Many music-makers liken themselves to anglers fishing on the shore of a peaceful lake. They cast their lines out and wait for musical inspiration to take the bait so they can reel it in and create something amazing with it. But if you’ve been at this game for a while, you know this isn’t how it works. There’s no question that inspiration is one of the most powerful drivers behind any form of great art, but if you sit around waiting for it to creatively engage, you’re sure to end up with no music to show for it. Here’s why:
Inspiration is unpredictable and unreliable
In life and in music, there are the things we can control, and then there’s everything else. To a degree, we can control whether we recognize and leverage inspiration, but we can’t control whether it chooses to grace us or not. And in many instances, the sort of soul-crushing situations that fuel the best music aren’t ones you’d ever want to find yourself in even if you could choose to be. We can control things like how often we make music and whether we’re living deep, rewarding personal lives, but we cannot choose when and how we’ll be inspired. This is less of a big deal than you might think, and in fact, some successful songwriters believe inspiration is nice when you can find it, but that great music actually can be made without it through creative exploration, lots of practice, and curiosity.
It’s up to us to create an environment where inspiration can thrive
Forget about inspiration for a bit. What are the things you’re doing every day, week, month, and year to prioritize music creation in your life? Do you write only when you feel like it? Is your smartphone or hard drive filled with demos that never transform into finished songs? We often trick ourselves into believing that inspiration is the key to musical greatness, but it’s not. It’s our job to live musical lives where we write as often as we can and finish what we start. Then, if something tasty or traumatic or hilarious falls into your lap, you’ll be waiting and ready to use it. Doing this isn’t sexy, but it’s also not hard. Create a songwriting schedule. Finish your songs even if you’re convinced they’re bad. And create an attainable list of goals and check them off as you work. If you live a musical life, inspiration will fit into it seamlessly when it presents itself.
In many instances, great musical ideas come first and emotional inspiration follows
It’s easy to get the order of operations wrong when it comes to inspiration and music creation in general. Popular culture tells us that song ideas come in the form of dreams, traumatic events, and cinematic epiphanies, and they actually do in some rare cases. But the other 97% of the time, a thriving framework of musical creativity needs to be put in place in a songwriter’s life before inspiration can be used or recognized. And, in fact, inspiration might not ever need to be an ingredient of your process for you to write something catchy or meaningful. One of the absolute best things we can do as songwriters is to engage with our instruments with curiosity and openness––no inspiration required. When ideas start to form, you can associate them with emotions, lived experiences, dreams, poetry, or whatever else you like. The more you engage with music, the easier it will be to create. Inspiration doesn’t have to enter the process until midway through, or at all for that matter. This approach takes uncertainty out of the equation and puts the power in your hands to create great music. If you want something, go and get it, and if inspiration happens to help you along the way, then great. If it doesn’t, that doesn’t diminish your chances of creating something the world will love.
Inspiration can shape our music in profound ways, but it’s also misunderstood and overrated. Every songwriter has the power to put their musical destinies in their own hands by doing the hard work of creating, exploring, and shaping music right now and on their own terms instead of waiting for inspiration to act.
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.