The Role of Inspiration

Those of you who have composed music at some time in your life will recognize these two common situations. In the first situation, you are away from your instrument and you suddenly have a great idea for a song. You rush to your composing space and work feverishly, yet easily, to finish what amounts to a completed song. In the second situation, you are sitting with your instrument, noodling away, with every intention of writing a new song that day. Yet after several hours you have nothing more than a few stock chord progressions to show for it.

Some like to call the difference between these two circumstances -- inspiration. When you are writing music and the ideas seem to come effortlessly and out of nowhere, it feels as if the music is coming from some other place. The music seems to pass through you to your instrument, writing paper or tape deck. The use of the word inspiration implies an external stimulation of some kind that drives the process of composition forward. There are composers who describe the second situation as an attempt to force inspiration. I disagree; I feel the main difference between the two is the results you achieve. I believe you can be equally inspired with or without your instrument in your hands.

How many of you would prefer to write inspired music instead of struggling for hours to write something you don't even like that much? Of the two composing situations I described, which one seems more fun? How productive do you think you'd be if everything you wrote was inspired?

I suspect that almost all composers would like to write music with the intensity and relative ease that comes from feeling inspired. Yet most find inspiration an elusive force. How can you feel inspired over a greater percentage of your time? Why do they seem so rare, these flashes of illumination that make the composing process so effortless? One key to triggering inspiration may be an understanding of what causes it, and more importantly, what causes it for you.

Think for a moment about the state one is in at the exact moment when inspiration strikes. By state, I mean your physical location and movement, as well as the environment around you. People caught up in the frenzy of an inspired moment often fail to note the state that they are in when it occurs. Because of this, they are more likely to write off the experience as a random happening. Just by being more aware of what you are doing when you feel a sudden burst of creativity may allow you to seek out those actions more frequently.

An example from my own experience: one evening I was getting ready to shut down my studio, and I accidentally bumped my guitar, which was still plugged into the mixing board. The sounds that came out of the guitar at that moment made me hear something I had never heard before. I immediately picked up the guitar and began to compose a new song using those sounds as inspiration.

At the time, I dismissed the experience as a lucky break, but in the weeks that followed I was expecting other songs to suddenly spring forth in a finished form. Nothing came out, and I felt I was trying my best to come up with new material. I thought back about what I had done the night that the song came so naturally. I thought there were two circumstances that night that were out of the ordinary. One, it was late at night. Usually, I wouldn't think of writing at that hour. The second was that I had simply bumped my guitar. In other words, I hadn't been trying to make music. I just heard sounds that my brain thought were unusual, and some kind of chain reaction ensued. After some more experimentation, I found that when I am slightly tired (usually the case at the end of the day), and when I hear unfamiliar sounds, I am more likely than not to be triggering a creative high point. One or the other of those circumstances alone don't seem to do anything out of the ordinary; it is the combination of the two that creates my inspiration.

What I couldn't explain then, and I still can't explain, is why that particular physical environment yielded the results that it did. I found after talking to other songwriters that perhaps, due to the fact that all people react to their environment in different ways, the physical environment best suited for inspiring a composer would be unique and individual to each composer. I realized that unless you, as a composer, try to focus on what is happening around you at the moments of creative brilliance, that those moments would truly occur randomly in your life. If we do not make a special effort to notice patterns in the physical world, then we always convince ourselves that events take place purely by chance.

If your last moment of creative inspiration happened within the last few weeks or so, then you are in the position of being able to think about where you were, what you were doing, what you were wearing, etc. You must imagine back to that moment in as much detail as possible because it there may be physical aspects of the moment that were not important to the results you got from being inspired. It may sound crazy, but some artists get their best ideas driving in the car, not in city traffic, but on the highway, with a tape of a jam session in the tape deck and all the windows rolled down. Why? I don't know, but I know that whenever a particular musician gets into this state, he gets results. He really doesn't understand what is at work, only that it does seem to produce results. Does he drive a lot more highway miles now? You bet he does.

There are physical triggers that we have acquired over our entire lives that seem to affect our brains (and our creativity) in very regular ways. Your goal as a composer should be to learn a little more about how your own brain works. You want to find out what exactly is making those flashes of inspiration happen. What combination of physical positions, sounds, environmental factors (such as wind, sun, moonlight, etc.), or smells are causing you to have creative breakthroughs? I think that a little self-reflection after your next inspirational moment might yield at least a few of the physical keys to which your brain is responding.

Once you have a few ideas of what has to happen for you to feel more creative you can put yourself in those circumstances more frequently. This has the net effect of making more of your original music the kind in which you can say, "Yes, I was really inspired when I wrote that." When you are trying to write music for an album, generally speaking, you don't have the luxury of waiting around for inspiration to strike. You need to be able to go out sometimes and find inspiration. Otherwise, you may be a lot older than you might wish when you finally finish your record. I read an interview with keyboard player Jan Hammer many years ago when he was writing for the Miami Vice television show. He was having to write approximately 30-40 minutes of music for each show, week after week. Jan mentioned he was using an algorithmic sequence generator, not to write the music, but to create funny sounds and unusual musical passages that he was able to use to trigger his creative power. He said, "When you have to write that much music every week, you need all the help you can get."

So do you.

In order to get more of your music out to the public, and to increase the creative qualities of your compositions, I urge you to stop and think for fifteen or twenty minutes when you are in those creative peak periods. You will begin to notice patterns in your behavior or similarities in the environment that you can use to make those creative moments happen more and more frequently. Remember, it's really not important to try to discover why these things work. At this point, just notice them and use them to your advantage to increase your power to release your original music.

Dan McAvinchey is a guitarist and composer living in Raleigh, NC.

He believes every musician or composer has the power to write, record and release their own music.

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