One of the myths that a lot of non-musician types tend to think about people who write music (or create most any kind of art) is that these people are struck by lightning bolts of creative inspiration out of the clouds and handed their new ideas as a flash of inspiration all at once, as if creative people are like Moses and are able to hear God talking directly to them, writing it all down on a stone tablet or something. While there are times when some songs are written like this (Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is one example), it is not that common for most people on a regular basis, and certainly not for me. You can’t count on those lightning bolts of creative ideas, in full detail, dropping into your lap from out of the heavens on a regular basis. In my experience, the creative mind is actually kind of quiet, shy, soft-spoken, and lazy if left alone. It takes a certain amount of nurturing and old-fashioned hard work to make full use of your fountain of creativity from this part of your brain. I also know that everyone has a creative mind, whether or not they take full advantage of it. But not everyone tries to tap into it on a day-to-day basis, and it’s under-utilized for a lot of people. Songwriters, painters, authors, poets, and even software developers are some of the people who are more accustomed to working with this part of their mind (what some people refer to as the right brain) and try to tap into it more often. If you’ve ever made up a joke, on the spot, and wondered where your “quick wit” came from, it came from this same place in your brain that all other creativity comes from – I like to call it “creative mind”.
You have to treat creative mind, as if it is a separate person living inside your subconscious that you can’t speak with directly. It can’t be summoned at will, so don’t even try. But you can encourage him to get out of bed, and get his lazy ass to work, and prepare yourself to listen for his ideas when he finally decides to speak to you at whisper-volume (this is the way he speaks most of the time, he doesn’t usually talk loudly, so you’d better be listening for him as he will often go back to sleep just after he has explained his latest/greatest idea to you).
In other words, you have to nurture your creative mind and be ready to listen and act on your creative impulses from this entity when it talks to you. The more you can get out of the way of this creative flow, the better.
Here are the ways that help me to nurture the creative mind:
- Give creative-mind some homework assignments
This is probably where that phrase “I work well under pressure” came from. When I give myself assignments to create things, it almost always produces results that I would never get if I sat around and waited to be inspired. Tell yourself to write a new song and be specific about what you want: “I want to write a theme song for a movie about a guy that is stranded in the Arizona desert” It doesn’t matter if nobody is really asking you for such an assignment. Your creative mind doesn’t know or care. It only knows that you’re starting something to work on. Just pretend that you have been hired to write a song for some purpose and start forcing yourself to create stuff.
- Work on creative ideas every day
The other thing I’ve noticed is that once I start working on creative tasks on a regular basis, it’s as if creative-mind is awake more often, providing new ideas to me on an more regular basis. I’ll be working on one song idea when all of a sudden the creative-mind says, “hey while you’re at it, I’ve got another song idea for you … here is the opening riff, get ready here it comes”. It’s like I can’t get the guy to go back to sleep after I have him awake.
- Know your best time-of-day to work on new ideas
For whatever reason, creative-mind is awake and active in the morning for me, sometimes very active at that time, but almost always asleep at night. Because I know this about myself, I try to work on song ideas in the morning since I know this is when I will get the most ideas to work with.
- Get out of your house, city, or routine
The other thing that can help is by breaking your routine. Get out of the house and spend some time outdoors. Take walks and turn off your mind once in a while. Travel and see new cities, and listen to the music and sounds of the places you visit, try new foods. This can help to give you some inspiration if nothing else.
- Teasing and razzing yourself can help awaken creative ideas
It’s funny but I often think that my creative-mind is somewhat jealous and has a chip on his shoulder. I can often get inspiration by listening to other music while saying things to myself like “wow, creative-mind, if only YOU could make music this good, one could only hope …” then it’s as if he gets a little pissed and says, in his best Larry David voice “oh, so what are you saying? …. , that I could never come up with something like this?, well just hold on a second because maybe you have greatly underestimated me …” and then I start getting some inspirational ideas based on this episode of being blown away by someone else’s music. Sometimes this will be in the form of things like “I really like the synth sound in that song I heard, but I wish that they would have taken the chords in another direction,” or “I love that groove they used but I would want to hear it go in an opposite direction and make it even better”.
