behind
music, closely intertwined with ideas surrounding style, has been thought
about, talked about, written about for over a hundred years. We are
going to explore some of these discussions, and then we are going to tell
you how to get there. How can we access the grand musical river of
ideas like the great composers? Or at least actually get off the floor and
What is Inspiration?
Stop looking for it; stop
waiting for it to arrive; it's not coming. Now get down to
work. The composer is a person who composes, who exerts effort
towards making a musical composition. Inspiration is
not something to be sought after, but a term that other people label your
product with after it is all done. "Wow dude, that was inspired!".
Ah, yes. Your ego swells
and you think of how great of an artist you are, how you must be touched
by the divine, the recipient of a message from heaven. Tweak taps you
on the shoulder. Uh, dude, sorry: Wrong Path! That's not what
happened. The music you came up with was the outcome of a composition
session, where you worked to make musical phrases fit with drum beats, basslines,
leads, maybe vocals. You may have done some reflection on various elements
of melody, rhythm, harmony, form, etc. tried hundreds of patches to find
the right ones, perhaps even programmed your own and, in the end, it came
together in a way that people found meaningful. It means you found
things that worked. In short, you probably got lucky.
Lets look at some thoughts of Aaron Copeland, written in 1939, in his classic
What to Listen for in Music.
The idea may come in various forms.
it may come as a melody--just a one line simple melody which you might hum
to yourself. Or it may come to the composer as a melody with an accompaniment.
At times he might not even hear a melody; he may simply conceive a
accompanimental figure to which a melody will probably be added later.
Or, on the other hand, the theme may take form of a purely rhythmic idea.
He hears a particular kind of drumbeat, and that will be enough to start
him off. (Copeland:p23-24).
So inspiration is a matter
of finding something we like. Fortunately, for us, the art
of starting a composition is not totally an academic affair anymore, where
we jot down ideas on manuscript paper, requiring that we know music notation
and years of training. We have new tools, built right into our sequencers.
We can hear notes as we place them on a grid, a stave and can move them
about. We can start with something as simple as a 4 on the floor
kik drum (i.e., just a grid of kick notes placed a quarter note apart),
then walk a bass figure over that till we sense a groove. Or we can
doodle around on the piano, letting the hands go where they want, till the
hand itself finds a repeating pattern it likes, or a little melody that
is "cool". Suddenly you find something and then you hear it
all and a piece of music is born. But what goes into this hearing?
How do you hear a musical idea?
Stravinsky by Picasso
Igor Stravinsky had this
to say about inspiration. "An accident is perhaps the only
thing that really inspires us"" he writes in his Poetics of Music" written
at Harvard in 1942. "A composer improvises aimlessly the way an animal
grubs about. Both of them go grubbing because they yield to a compulsion
to seek things out...he is in his quest for pleasure" (p55) Whoa.
Did you get that? Accidents. Pleasure. We exert effort
looking for that shred of musical illumination, digging and sifting
through debris until something tweaks us internally and we realize we have
stumbled on something oh-so-infinitely cool. What? The
world reknown creator of The Rite of Spring says its all a happy
accident!? Is it that simple? What does this mean?
It means let the hands
and mind play about with the tools. It is in your nature to find something
that makes you smile, rocks your socks, chills your banannas. Call it pleasure,
call it cool, hot, kickass, trippin', pimpin', schveeet, cookin', the tish,
call it mo'fo dope, bro! It's the same thing. Trust
it is already in you. Stravinsky would say that there is nothing more
mysterious in the process than any other craft. It is the pleasure
in putting a piece together that brings it from spark to final form.
If there is no pleasure, we run out of gas, the idea never reaches fruition.
Yet, if we are observant, bring in elements to the composition that
increase the pleasure (fun), the piece moves forward, onward to completion.
I call this the "fun factor" and it relies on one thing.
But what elements do we
bring together to make a song? How do we get this sense that our discovery
is "fun, hip, cool, dope"? What is a great composer relying on when she
or he makes these decisions? This brings us to Style.
Whether you have discovered it or not, are aware of it or not,
you already have style. Style refers to the way you work, the
way your organize your musical thoughts, and how you observe the way they
relate to the larger musical culture.
Let me be specific.
You turn on your computer. Boot the sequencer. Set the tempo
to 140 bpm. Load your set of hot 808/909 samples (off your TweakHeadz
CD rom of course) and reproduce a classic 909 pattern. On top you
do a line of 16th notes using and analog bass and tweak the resonance so
it rises and falls. Your roommate barges in and says, "Dude, cool
Trance piece!": Of course, you knew it was Trance. S/he knew
it was trance. How'd that happen? You both have a similar idea
of what makes a piece of music sound like trance. You share a musical
culture. Are you born with musical culture? Nope!
It's something you acquire as time goes on; it's totally learned.
