During press junkets interviewers often ask “what inspires you to make music?” It’s a question that drives me nuts because really unpacking this concept takes some time. It’s not as simple as you’d expect, and it’s always changing. The reward of creating music inspires me to make music, but what is it that reliably drives the process of making music? How can you get creative quickly? Is there a system you can apply? There are several techniques and frameworks that can help kick-start the process and create momentum for your work. Through travel and environmental changes, mental pictures, keywords, changing the order of instruments, changing the interfaces, blending diverse sources – you can create work that is more pure and inspired.
Travel and environment:
As a DJ, traveling is part of everyday life – I spend at least 3 days on the road each week, but I love the constant movement and the change of scenery. Each city inspires new ideas and keeps me from getting stuck in an everyday routine. The downside is that you’re a bit spun-around every time you return home. Changing your environment can have a dramatic effect – new sights and smells will inspire different thinking, and you don’t need a vacation to make this happen. If you can’t travel, change your work environment. Try using a Varidesk standing desktop instead of a sitting desk, change the lighting and color scheme of your room, buy scented diffusors, or upgrade your chairs and ergonomics to something more effective. Small changes can create big results.
Sometimes I’ll compose with a mental image of a location or a moment in time – typically a landscape: rolling fields in Vermont, the beach, sand dunes in the desert. The mental picture inspires a feeling that guides the chord progression. It could be a frozen frame, or a short loop. Dig deep into your childhood and you’ll find something juicy that is unique to you. This initial seed helps guide the rest of the process like a keyword does for lyrics.
When I’m writing with vocalists we’ll often do a stream of consciousness session where I loop an instrumental draft and they just wing it and sing whatever comes to mind. Sometimes they have notebooks of phrases ready, other times it’s nonsense lyrics that are simply melodic placeholders. I’ll sift through the lyrics and pan for gold, looking for nuggets of words and melodies. What I’m looking for beyond catchy hooks – are keywords. These create the mood and the context for the entire song. For example, “The Longest Road” started with a variety of lyrics about the desert, but after several takes – I found that the bleak metaphor of a road in the desert leading to nothing was a powerful concept. That became part of the chorus and the defining idea for the song. Keep a list of inspiring keywords handy in a written notebook or software like Evernote.
Changing the order:
Change the order of instruments to get different results. For example, Try adding the kick and snare before any hihats or hand percussion, lay down a bass line before the chord progression, or see how adding the bass line earlier in the process (before arpeggios and leads) changes things. Everyone works differently and sometimes you simply need to change the order of creation to get new inspiring results. This can make a huge difference.
Changing the interface:
Change your instruments to find new riffs, patterns, and ideas. Physical instruments create interesting obstacles through their interfaces that will dramatically change how you compose. For example: playing a lead melody on the guitar instead of piano will change your approach to rhythm. Creating chord progressions on an Ableton Push or alternate style interfaces by Axis or Zendrum will change how you compose and form your chords. Think about how you physically interact with your instruments, how they strike and resonate, and add some new instruments to the mix. Simply palm-muting your guitar or piano strings will drastically influence the melodies and chords you play
Blending diverse sources:
Weave together diverse sources and “hide your brushstrokes.” You don’t have to hide your inspiration, but it’s usually a good idea – both creatively and legally (see Robin Thicke and Pharrell). There are no new ideas, just new applications and combinations of existing ideas. Increase the breadth and number of your inspirations and weave them together to form your unique authentic voice. It’s a myth that authenticity is easy. It takes hard work to develop your authentic self.
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