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Your Music, Inspiration
and Style

How to access the grand river of musical ideas like a great composer

by Rich the TweakMeister

Tweakheadz Lab at Night Nov 2008

 

You 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?!! The horror!

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 make something!

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.

 Style

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.

Original post

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.

Be Yourself

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

 

References:

Copeland, Aaron, What to Listen for in Music, 1939  McGraw Hill

Stravinsky, Igor, Poetics of Music, 1942, Harvard University press

Inspiring Posts at Studio-Central

 

More Essays by Tweak


Cool Quote:

"The musical emotion springs precisely from the fact that at each moment the composer withholds or adds more or less than the listener anticipates on the basis of a pattern that he thinks he can guess, but that he is incapable of wholly divining...." 

Claude Lévi-Strauss (b. 1908), French anthropologist

Tweak:  Your muses are waiting for you, and they can be an impatient lot. Never underestimate the power of your creative mind, and by all means, do not ignore it!  Giorgio de Chicro understood this in 1916.

  The Disquieting Muses

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Disquieting_Muses.jpg

 


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More Articles on Recording and Composition by Tweak

Recording and Composition INDEX
Recording Process Made Simple
Inspiration and Style
Step-by-Step: How to write a Song
Write Drum tracks without a Drummer
Hip Hop Beat Construction Made Simple
Hip Hop Production and Mixing
Hip Hop Drum Tweaks
Using Electronic Drum Kits
How to Record Vocals
Preparing for a Vocal Session
Vocal Processing
Recording Guitars
Using Compressors
Using Effects Processors
Buying a MultiTrack: Watch Out!
Using an AW1600 Recorder
Podcasting from your Home Studio
MultiTrack Recorder Price List
Outboard FX Price List
Studio Racks List

 

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