Thursday, March 25, 2010

Inspiration, Perspiration, and Perspicacity

Joshua White, who in his most recent blog says he has written more music in this past week than he did in the previous four, asks:
  • Does it take inspiration to make music that I will be personally satisfied with?
  • If so, is there any way to seek this inspiration or come up with an inspiring idea?
  • Would it be better to steer clear of inspiring ideas and become better at working with ok ideas to make them good technically?
These are great questions, and bring to mind Thomas Edison's famous adage about inspiration versus perspiration:
"Genius is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration."
What exactly is inspiration? Here is part of what the current Wikipedia article has to say about it:
Inspiration refers to an unconscious burst of creativity in a literary, musical, or other artistic endeavour. Literally, the word means "breathed upon," and it has its origins in both Hellenism and Hebraism. Homer and Hesiod believed that inspiration derived from Gods such as the oracle of Delphi. Similarly, in the Ancient Norse religions, inspiration derives from the Gods. Inspiration is also a divine matter in Hebrew poetics. In the Book of Amos the prophet speaks of being overwhelmed by God's voice and compelled to speak. In Christianity, inspiration is a gift of the Holy Spirit.
It seems that inspiration is often seen as something of a mystery. How do we get great ideas? Where do they come from? How do we create the circumstances under which inspiration can arise?

My take on this is that the feeling of being inspired is a wonderful thing, but it is fruitless to wait for 'inspired moments' in order to create something good. In essence, I agree with Edison on the relationship between inspiration and perspiration in the creative process.

Here's another question:
What does it mean if something comes easily to you?
(a) You are inspired; or
(b) You are working within your comfort zone, not really trying anything you haven't done before.
I can only answer for myself, and say that lots of times for me that answer is (b).

Something I have said in class is that it helps to think of composition like a job. If you were a film music composer, and a director said, "we need x minutes of music for a chase scene, y minutes for a love scene, and z minutes for a scene where the protagonist is verging on madness... Oh, and we need all that in 24 hours!", you would probably get busy and write all that music as quickly as possible, knowing that if you failed to do so, or if the music wasn't very good, the director would find someone else to do the job.

In other words, you would work extremely hard (perspiration), and not sit around waiting/hoping for inspiration to magically appear. Deadlines often provide all the inspiration you need.

I find it helps to think of ALL composition projects that way. Some will end up being more personal than others — they will have more of you in them — but it is often easier to finish a composition if you think of it as a job that needs to be done, as opposed to, say, thinking of it as an opportunity to reveal your inner psyche through music.

And, by the way, all things you create will have at least some of your DNA in them, whether you are aiming to do this or not.

Perspicacity — defined by the Compact Oxford Dictionary as "having a ready insight into and understanding of things" — is part of the equation in this way: If you understand the potential of the musical materials with you are dealing, you are far more likely to compose something good than if such were not the case.

Understanding the potential of musical materials that you create, and knowing what to do with these ideas, are all part of the craft of musical composition. It is safe to say that no matter how inspired you are, you are not likely to compose something really good until you have a mastery of this craft. And again, the only way to gain such mastery is to work very hard at it.

I have written about ways in which this can be done in other blogs, most notably the entire nine-part series on Composition Issues that were the very first posts to this blog. I will paste the links to this series at the bottom of today's entry.

I will leave you for today with a provocative statement:
Good composers are good by virtue of the fact that they work hard; mediocre composers are not as good because they do not work as hard. If a composition is not considered to be very good, it probably indicates more about the composer's laziness than it does about talent or inspiration.
Okay, have at it! What do you think?

Composition Issues (9-part series)

1. Originality and Quality of Initial Musical Ideas
1.1. The quality of ideas may not matter very much in determining the quality of the complete composition that emerges from them; and
1.2. The degree to which these ideas are original may not matter very much.

2. How do you Develop Compositional Craft?
2.1. Study the music of others.
2.2. Compose as much as you can.
2.3. Invite (and be open to) criticism from others.

3. Understanding your Musical Idea
3.1. Live with it for a while.
3.2. What's it about?
3.3. Does it change character?
3.4. What is its function within the context of the piece?
3.5. Structural Analysis.
3.6. Harmonic (or Pitch, Scale, etc.) Analysis.

