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Sources of Ideas for Compositions


Where do composers find ideas for their music?  Sometimes the answer is easy, and the idea comes naturally when the writer sits






down at the piano or their instrument.  But when writer’s block happens, or when the composer is not happy the themes he or she is writing, the following exercises could help for finding useful sources of musical ideas.


1.  Always be aware of musical ideas around you, wherever you are.  The world and the composer’s own life can provide much inspiration, whether you are at the grocery store, dining with friends, or walking in the woods.  As you encounter ideas in various places, it can help to have a recording device or pen and paper available, the jot down the thought and save it for later use.


2.  Look to your own experience or observations of thoughts and feelings.  The emotions you have had during a relationship, a difficult time, or a particular event were probably similar to what others have experienced.  Try to be genuine and express the things you know from your experience, and this may help others to connect to your songwriting.  At the same time, the flip side of this point is that it can be good to express things you have not experienced, to create entirely fictional worlds—but the key is that you must have a level of writing skill to make the worlds convincing to the listeners.


3.  Look for ideas that have universal appeal.  Music that expresses ideas that connect many people or that lots of people can relate to is often very powerful.  A good example is love, such as the joy of finding new love, or the fear of losing love, or the hope of encountering love in the future.  Another example is spirituality, religion, or the divine—the concept of peacefulness and interconnection that is available to all, not just a few.


4.  Place yourself in musical environments where you hear what other musicians are doing with composition and improvisation.  Attend jam sessions and pick up different styles and techniques.  Go to concerts, talk to musicians, listen to new music, or take a music class at a university.


5.  Experience foreign cultures.  While music is a “universal language,” the variety and diversity found by traveling to another country can be striking and provide many new ideas.  The sounds of African choral singing or folk melodies, sung as a natural part of everyday life during chores or rituals, may contrast greatly with what you are used to in concert halls.  Or the scales and harmonies of Indian or middle Eastern music can open up new worlds and possibilities.  The ostinato patterns of Latin American music, used so pervasively throughout the music in villages and cities, keyboards hammering away at octave and third patterns, show further ideas.  Virtually any exposure to musical thought that is foreign to you can help your own writing evolve.


6.  Find poetry, paintings, or other art that you like and set music to it.  Try setting a poem to music, writing melodies that express the lines.  Or write pieces about pieces of artwork, like Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (which Ravel famously orchestrated—see Famous CD’s).


7.  Changing pieces between styles can in turn generate more ideas.  For example, you could play a Bach piece in the jazz idiom, improvise over a chord progression from Telemann, or reharmonize a melody.  This can lead to new thoughts, possibly a fusion of the ideas, interesting ideas in the new context, etc.


8.  Find phrases or patterns on your instrument that you just enjoy.  As Leonard Bernstein stated, “The meaning of music is in the music, and nowhere else.”  Sometimes it is good to just improvise on your instrument and find patterns of notes that appeal to you—any phrases, or scales, harmonies, anything that interests you.


This article was adapted in part from:

Swados, Elizabeth.  Listening Out Loud.  New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

Blume, Jason.  6 Steps to Songwriting Success.  New York: Billboard Books, 1999.

Watson, C.J.  The Everything Songwriting Book.  Avon: Adams Media Corporation, 2003.

Bernstein, Leonard.  Young People's Concerts.  New York: Anchor Books, 1962.



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