When you think about your favorite music, you probably immediately turn to the stories of what inspired great songs. Breakups, tours gone wrong, new love, etc. While these origin stories are crucial for shaping music and giving it purpose and urgency, there’s something important missing here that songwriters should know about.
There are the big stories behind great music, and then there are the many small things that had to happen in order for vague ideas and inspiration to combine and develop into something solid and memorable. Actions as simple and easy as having a recording device out and ready and labeling your spontaneous music ideas could make the difference of whether you’ll be able to create at your full potential or not.
Inspiration graces you. Then what?
Creative inspiration can strike us anytime and any place––in a dream while you’re sleeping in bed, on a mountain hike perched hours away from your studio, in the depths of grief after losing a loved one. We can’t usually control how or when we’re inspired, but we can control when and how we make music. We know that lots of great music starts with inspiration and ends with an amazing song, but we’re fuzzy on the details of what happens in between.
Every artist operates differently of course, but a common thread between many of them is the method of recording and organizing spontaneous ideas. Whether inspiration comes to you in the form of a random vocal melody, a distinct and powerful emotion, or the motivation to write about a specific idea, having a recording device out and ready to roll will help you capture the unique energy of what you’re feeling. This step is crucial because the urgency that comes hand in hand with inspiration doesn’t last long. If you wait a day or two to make music about something that moved you, it’s not going to be nearly as powerful and authentic.
When we record ideas as we make them, we’re able to capture the unreproducible magic of the moment. The energy we find doing this can give us everything we need to move forward and create entire songs. We can hear original recorded snippets of music and let them show us how we felt in the moment and what we need to do to move forward in the spirit of that original inspiration.
However, stopping here isn’t enough and we need to go further to get the most out of recording spontaneous ideas. Whether you record your ideas on your DAW or through your smartphone, you’re going to need to label and organize them. If you’re a prolific writer, you might come up with dozens of demos and many smaller musical ideas within the span of a month. This makes labeling your ideas extremely important. If you have to listen to 30 ideas just to get to the one you liked the best, you’re adding unnecessary work and putting a barrier between you and your inspiration. Something that takes you seconds to do will end up helping you write better music more consistently, and this is important because making music isn’t easy.
Getting the most out of your recorded spontaneous ideas
When your phone or computer is packed full of demos and random ideas, it can be hard to know which ones are worth investing in. This is where the skill of discernment comes into play. On your computer, you could create a special folder that holds only your most promising stuff.
Or, you could separate them by song vs random idea, vocal melodies, chord progressions, beats, etc.
You don’t need lots of organization to creatively thrive as a songwriter, but you need a little bit at the very least. Sorting your ideas in itself can be a helpful exercise because it gets you thinking about how what you’re creating fits within your musical world. It can help show you that the vocal melody you’ve been experimenting with is the perfect fit for that song that’s been needing a chorus, or that the chord progression you were excited about a month ago has lost its luster. Don’t be afraid to delete ideas that don’t excite you anymore. When recording off-the-cuff ideas and organizing becomes just another part of your writing process, you have the huge advantage of getting as many options as possible for writing new music.
Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician, and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.