4. The Pros and Cons of Development

5. How to Extend or Develop Musical Materials; Specific Suggestions

6. Balancing the Old with the New, the Expected with the Unexpected

7. More Dichotomies to Ponder…
7.1. Less is more, vs. More is more.
7.2. Always leave them wanting more, vs. Give them what they want.
7.3. Don't treat the listener like an idiot, vs. There's a sucker born every minute.
7.4. There can be 'too much of a good thing,' vs. If you have a good idea, then stick with it!
7.5. The George Costanza approach.

8. I think my idea has run its course. Now what?
8.1. The three models for composers' roles.
8.2. Mastery or Mystery?
8.3. The value of a plan.
8.4. Getting stuck, and possible workarounds.
8.5. Don't obsess!
8.6. Challenges = Opportunities for inspired solutions!

9. Taking your inspiration from wherever you find it


Jessica Blenis said...

I agree that hard work can make a piece, but I find I'm only ever really satisfied with a piece for which I have had inspiration of some sort. It might be because I've had more fun writing it that I like it so much, or just because that inspired feeling leaves a residual glee when the piece is finished. I find it hard to even begin a piece unless I've got an idea for it- this is why programmatic music is a lot of fun to write- otherwise I'll be working at writing the piece, rather than playing with different ideas.

Justin Guzzwell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Justin Guzzwell said...

In my opinion inspiration is something that one should never sit around and wait for. Since I started writing music (about 3 or 4 years ago) inspiration has certainly been the seed for many ideas, but music is too ambiguous of a thing to rely on a single approach. When it comes to deadlines you've got to work with what you know best, and chances are waiting for an epiphany is going to get you nowhere. But isn't that the beauty of inspiration? It's there when you least expect it! It's there because something new or exciting has peaked your interest and you feel motivated, refreshed, enlightened, inspired. But how does such a situation come about in the first place? There is a good chance that if you've been inspired, you've engaged in an inspiring activity (reading, listening to music, exercising, friendly conversation). I think too many people have the wrong idea; at the end of the day it is up to us to inspire ourselves.

Mary Beth said...

Having inspiration is always nice, however I think you have to work hard and work at things outside your comfort zone to get inpired. I find most of my pieces have not been inspired, and I find I write the best stuff when I have no ideas and I sit down and just write werid random stuff and play around with ideas. If I have an inpiration I find it hard to get it actually out on paper and the piece ends up a complete 180 from the original inspiration. I agree with Justin in that Inpiration is great however don't sit around and wait for it.

A. Rideout said...

I think as much as inspiration comes to you, through hard work (perspiration) you are able to find inspiration in what you create. There are lots of times when I am writing and I feel stuck but then I take a moment and look at what I have and within a few minutes of tweaking and analyzing I find (or create) something that I love. This is how I am able to fin inspiration through hard work.
I definitely agree with Thomas Edisons quote, I firmly believe that success is the result of hard work that paid off. Anything that ever came to anyone has only been through hard work and perspiration.
So for me inspiration is a product of my own hard work and I believe the harder you work on something the more personnel it will be.

Steve said...
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Steve said...

I've always held the belief that good composition is the product of hard work.. though some may be more naturally gifted or creative than others (like anything else), hard work and understanding is what really will make a good final product. too many people do seem to think that it comes out of thin air (a spark of inspiration) or that some people are just compositional geniuses.

on another note, I have a bit of a problem when it comes to broadening my horizons.. Dr. Ross mentioned something coming easily is either from a) inspiration, or b) working within your comfort zone. my problem is that ideas within my comfort zone are usually what inspire me to do more with them. the reason my comfort zone is my comfort zone is because there are elements of music that I like and am familiar with and have become pretty good at working with. in the end, the music is often something that I personally enjoy and I can still see why it excited or inspired me at first, but then I'll think, it sounds kind of like a lot of my previous work. My tastes and comfort zone are ever changing and if I compare music now to music I wrote years ago, they would be quite different.. but if I look at my compositions in 2009-2010, I wish there were more variety.
this blog entry makes me want to take initial ideas that are not within my comfort zone at all, and thus, probably won't inspire me that much at first. theoretically if i've developed my compositional skills and work hard enough, I should come up with something that is still up my alley with regards to taste, and may sound totally different than anything I've done before. NEAT-O!!

