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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Don't Find Inspiration: Create It.

(Though this is the Makeshift Musician blog, the lessons in this article can generally apply to anyone trying to find creative inspiration)

How does a music writer come up with ideas for songs? Some artists continually create for years and years and show no signs of stopping. This used to baffle me. How can they keep coming up with new content without burning themselves out?

I know that there are many artists who will tell you that creativity can't be turned on like a faucet. They say that one shouldn't be pushed to be creative. Let me clarify something for you. This kind of thing is spoken by people who don't have the strength of character to understand how much can be achieved by one individual. Random, unplanned inspiration is a very real thing and can yield fantastic results, but it isn't the only thing driving creativity. Two other things that will drive you to fantastic creative heights are experimentation and goal-setting.

Goal Setting:

In the world of evolutionary theory (bear with me here), some researchers have developed computerized artificial life simulators. These pretty much simulate, from the bottom up, simple organisms with the ability to gather food, reproduce, pass on their DNA, and mutate it a little each generation. Researchers running these programs found that if the little computer beings were given an abundance of food, they would continually eat and reproduce, but even after thousands of generations, they would never evolve. They just kept eating what they had, and slacked off like college seniors. When the researchers took away most of the food, however, the beings immediately started evolving. Once sustenance became difficult to gather, the organisms had to continually become more creative with methods of achieving their goals. Think about it: if all life on earth was given infinite amounts of food right from the beginning, it would have no reason to evolve beyond single-celled organisms, and then we wouldn't have any art at all!

Now that I've alienated all the religious-types here, I'll say that this is a good analogy for your own creative output. If you just wait for inspiration to strike, you won't be continually challenging yourself to make better music. If you make yourself write every day (or almost every day), then you will soon be forced to come up with new stuff. Eventually, you'll drain your comfortable, routine way of making your art. It will become insufficient for new creations and you will be forced to think differently about composing. Your easily reached ideas are no longer abundant, so just like those little computer creatures, so you have to be adventurous and evolve.

Set a goal for yourself to write music for a couple hours every day, or to have two or three new songs a month or, if you're really ambitious, a new song every week. I think eventually your own output will astound you. When I was just writing for myself, I always thought I was running out of ideas pretty quickly. After working on my first soundtrack, I've found that constantly writing music and having no choice but to make new ideas has produced the best stuff I've ever written. Plus all that practice just makes me better anyway.


Aaron Marks, in his book The Complete Guide to Game Audio, told of a really cool exercise for game musicians that I want to relay and expand upon here. It goes kind of like this: Write down every musical genre you can think of, each on a separate small piece of paper and then put them all in a bowl (or for maximum fun, put them in a top hat). Then pick out two at random. Now you have to make a song that falls into both of those genres. You might get stuck with "Bluegrass Metal", "Tribal Pop", or even "Surf Rock Polka". This is a glorious and fun way to make you look at things differently.

Now for some of us with limited music resources, or those of us who tend to stick with one genre, this might be unfeasible. In that case, just take one random genre from the bowl and try to incorporate that into your next song as best you can. If you play nothing but piano and you pull out the "Metal" card, well, tough luck. Better try and figure out how to get the 'feel' of heavy metal while still maintaining the beautiful sound of piano. Think of the new genre you might invent!

My point is that experimentation automatically inspires creativity. If you play guitar and sing, try getting a cheap pair of bongos (I got mine for $50) and record that with your song, or find a friend who's willing to accompany you on them. Don't just have it play in the background of your existing songs, though that is fun too. Try writing a new song where the bongos are really prevalent. You'll be surprised at how versatile you really are.

If you constantly challenge yourself and experiment with new ways to make music, you will never have to fear your creative well drying up. In fact, don't even think of it as well. Your creativity doesn't come from a single small source. Think of yourself as exploring the world, discovering new and unusual sources in your travels, leaving the unadventurous behind at their single, quickly depleting creative source.


W.O.D. said...

Hey Ben, You're absolutely right. Creativity is like a muscle: use it and it strengthens, ignore it and it atrophies. All of us have the capacity to learn and create so much more than we know. As for me, most of the time it goes like this: "I'm trying to think, and nothin' happens!"

Jim said...

I don't know if I've told you about this RPM Challenge thing (, but I am just now finishing up my entry for this year (I've done it all three that it has existed). I put together a band of excellent musicians, and I would give them a prompt (a song about "the Road Warrior" that sounds like "Thunderstruck", or an electro-pop song using three organs) and then we'd write a song to fill it. We made eleven songs in five days. We might make one more. It has been such a good experience. It's nice to push yourself. Last year I did a fifteen track album in twenty-four hours.

Also, I know a pretty good surf-polka band back in New Hampshire. They're called the Serfs, and headed by Gary Sredzienski (of "Polka Party" fame).