I go to a lot of trouble to make music. Why?

 

I want to share the rush of inspiration that great music gives me.

 

By calling myself a musician, composer, producer, performer, that is essentially the job I’m assigning to myself. It is not about any of this "follow your passion" or "do what you love" nonsense the the internet gobbles up. I'm passionate about snowboarding trips and love cognac tastings. I chose to be in and choose to remain in this crazy business because I want to connect people to that ineffable spark, that thing that gets me out of bed in the morning wanting to go kick some ass all day long. 

 

But both making great music and delivering it to an audience it resonates with are difficult tasks. They each take a lot of work and a lot of commitment. There's no rest for the wicked. You have to put the time in every day. This is exactly where the problem lies. The necessary routine to create music and deliver this feeling regularly can be really uninspiring. This problem of routine helping one thing but screwing up another was an evergreen topic at one of the best music conferences I've ever been to, Loop. Keeping those creative juices flowing isn't easy. But a consistent flow of effort and artistic work is what is needed to reach people. 

On one hand, we need routine to keep us on track. On the other, we need novelty to break the patterns of thought related to problem solving to keep new ideas coming. 

Clearly some routine is needed; we can't reinvent the wheel every step of the way. The reason we have habits at all is to conserve energy. It takes more energy to light the room I'm in than it does to power your entire body. A few lightbulbs suck up more juice than your entire reality. Routines and habits make sure you don't waste that limited energy on the perfunctory minutiae of life like talking to other humans, blinking, sustaining vital functions, washing your ass, etc. The tradeoff for the reliability and energy efficiency is a resistance to change. In certain areas, this is 100% desirable because it keeps us alive. 

Looking from the lens of artistic work, this tendency to rely on lean habits makes the brain look like a horrible energy miser. It likes to lead you away from the unfamiliar in an effort to conserve energy, but if you're stuck on a creative problem, that might be exactly what is needed. 

There are several strategies to work around this. I highly recommend the book Iconoclast by Gregory Berns if you want to explore them in depth. You can check the book out for yourself here. In the meantime, I can offer you one of my own solutions that you won't find in the book. Before I go into a step by step example, know the principle behind it. 

In my opinion, the best way to inspire others and not let your cheapskate energy Scrooge of a brain get in the way too much is:

 

Start from a point of inspiration yourself. 

 

Not fear, not obligation, and not social pressure. These can help, but they are extrinsic motivators. Inspire yourself and you will have much more intrinsic motivation to make stuff. Get fired up about doing the thing your energy conserving instincts are leading you away from. 

 

I’m convinced this is one of the big reasons why hip hop is what it is today.  The whole culture and music making process is built on sampling**. You go find some record or some sound that spikes your interest, then you see what you can make with it. Lots of hip hop documentaries like to emphasize how early producers had to rise to overcome a lack of access to formal music education or instruments in an effort to show that hip hop has a special kind of energy behind it. They certainly did rise above a lot and I do think hip hop is a special thing. But, that story often omits a timeless ingredient in the hip hop formula which is common to a lot of great music: other people’s music. The hip hop people were special because they weren’t stealing with western notation, they were stealing little bits of recordings. Little nuggets of inspiration that they folded into their own music. 

 

HOW I IMPLEMENT THIS

 

For the sake of this example, you're going to need to know two things about me. I've added photos as supporting evidence. 

 

  1. Commitment is hard. Playing is easy. I’m quite good at screwing around all day and making bizarre sounds without committing to anything. This is a habit my brain likes that often prevents me from finishing things. Exhibit A:
This is me performing FENSADENSE in Lucerne, Switzerland. I did this in rehearsal for a laugh and everyone thought it was cool. My little dance move made it into the show. (Stefan Deuber took the lovely picture, the mediocre photoshop text is all me, baby) 

This is me performing FENSADENSE in Lucerne, Switzerland. I did this in rehearsal for a laugh and everyone thought it was cool. My little dance move made it into the show.

(Stefan Deuber took the lovely picture, the mediocre photoshop text is all me, baby) 

          

 

2. As a consequence of #1, dealing with musical form doesn't come naturally to me. My habit of messing around all day and not finishing things has held me back. In grad school, I had to take a remedial class on form because I had trouble explaining what Theme and Variations is. 

I know what you're thinking. He's clearly both a gentleman AND a scholar.

I know what you're thinking. He's clearly both a gentleman AND a scholar.

 

Knowing these things about myself, my goal is to inspire myself into constructing some kind of linear structure, while leveraging my tendency to twiddle and experiment. I either need to get myself to just dive in an do the tricky energy inefficient task or find way to get things done with habits I already have. Rather than using brute force to get this happen, my first tactic is as follows:

I try to get myself excited about committing my ideas to a form by playing around with form.

If I need to make an electronic track, I start with someone else's track that I like and load it into the DAW. Then I do a really loose analysis of the form (they made me take that class, I'm putting it to use come hell or high water, dammit). For example, Introduction, transitional material, bass drops, verse/chorus/bridge sections, key changes, etc. (Making Music by Dennis DeSantis discusses this kind of analysis further if it is unfamiliar). This takes under 10 minutes and it is music I know I like so little effort is needed to get myself interested and playing. Sometimes I chop up the tune and rearrange it in the DAW to see how it sits. 

Then, I try to make a track of a similar length, form, and tempo. I use my own sounds and melodic ideas as building blocks and the track or my deconstruction of it as a formal map. More often than not, this is enough to get enough of my own ideas flowing that the project takes on a life of it's own, I mute the muse track, and I'm on my way to finishing something.

I discovered this completely by accident. I was really frustrated and decided I was going to do a cover version of a song I liked for the sake of learning because I thought my problems were more related to certain production techniques. Since I’m not good enough at synthesis to nail all the sounds exactly, I ended up coming up with my own ideas and the track felt like it finished itself once I had some momentum happening. The form didn't even wind up being similar, but I just needed something to get the process moving. It got me past that point that a lot of us know too well: you have one really cool 8 bar loop, but have no idea what to do with it from there. 

If you make electronic music, this is a technique you can try today. If not, I would love to learn about how you adapted this kind of thinking to your own workflow. I personally have another version of this that I use for practicing acoustic instruments, but I want to hear your versions first. If you really want to go the extra mile, buy and read Iconoclast by Gregory Berns. My copy has notes in the margins, underlines, marked pages, and is nearly falling apart because I come back to it often. it changed the way I work for the better and I hope it has the same effect on you. 

As always, I'd be happy to hear from you. Tweet me, leave a comment below, or send me a link to your own thoughts.  

 

**If you’re reading this and have any working knowledge of a DAW, I’m going to assume you already know what sampling is. If you don’t, it is covered extremely thoroughly all over the internet. Fire up the Google if you have no idea as to what I’m talking about.