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Composer’s Forum: How to Develop New Ideas and Manage Your Inspiration

Gerry Bassermann

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Do you believe in magic? What should you do when you’ve fallen under its spell?

The real beginning of any musical piece is not how it starts, but rather the idea that led to the music’s creation in the first place. It can be something you sang in your head or played on an instrument and really liked. Perhaps you were just jamming at first, looking for a new direction, trying out riffs on the guitar or lazily noodling at the keyboard. All of a sudden, everything changed: you really loved this one particular phrase. It’s amazing how quickly you can fall in love with a musical idea, especially when it seems to come from nowhere. It can feel quite like magic. 

More to the point, it feels like your magic. No matter how you account for it, this amazing arrival is yours. You either dreamed it up all on your own, or you feel you’ve channeled something from the universe. One way or the other, there’s a new relationship in your personal music space. It might be a loop, a beat, or a dynamic timbre. It could be a syncopation, melodic counterpoint, or a sequence of chords. Most likely you’re attracted to its mood, its feel, its personality. Whatever you call it, as a composer, it’s now up to you to nurture that inspiration and help it grow. Okay, you’re in love again… now what?

Love ‘em and Leave ‘em

You came upon this special idea more or less out of the blue, and are now excitedly playing around with it for a while. Eventually you start to tweak it, changing the way you play it, editing the sound, speeding up, slowing down. You’re pretty sure you’ll be turning this beauty into a song, but not just yet. You’re busy enjoying it, beholding it, and you’re looking forward to playing it again tomorrow.

Being practical, you might even capture it into the voice memo app on your phone so at least you won’t forget it. Most likely it will then take its place alongside countless other cool ideas you’ve also loved and then left. These can be fun to listen to again and again down the road. The problem here is that newer ideas trump older ideas, and it’s hard to get re-excited enough to do all the development work needed to create a piece of music based on last year’s groovy chord change. 

You Snooze, You Lose

Another reaction could be to play it over and over again until you can’t do anything but play it over and over again. It just feels so good, you can’t help yourself. While dreaming about it going somewhere and assuming it will extend itself to become part of something even more wonderful, you don’t wake up to do the work it would take to accomplish that. You are deep in the dream and don’t investigate where it wants to go or what music might naturally lead up to it. Nothing compares to the absolute and undiluted perfection of simply repeating it, and so you do it again and again. 

This is the “painting yourself into a corner” of music composition. Eventually, you may have foreclosed all options of arriving at or departing from that magical sound because nothing compares to simply repeating the core idea. You are spellbound by the sound, and instead of developing the idea, you end up merely admiring its vibe and beauty. In actuality, you’ve walled up your new love in a tomb. I confess this has happened to me on more than one occasion, and my long list of voice memos is testament to that.

We Can Work It Out

In one case, I was mesmerized by a simple six-note phrase played with alternating hands on the keyboard that not only sounded lovely, but actually felt good to play. As a result, I simply couldn’t stop playing it. I remember hearing a harp doing it in my head. While playing, I varied the articulation, now legato, now staccato, pedal up, pedal down, and trying everything in between. I never really managed to break out of the pattern and allow it to go somewhere else. Eventually I decided it might sound good to alternate repetitions of that pattern with a transposition using the other six notes. That worked well and provided some variation, except that now I had a perfect circle which was completely unbreakable—one chord had to lead to the other and then back again, and so on. 

Luckily, since I needed to fill a commission and produce some environmental music quickly, I was pushed to do the development work and added a long, arching melody under which this repetitious pattern could bubble along. I also added contrary rhythmic parts that would come and go to relieve the frozen nature of the two-chord rotation. In a way, I made the choice that if I couldn’t fix the problem, I would feature it. Check out the musical excerpt from the piece Centering:

If You Love Them, Set Them Free

When it comes to inspiration, this is the most important takeaway: recognize when you have come under the spell of a compelling musical idea, and feel free to love it and learn what it’s all about. But you must always be working to develop its potential before it becomes isolated and inflexible. Investigate the many ways you might arrive at it, the potential variations it suggests, contrary materials that set it off, and all the natural transitions that could lead away from it. It’s easy and fun to have idea after idea. But don’t let your love suffocate the creative ideas you are most attracted to. Do the work and set them free!

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