Composing Music, Even When You Don't Want To
A lot of my nights composing are spent trying to remember the epic song I came up with while sitting on the bus, or remembering a simple phrase of notes that inspired me to make a certain style of song for when I got home. Well, many of us carry around recording devices and either hum or whistle into them, but that doesn’t prepare you quite enough for getting back to the house and creating that epic song. There’s more to it than that one melodic phrase.
There was a certain set of circumstances that led you to the exact song in your head, and those circumstances are as important –if not more important- than the notes you hum/whistle desperately into your recording device or cellphone. Emotions, scenery, genre, era, instruments, musically interesting highlights, topics, etc. are all extremely important to the story of your music.
So during the process of humming or whistling your awesome song, blurt out any and all words that come to mind right after the music ends. Then you’ll find coming back to it and figuring out what you were thinking is much easier. That way, when you sit down at your keyboard, you don’t just hear the tune and say to yourself, “well that’s great, but where the f**k was I going with it?”
This really helps when you have an idea, but what about those times that you sit down at the keyboard and just don’t have any inspiration at all? Every composer knows the feeling: you sit down, get excited about what your fingertips are about to create, but then your mind goes blank. You forget every piece of music in your repertoire. Suddenly, you feel the need to just press a note and act like you’re a total n00b at the piano. Kind of like when your super-funny friends go “ha ha-ha hah, look I can play the piano too” and then proceed to smash the keys like an idiot.
Then comes the overwhelming feeling to leave the instrument altogether and go do watch some TV. That’s when a voice in your head kicks in and starts screaming, “No! Don’t you dare! You are an artist! Sit your ass down and play something!”
And I do, for the most part, listen to it, but then other times I’ll leave and feel guilty when I start zoning out on the couch. There’s definitely a way to overcome this. Brace yourself and suck it up, you’re making some music, and here’s how you should start thinking when you sit down at the piano and don’t have a clear idea in your head:
1. How was my day?
Yea, it’s dumb, but emotion runs everything. If you’re feeling mad about your day you shouldn’t try to fight the urge to be mad by writing a happy-go-lucky polka song.
2. What can I do to change how I’m feeling?
This one is crucial, every good song needs a story; whether upbeat or downtrodden. Changing mood or playing with taking your piece just to the edge of becoming a new emotion can do the same for you. Most changes are pretty gradual though, so I don’t recommend going from adventurous to sadness without first hitting a few other emotions along the way.
3. Is there a plot twist?
Okay, now this sounds like a writing workshop, but answer it, yes or no. At this point, your music should already be taking shape. So, are the fake people/animals/beings-of-light/monsters/toasters of your piece going through a sudden twist in their journey? Sometimes music doesn’t need a twist, but many do, so figure out if the way the music is heading needs some spicing up or not.
4. How do I want this to resonate?
This isn’t going to necessarily make your goal come to life, but it may reshape the entire piece for you. I hate this part, it’s the worst most awful part of the entire process. To think you’ve made an entire piece, but it just doesn’t “take” when put to the test of how it should resonate with other people. I’ve thrown out entire pieces because of this one, but don’t let it get you down; it’s much better to come up with something that resonates than something meh that’s just another blasé song in the saturated music marketplace.
5. Can it really be this simple?
This is a question that scopes out the complexity of a piece. You start to wonder if you’ve really finished your melody. Depending on the key you’ve chosen and the color of tone, you can either add greatly to a piece’s complexity or determine its coherent enough without added characteristics. Some spattered tools in your arsenal should be: dissonance, harmony, undertones, 7ths, inversions, etc.
Almost all of this should add up to a recipe for a great song. I don’t want to say that this is the PRECISE, ONE AND ONLY formula to making something out of nothing, rinse and repeat. This is just a solid foundation I’ve used for pushing myself through the innumerable amount of times I’ve sat at my own keyboard wondering if I should even attempt to start a new piece. And the answer is almost always, “Just do it.”
Bring a music notebook with you, too. Sometimes just writing down the notes is enough to get a song in your memory; long-term enough that you can almost remember exactly where you were and what you were trying to accomplish when you wrote down the piece. Good notes lead to better melody retention when creating your songs from memory .
Now sit down, shut up, and get something done with your music. It’s about damn time!