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Where Do Musical Ideas Come From?

     This is probably a question that will always be open for debate as each and every one of us listens to and thinks about music differently. Nonetheless, all boils down to a musician’s ability of hearing sounds in its head.

     This is nothing strange if you think that a chef imagines tastes and aromas, or that painters imagine in terms of color and light. Musicians just happen to imagine sounds. In the case of music, this is called Audiation, a term coined by Edwin Gordon.

     The music that we hear in our heads may be triggered by all sorts of cues that may occur while listening to music, improvising, composing or while walking in the park even if any music is present in the background. This ability is not the same as being able to understand music on a theoretical level. This is a cognitive process by which the brain gives meaning to sounds while arranging them in a musical way. There are several types and stages of audiation and you can learn more about it by following this link.

     So, this ability is dependent of a knowledge base that we, as individuals, acquire from being exposed to all sorts of musical contexts. In this process, we develop personal preferences and tendencies that will inform the way we listen, compose or perform music. In sum, we “audiate” the tonal and rhythmic patterns that have been acquired throughout our experiences with music and use it in combinations that we hear in our head. Because of this ability, we can also predict what will come next, based on our familiarity with the tonal and rhythmic conventions of the music being heard.

     As mentioned, this process is unique to each individual that draws from its personal and artistic experiences, aesthetic inclinations, cultural background and upbringing. In that sense, we can say that each musical piece is potentially unique and special.

     With all that said, music isn’t something random or mystical that happens in our heads and is therefore beyond understanding. We all have our experiences with it and for the most part, it is something that you can learn more about, learn how it works and more importantly, learn how you want it to work. Hopefully it will help you to better translate what you are hearing in your head. This is the reason why you should study music theory; so you can make sense of what you are hearing and show to the world your vision of how music could sound, your music!


     So, what are some of the ways we can bring forth the music in us? One of the first suggestions was already discussed in a previous post that discussed the benefits of being able to steal from music to serve your artistic purposes.

1. Make a song that somehow follows ideas of pre-existing work – as seen, we get our musical references by living and breathing music that isn’t necessarily ours. It’s how we combine these musical ideas that make us sound unique and this is how our brains work. So, there is no reason why you should dismiss this approach on the basis of not being original. Once you start changing some musical elements of a given song to your liking you will see that in no time you will end up with something very different and more personal. Its your interpretation of music that you are exploring, and doing so in the back of all the previous musicians before you. use your musical heritage as the stepping stone for your compositions!

2. Planning your music – this was also discussed in another post that you can read here. Basically, this is a way of finding some sense of where you want to go while trying to convey a message, an idea or feeling. This will help you to organize your thoughts and give direction or purpose to your musical endeavors. This is your guideline to choosing how a chord progression or melodic line should sound and feel; the tempo of the song; more or less busy rhythmic parts, and so on. Again, and tooting the same horn, developing your own aesthetic by being exposed to all sorts of musical contexts is very important as it will also help you decide which ideas to pursue.

3. Creating a melody over an existing chord progression – pick a chord progression that you are specially fond of and then try to compose or improvise your own melodies over it by singing or playing your instrument. After a while, I’m sure you will come up with something unique.

4. Re-harmonize an existing melody – you can also do the opposite of the above. Jazz musicians do this all the time with jazz standards. More often than not, these re-harmonizations take off and give way to whole new musical worlds. If you wish, once you have new chords, do the same as mentioned previously and create your own unique melody on top of these new chords.

     These last two suggestions can work well with any musical element you pick up, really. Start with a rough transcription of what you think is happening or something that moves you and then start adding your personal touch. Look at it as if you were trying to “improve” it or, in other words, to remake the musical parts as you would like to hear them.

5. Listening to other musical genres – this is a good way of getting out of your comfort zone in what concerns to your music listening habits. There is always something good to take away if you care to take a look at it. Not to mention that you will be increasing your musical vocabulary!

6. Learn music theory – again, learn about how music works, how you can recreate that musical effect and why it sounds the way it does. Also, take the time to figure out what works best for you in terms of the process of music composition, of how you can better organize the knowledge you accumulate and most importantly, the most effective way to use it.

     With all that said, remember that these are all suggestions that may help you to bring forth the music in you. As always, experiment as much as possible as learning music is a process of self-discovery as well. Now that you know where music comes from, it’s time to start your next song.

     Happy Composing!

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