It could be something as sweeping and vague as the wind, or as direct as a leaky faucet dripping dollars down the drain. It could be a personal, meaningful experience you’ve had, or it could be just a generalized “something” that anyone can relate to and appropriate. But when you find it – or, to be more precise, it finds you – it can be the start of something great.
Every single person who writes, has written, and will write music draws forth from a well of ideas, of phrases, melodies, of words and verses, from which they mold their musical creations. Some could work from a never-ending tide of ideas – Mozart had the ability to form his compositions completely in his head before notating them down on a score. Once, so the tale goes, he wrote a minuet on the spot to give to a beggar in Vienna. But for most of us inspiration will come in short bursts, often when we least expect it, often when we’re not even trying to write. John Lennon once spent five hours trying to write something good for the Beatles’ new album, to no avail. As soon as he put his pencil down and went to bed, a whole song, “the whole damn thing,” came to him. That song was “Nowhere Man”.
Since I was a kid I’ve had a very vivid imagination – acting out stories in my head, I could get lost in a fantasy world for hours. Invariably music was involved, a conjuring of orchestral soundtracks and Kiwi Kidsongs to back my imaginations. As I grew older I would try to play themes from memory on the piano, and by the time I was 13, I was starting to write down my own melodies. I didn’t know it then, but my heart was driving me towards a life of music.
To me music is the language of emotion, and I want to move people in some way with my music, just as songs like David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ or the film scores of John Williams move me. My musical inspirations, therefore, often have an emotional connection in some way or another: I’ve written a song about my experiences living with Autism, and an orchestral composition by the shock of seeing how far the Franz Josef glacier has retreated due to climate change, a very personal concern of mine.
I have a manuscript pad full of musical scribbles that I add to everyday, and a separate notebook full of lyrical snatches and chord progressions for my songs. I listen to great classical works and borrow sections to reshape into my own melodies. Sometimes melodies just apparate from thin air, and I have to snatch at them and jot them down before they wisp out of existence. Other times I have to work at them, carving notes out from the aural canvas.
Coming from a classically trained beginning, playing piano since I was 4 and violin since I was 6, I can say that composing and songwriting are related disciplines, two sides of the same coin. Both require the same set of skills – can you craft a melody? Can you shape a harmony? Can you structure them? Composers have often written songs - James Horner turned his theme for Titanic into the smash hit “My Heart Will Go On” – and vice versa for songwriters; Paul McCartney has composed both an opera and a symphonic poem. The two professions go hand in hand – I have been fortunate to arrange strings for some amazing songs for the We Are One concerts and the Lion Foundation Songwriting albums over the past 2 years.
That being said, I think it’s really great that songwriting is now its own separate paper in the NZQA curriculum. Songwriting is a distinctly different form than composing, and it was beneficial for me in my last year of school to focus on songs and compositions separately, and gain as much experience in each discipline. I hope that in the future this will be extended from Level 3 right down to Level 1, affording the next generations of Play It Strangers or composers more chances to write of their sort of music, get the maximum experience at their craft, and get their music out there.
Which brings up another question, one that plagues my mind – will we ever run out of “original” inspiration? After all, there are only 88 notes on the keyboard, 12 notes between each octave – only so many possible combinations of notes, right? Will, someday, every possible melody have already been written? Is this new piece I’ve written an unconscious copy of someone else’s? Originality, finding unique inspiration, is an issue that confronts both songwriters and composers, and not just for the sake of artistic integrity - no one wants to breach copyright and get slapped with a whopping great fine!
My philosophy to combat is that music is really just putting the same notes together in different ways. The ubiquitous I-V-vi-IV progression – how many songs use those same harmonies? (Let It Be, Let It Go, Can You Feel The Love Tonight, Don’t Stop Believin’… just to name a few). Or how about this: two great Queen songs from “A Night at the Opera” – Love Of My Life and Bohemian Rhapsody - share the same I-vi-ii-V chord progression in their verses!
And even art music composers write variations on other’s themes, borrow musical “quotes” from famous pieces or folk tunes, reshape melodies into new ones, or even reorchestrate existing works. The possibilities are almost endless, as long as you make each combination of notes distinctively your own.
To quote John Williams:
“The wonderful thing about music is it never seems to be exhausted. Every little idea germinates another one. Things are constantly transforming themselves in musical terms. So that the few notes we have, 7, 8 or 12 notes, can be morphed into endless variations, and it’s never quite over.”
(Not to mention the new pathways and innovations in sonic arts, hip-hop, rap music, remixes, microtones, and whatever may come in the future, if you’re that way inclined.)
In 2018, I’ve started my Bachelor of Music at the University of Auckland, and I have a whole new well from which new inspiration can flow; peers and lecturers to spur me on in different directions. I have a stack of orchestral pieces in the pipeline, inspired by other composers, by snow, by faraway lands, by intricate storylines.
What’s your inspiration?