Compose Yourself: Endless Ideas

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

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Suppose you’re a songwriter of some renown, and you wake up on a Monday morning with an ugly realization slapping you in the face like a bucket of ice water: You’ve got a meeting with a studio exec on Friday, and you have to work up a group of songs for a new film score. You don’t need just one idea, you need a passel of them. And they better be good—your career and a million bucks are riding on it. Unfortunately, you’ve spent the last three weeks partying in Malibu, signing autographs in Nashville, and emptying out shoeboxes of receipts on the living room floor, because the Taxman is at the door. Your brain feels like a soggy sponge, and your body is a house of pain. Then the panic begins to set in.

Sound familiar? Well, the part about soggy Monday morning brain, maybe. And the impending arrival of April 15th does tend to sharpen one’s awareness of the competition between “real” life and the creative life. It ain’t pretty, either: The former is always trying to drown the latter, while Time—that stealthy thief—is not on your side and keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ into the future.

So how is your songwriting career coming along? Are you always making excuses for not writing? Are you overwhelmed by the end of the day, too tired to write a word? Does your guitar sound dead?

Some people are just damned good at writing songs and never have a problem coming up with ideas or developing them into well-rounded compositions. If this describes you, more power to you. But what about the rest of us? What do we do on a Monday morning with the clock ticking, either on our million-dollar deal or just our everyday desire to be creative?

Some of us respond by waiting. We wait for inspiration to strike. Unfortunately, that wait can be a long one.

Others try the “noodle on the guitar (or piano) and see what happens” approach. This has been known to work for some famous songwriters. But for every Keith Richards there are a million or more noodlers whose guitars just don’t come back with ideas like “Paint It Black” or “Honky Tonk Women.”

Some folks “get organized.” They sit down to write every day at a specific time. The Muse, however, is capricious. She seldom shows up for her appointments, and the song lists of steady workers, while extensive, often lack that certain je ne sais quoi. To put it bluntly, they often sound labored, not inspired.

Wouldn’t it be nice if there were some way around all this? Some way to bypass the brain freeze brought on by deliberately “sitting down to write a song” or deadline panic? Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to wait so long for inspiration?

With that thought in mind, you roll out of bed, rub your eyes and head for the shower. On the way, you flick on your MP3 player. A medley of hits begins to play. Preoccupied, you turn on the shower and adjust the heat. Then, with clouds of steam filling the air, you step under the drenching downpour. The rush feels good, but then you realize you’ve shut the door behind you and now you can barely hear the music outside, the music you had hoped would inspire you.

Just when it’s starting to irritate you, you notice something else, something completely miraculous and unexpected: Your soggy brain is filling in the gaps, making up stuff on top of the fractured melody. Every time the white noise of rushing water obscures a segment of the tune, your mind’s ear fills it in with something new, and it’s not half bad. Some of it is great, even better than the original. You jump out of the shower and quickly sing a few of those ideas into the digital recorder you keep nearby at all times. Solid! You’re on your way to meeting your deadline.

What just saved your career was the mysterious power of pattern completion.

Pattern completion is well known in connection with the visual sense. It is what allows us to perceive the tiger hiding in the jungle shadows, or to see the Big Dipper in the stars. What is less often noticed is that pattern completion is almost as strong for the auditory sense as it is for the visual sense. It is what leads to hilarious misheard lyrics, such as “Who’ll stop Lorraine,” instead of “Who’ll stop the rain?” Misheard melody, on the other hand, isn’t funny: it’s a fountainhead of new ideas.

When we look at the Big Dipper, we know there is no literal “pot and handle” in the sky. Nor is the Big Dipper image the only way to connect the starry dots. By the time we’re five years old, we’ve already absorbed millions of images that might also work. The Big Dipper is just the one that won out over the others before we were born. But that doesn’t stop us from imagining new ones when we look up at the sky.

Likewise, we are all carrying thousands of melodies and melodic fragments around in our subconscious. We get them from everywhere. They are what we use to compose music that “sounds” bluesy, or jazzy, or country-ish, or classical. The difference is that a hot shower, which relaxes us and randomly obscures notes in the muffled music that comes through the bathroom door, puts us in the zone while giving our minds just enough information to stimulate our powers of pattern completion. The new tunes we hear are just as good as those we might make up by sitting down with a guitar and seeing what happens. Often they are better, because they are more spontaneous and less tied to the original material than what we make up by “working at it.”

In my book, Compose Yourself, I called this method “MC2,” or “Musical Creativity Squared.” Unlike waiting for inspiration, or noodling on the guitar, or sitting down at the same time every day and forcing oneself to write, MC2 almost always works, anytime, which means that you never need to be at a loss for ideas that sound good and reflect a certain style.

Inspiration, on the other hand, as Edison said, is only ten percent of the story. The remaining ninety percent is perspiration. However, this famous adage is somewhat misleading, because perspiration—craftsmanship, that is—can also be assisted by inspiration. You will constantly feel the spark as you build up the familiar structural units of verses and choruses. However, MC2 ensures a good start, a healthy seed from which to grow a song. And no waiting for inspiration.

Try it and see. It may take some adjustment of sound levels to find the sweet spot. Remember, the music coming through the door should be barely recognizable.

Incidentally, the video count has been stuck on thirty for three weeks while your humble blogger was emptying shoeboxes and sorting through receipts. Now that Uncle Sam has been satisfied, production will resume. Please subscribe to the SongwritingABCs channel on YouTube to receive notifications of new videos.

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