Know how to listen to your creative side
The other odd thing about creative-mind is that it often wants to speak to me at the most inopportune times. I’m sitting there for hours in my home studio, guitar in-hand, and creative-mind says nothing for hours while I futz around with the same old song ideas that suck badly, attempting to find some inspiring sounds on the synth, or drum loop, until I’m frustrated and have no more energy. Then the next day I’m on some boring conference call, or standing in line at the bank when all of a sudden creative-mind has got a killer idea to share with me before he goes back to sleep. I’m looking around for a pen and paper, and a guitar or something to capture this idea but I’m in line at the grocery store or something. So I try to hum the idea to myself so that I can remember it. I rush home, trying to remember the idea by playing it back in my head over and over until I can get a guitar or something to try it out.
The creative mind is not very detailed oriented, at least mine isn’t. Often when I get an idea for a new song or a melody, the idea comes in bits and pieces. It’s like the little record player in my head starts to play, but I can’t quite make out the chords. I get the overall feel of the idea and melodic phrases. This is the 1% inspiration. Sometimes I’ll get the emotional input of the idea first before the musical ideas take shape. It’s as if I can hear the song playing but the sound is turned down, but my mind knows how the song feels. I know it’s weird, but I never said that I was normal.
Mining your creative ideas
I’ve found that the best way to mine your creative ideas is to capture them as soon as they happen, if at all possible. In the same way that you might get a quick thought in your head about a funny analogy, or joke, your musical ideas can come in the same way – very fast and evaporate quickly if ignored. The quickest way to kill a creative idea is to get distracted by focusing on all the technical aspects of setting up mics to record your idea, finding the right sounds on your synth/guitar, messing with your DAW software, etc. It can greatly help if you have some kind of recording device that’s always accessible when the idea strikes. Something as simple as a pocket recorder or even your mobile phone’s sound-recorder app can be useful for capturing your inspired ideas when they strike.
Several months ago I bought a device from Boss called the BR-80. I love this gadget for capturing quick song ideas! When an idea strikes I can turn this thing on and start playing my guitar instantly. I can also dial up a basic drum groove quickly, if needed. Sometimes this helps to capture the basic rhythmic feel along with the musical idea so that I have some idea of the arrangement needed to go with it.
It also allows me to multi-track, just in case I want to flesh out the idea with a bass part or secondary part while the idea is still fresh. One of the best things about this device is that I can pack this thing into my suitcase when I travel for work (it’s about the size of a large iPod), making it easier to work on song ideas when I’m away from home. This is one of the most useful song-writing tools I’ve ever purchased.
Crafting your creative ideas into finished songs
This is where the 99% perspiration comes in. To get any real work done with your creative ideas, it usually requires hard work to fully realize them into something that can be shared with the rest of the world. (this involves using both parts of your brain!) Oftentimes the initial song ideas are musical nuggets of cool things that pop into your head, but they lack the usual structure that a finished song would need, namely a beginning, middle, and end with various parts all playing together. It’s kind of like these initial musical ideas are the one-liner jokes that need to be formed into a full story to make sense to the listener. A song doesn’t take shape until I work with these inspirational nuggets together to form something complete. The initial ideas usually come pretty fast, but then I’ll work out the song structure and arrangement over many sessions of editing parts, deciding on the instrumentation, etc.
For me, the best approach is to capture the song in rough demo-form first. This is where I allow my head to focus on being the “composer/arranger” to refine my musical ideas first. Then I’ll take that rough demo and make a production version with the good mics, all of the right drum sounds, guitar parts, using my DAW. This way I can focus my head around being the “producer” for refining that demo into a final master as my final step, creating something that’s ready to publish to the outside world.
I hope that you get some good ideas out of all my rambling here. Or perhaps you have some techniques that work better for you.
Lastly, I wanted to put a plug in for a book that I’ve read that helped me crystallize some my own ideas around being a composer, and working with that creative side of my brain. The book is called “Imagine – How Creativity Works” I highly recommend this book for anyone involved in creative activities from song writing, painting, writing, software design, or any activity where you need to make use of that intuitive half of your brain to get your work done.