Everyone knows the writer’s block and everyone dreads it. There is nothing worse than having to write some music but not having any. inspiration. at. all. Well, don’t worry, because I have the perfect solution for you: start building an inspiration library following the guidelines below! It’s really easy and you’ll never be in a tight spot again for a commercial pitch, song of commissioned work ever again.
1 – Create an empty library!
First things first, get your supplies. You’ll need an ordner and a stack of music paper. (A pencil and some regular lined or checked paper won’t hurt too.) Some suppliers have notebooks with staves AND lines, that’s great too!
2 – Collect pieces of music you like
Whether it’s the chorus or intro from a song, a leitmotif from a film score, a psalm chant or just a rhythm, collect it!
3 – Consider what you like about it and write it down
Is it the rhythm? The harmony? Melody? Arrangement? Try to obtain the score or write it down on some music paper while listening to it. You don’t have to write down everything, just the part thats inspirational and important to you. Don’t forget to add the title and the original composer.
4 – Analyze it
To understand why you like it and to use this inspirational part in your own way, you have to analyze it. This is what most people really don’t like, but it’s essential and you learn so much from it!
Harmony / melody
- When it’s a harmony / melody part you’re adding to your inspiration library, start with the basics: write down the key signature and all te chord names plus the used bass note if it’s not the tonic.
- Then write down the function of the chords.
- I like to colour code the tonic and dominant and point out every chord that’s not in the original scale (for example chords borrowed from G minor in a G major progression).
- Write down the function of the melody notes (for example “c e g” in a C major part will be “1 3 5”, but “c e g” in an A minor part will be “3 5 7”).
- Colour code again the tonic and dominant. Also point out any notes that are not in the chord, and notes that foreign to the key at all.
Congratulations! You now have a blueprint to use any time you like. When you add more of this kind of pieces, you can compare them and possibly spot similarities, for example you get drawn to I-vii progressions, or a melody with notes that are foreign to the chords used.
- Yes yes, also rhythm can be analyzed! Why shouldn’t you? First, note the time signature and tempo and any changes.
- Then, point out all the accents. Are they on the first beat of every measure or not? Are there any minor accents? Divide complex time signatures in parts of 2 and 3, for example 7/8 can be divided as 2-2-3, 2-3-2 or 3-2-2.
When you compose, it is really important to point this out very clearly, otherwise every musician interprets it in his own way, which can lead to unnescessary difficulties or the piece not sounding like you intended. I’m very lazy and put accents only on the first measure and the I write “simile”. It keeps your score clean and easy to read (and it saves time and ink).
- If you have different rhythms playing simultaneously, notice when they come together or go their own ways and whether the accents are in the same or different places. It’s really worth it to not only write down a drum part you like, but also the bass part, just to see how they work together.
Arrangement is a bit more subtle and tricky to get a hold of. I try to analyze this in the following way:
- What are the key, time signature and tempo?
- What instruments are used?
- What kind of patterns do they play? For example long notes in brass and fast scales in strings is totally different than the other way round.
- Is there any sign that the composer used a special technique, for example aleatoric composing?
- Are there any leitmotifs? If yes, put brackets around them and note if they are used in other places backwards, upside down, faster, slower, etc. (This is really a hell when analyzing a fugue, which essentially only consists of the introduced leitmotif in ANY variation imaginable. That’s the art of writing a fugue. Bach was really good at it. I don’t dare to get my hands on it. Yet.)
Great work! Now gradually keep adding fragments of music you love to this inspiration library and when a time comes when you really don’t know what to write, you have your solution ready!
My piece “Dream On” for example uses a rhythmic part from Enya’s Orinoco Flow and some harmonies from the “Now We Are Free” theme from the Gladiator film. Is this plagiarism? No, I don’t think so. Firstly, because I used only really small parts and not directly recognizable pieces. Secondly, because I used these parts in a totally different context which absolutely doesn’t relate to both pieces.
The art is using pieces small or universal enough to not violate the rights of the artist that inspired you. Otherwise everyone gets sued because they’re using a ii-V7-I progression or a pentatonic scale in their music or whatever. That would be absurd, don’t you think? This method of creating an inspiration library is meant to help overcome composer’s block, not to be a copycat. Use it wisely!