Adam Batstone said...

I agree with what has been said. I am easily inspired so I usually do not have a problem just letting the music flow. But there has been times when what im writing just doesn't feel right. Thats when you just have to sit down and write as much as you can! then go back and slowey begin to edit your ideas. Find things that you can work with

Kim Codner said...

"I will leave you for today with a provocative statement:
Good composers are good by virtue of the fact that they work hard; mediocre composers are not as good because they do not work as hard. If a composition is not considered to be very good, it probably indicates more about the composer's laziness than it does about talent or inspiration. Okay, have at it! What do you think?"

I don't completely agree with the fact that if something isn't "good" then it's because of possible laziness. There are so many styles of music out there that if someone doesn't like a piece that someone else wrote, it doesn't give them the right to classify the composer as lazy. Maybe they worked very hard on their piece, but they didn't have their "best" ideas due to their current atmosphere, inspiration, the music they were into at that time. I don't think it's fair to say they were lazy unless we actually know that that was the case.

Kate Bevan-Baker said...

The quote at the end of this blog is very interesting. 'Good' is a very relative term, and someone could completely love a piece, and another person could completely hate the same piece. Putting work into a piece definitely has a strong impact on how polished it sounds, but I've heard some great student and professional compositions that I know didn't have a huge amount of work put into them.

Sometimes I spend hours on a few bars until I'm satisfied, and other times I whiz through a page in half an hour. I think inspiration has a lot to do with the growth and coherency of a piece, but hard work is definitely needed as well.

Clark Ross said...

Kim and Kate both picked up on the subjectivity of the term "good" in connection to a composition, and I mostly agree. After all, there are plenty of compositions that some people find good and others don't, and given this subjectivity, it is unfair and harsh to classify those composers as lazy.

But I don't believe the evaluation process for art is completely subjective — there is widespread consensus on what some of the "great" works of art have been over many centuries, so there must be something that is objective about it too.

In fact, I think that the evaluation process for art is more objective than it is subjective, which is why there is so much agreement on what these "great" artworks of the past have been, and why when students perform their works in progress for one another in our classes, often times several people will pick up on the same thing in making their comments about a work.

As to the "laziness" thing, the "provocative statement" was (a) deliberately using somewhat inflammatory language to provoke a response, and (b) referring to "laziness" more in the amount of work a composer had spent learning her craft than in the amount of work spent on a particular piece.

But great comments from all, and thanks for making them!

Aiden Hartery said...

Inspiration is a very interesting thing. When I sat down with the Concert Band project, I initially thought that I was in over my head. I thought, o geez, what the hell am I going to write? I've never written for such a large ensemble!
It seemed impossible to get off the ground, so I thought I'd look for inspiration. I am very familiar with playing in a concert band (I've done so for many years now) but I wasn't very familiar with the extent and content of different rep for a concert band.

So I thought I would try to listen to as much wind ensemble music as I could. When I found a half dozen pieces that I really liked, I began to ask myself why I liked those pieces. What about them made them interesting. What was the band doing to MAKE it interesting. What were the textures, dynamics, balance, melodies/harmonies?
Recently, the MUN wind ensemble had been recording it's rehearsals, so I also used those to get an idea of what they were doing.

When I got all of these ideas and thoughts in my head, I didn't find it as daunting to get started.

Although I ran into a few hurdles and speed bumps along the way, it felt like I was losing my initial inspiration or idea for the piece. I just had to sit down, and redo a couple of the steps that I took to get the piece started in the first place.

Once I did that, new found inspirations started appearing, and the compositional flow would flow much easier.

Tony Taylor said...

I have to say that I have had many experiences such as Mary Beth's. I've felt so inspired and had an idea in my head, and when I get it down on paper, it's either 100% different than I intended and I like it, or it's exactly as I thought I liked it in my head, but it's not something I'm proud of.

I hope that I never have to be forced, for monetary reasons at least, to write music. I want to leave my compositions to cases of inspiration and perspiration of my own accord.