Does this mean you have
to study all the forms of music, styles of contemporary music that
are out there until you can dissect and take apart each one? Not really,
but of course a bit of dabbling certainly helps. What you need is
basic familiarity of the music that is around you in the world. For
one reason. So you can organize and hear it in your head.
Ok, here it is: When
you are in the process of working with musical elements, you are combining,
experimenting, juggling, adding, deleting, moving, cutting, pasting, etc.
This is all happening in your mind before you move the mouse. ("Maybe I
should transpose this like a Queen finale, maybe I should add a sequenced
synchro FM bass like Orbital, maybe I should slow the tempo and make it
more Moby, maybe I should add an Enigma-esq choir") You want to fill
your head with styles so you can come up with your own. While these
artists actually do exist in the real world, the way you relate them together
to come up with style only happens in one place: your mind. The cool
thing is that you have already done much of this work as you watched
TV, listened to the radio on the way to work, browsed titles at iTunes.
True Stories from Tweak's Lab
Is it Really Pro Tools?
"But is it really Pro Tools?" she asked me. LOL. This
weekend I had a session with a vocalist who was just
thrilled with the capabilities of my Logic Studio. "Wow this
is fantastic! It must be Pro Tools, right, Rich?" I
tried to briefly explain all the background without getting
too techie. No this is Logic, and its just
as powerful, if not more...bla, bla.
She looked at me with wide open eyes....so I pointed to
my little mbox mini sitting on a shelf.
See that? That's the Pro Tools your homies are saying they
have, not the "real pro tools". Its all bling bling,
cha-ching cha-ching. Get it? I knew she did not want to hear
that. She wanted to be able to tell her crones that she
recorded in a fantastic pro tools studio. That she found it
was not Pro Tools slightly tarnished the perception of the
results, I think. The strange thing is that on the forums we
might argue about quality for years, but to the person on
the street, brand name of the sequencer can impart a quality
that no mixologist or mastering engineer can match.
For instance, you are working
on a massive orchestral piece with a great melody and all the sudden you
get a crazy idea while listening to Cuban jazz on the radio. Yep, you need
"a hot rhythm". You try an Afro-Cuban bongo track under your score
and and it rocks! You play the piece and a new meaning unfolds. It
now makes sense, and you keep the change and go off in a new direction.
Ah, pleasure, keep this piece going!
So what happened?
You got lucky! And Stravinsky would commend your powers of observation and
your sense of style. The point? If you never in your life heard
an Afro-Cuban beat you could not have come upon this solution. It
is the drawing upon musical culture that makes style.
This also holds true for
production values. Why are we centering the kick and making it the
loudest element in today's music? Why are we chopping out little bits
of audio to make abrupt silences to punctuate music? Why do we have the
itch to glitch? Why are we using pitch shifters on our voices (i.e., Cher's
"Believe") That's the Style of our Times, my friends, or as some composers
of Stravinsky's generation put it, the Style of an Epoch. An
important point is not to do these things because everyone else that is
famous is doing it. That makes you a bit of a robot, a copycat.
The point is to willfully add these or not add them.
That's your style. The larger your musical cultural awareness,
the more diverse your style. Is this hard to do? Not at all.
You don't have to perfectly mimic any one style to borrow from it.
You do not have to sound exactly like 303 Infinity or Aphex Twins to borrow
a trance technique. Were not reproducing cover tunes for your next gig at
the Hole In the Wall.. Remember, your are doing your
music, not theirs, and there is danger in judging your music
by other popular songs.
Stravinsky puts it well:
"So the danger lies
not in the borrowing of clichés. The danger lies in
fabricating them and in bestowing on them the force of law, a tyranny...."
Ok, let Tweak, decipher
these pearls from academia. We should not succumb to "the style of
an epoch". That is, if all da producahs and homeboys are doing trip
hop in da hood, does that mean you have sound just like them?
No! Stop lying! You are NOT them. And you are not fooling anyone.
Just because all the trance-masters are using the snare roll of 16th and
24th notes for which rises in intensity and filter cutoff does that me you
have to too? Of course not. But go ahead, use it.
You may want to use a technique sometimes because it takes the listener
where you want them to go. Stravinsky says:
...the style of an
epoch results from a combination of individual styles, a combination
which is dominated by the methods of the composers who have exerted
preponderant influence on their times.
Rather than mimic any
form, an approach that will inevitably lead you to feel you music is not
good enough, borrow from your vast culture and make your own style and make
your music good. You are then in a class by yourself. You
will be regarded as an inventor of music, not a follower, an originator,
not ... a wanabee. And you will know that it is totally true inside
yourself, with no homies, ego or divine light propping you up. It will no
longer be a matter of "waiting" for inspiration. It is just a matter
of whether you feel like composing (working) today or not. You know you
will never run out of musical ideas.
Best of luck in your
discoveries., I am
Rich the TweakMeister