Do people work well under pressure? Not always, but of course some people do. Sometimes I find it hard to believe the beautiful music that has come out of people being under pressure. Where does that come from? Some of them must build up reserves of inspirational moments and ideas that have come from them.

I've found it possible at least once or twice to replicate the inspiration found following an event or happening by replaying a moment or seeing pieces of it again. I think the more experiences we can get, musical and non-musical, the more we can find inspiration.

Sorry if that's all a bit of a ramble...

Aislinn Dicks said...

I think most of us like to hope that we'll be hit with a streak of inspiration that will lead us to writing something great, when the fact of the matter is that these instances are rare, and when they do occur, most of the time the result isn't what we had hoped for. Realistically, the vast majority of any composing we do is based solely on perspiration.

I think a good point to consider is that inspiration can arise out of something that came from perspiration. Inspiration doesn't only have to be out of the blue. Many of my "inspired" ideas come from a few bars that I just wrote. I'll listen to it again, and suddenly have ideas for what I want to do next, or where I want the idea to go. Maybe this isn't inspiration in the typical sense, but there are ways of having ideas come to you that don't have to catch you completely by surprise or come at random.

The ability to compose solely through perspiration is a necessity, without question, for all composers. If you can't compose on a deadline or when you're not inspired you'll be extremely limited in your output of musical works. I think the lazy composers are really the ones who sit around waiting for inspiration to hit them instead of being proactive and trying to write or experiment with musical ideas.

Dominic Greene said...

I agree with Aislinn's comment. Whenever I sit down and compose, I am always hopeful that inspiration will find me, no matter what the composition may be, or whatever the desired effect may be that I'm trying to evoke through the music. Sometimes I'll sit for hours brainstorming and waiting for inspiration. Sometimes, it just doesn't seem to find me. I've come to realize that this is completely normal. I can't expect to have the same level of inspiration for every piece that I compose. Sometimes it is frustrating trying to finish a composition for a deadline, having had little to no inspiration as a guideline. But, I think it is good to experience this, as it gives me a dose of reality. I have learned that I can't sit around hoping that inspiration will always find me, because it won't. I'm sure that sometimes, compositions that have not had the same level of inspiration as others can still come out to be fantastic pieces of music.

Siobhan said...

I do not fully agree with your closing statement. An example I would use to question it would be Schoenberg's works. He evidently worked very hard - having produced a great number of compositions, many paintings, and even published a series of writings on music theory. However, many people would not agree that he wrote great music.

Similarly, a high school musical colleague of mine was thought by many to be quite 'talented'. He/she (henceforth simplified as 'he') has since gone on to devote years of work into his compositions in a city known for its music industry. He has devoted his life to his music career. Recently, I heard the fruit of his labour and was quite underwhelmed. Despite being acclaimed as 'talented' in his youth and surely working very hard, this did not (in my opinion) produce prime results.

Michelle said...

The question of inspiration is an interesting one, and something that I have struggled with a little in my introduction to composing this semester. When I think of the greats (Palestrina, Bach, Haydn, Ives, and many others), I inherently make the assumption that they much have been inspired by some mysterious and divine source. I draw this conclusion based on their patrons, their text settings, and information that has been imparted upon me by professors and scholars. This will never be a source of personal inspiration for me, so I wonder where my inspiration will come from. Sometimes it comes from music, though I am careful not to "rip off" any other music. Outside of that, I feel as though I am quite limited in my sources of compositional inspiration.

Josh Penney said...

In my brief time composing, I have begun to learn that inspiration has less to do with the process than the hard work. Although I suppose inspiration could get you started with ideas, the only ways in which ideas can develop is through hard work. This hard work, along with a little bit of trial and error of course. To sit around and wait for inspiration can sometimes be a waste of time, especially if it doesn't come. I have found that most of my inspiration comes during the compositional process. I will be writing, and maybe I will like things, and maybe I won't. Once I begin really thinking about what I'm doing, and where my piece can go, then I really get inspired and filled with ideas. In other words I guess sometimes (most of the time for me) inspiration comes after a bit of work.

Becca Spurrell said...

I definitely don't sit around and wait for inspiration to come, that would take days sometimes! But I can certainly say that the music that was a product of an inspiring idea that popped into my head sounds much better and more satisfying than the music I sat to write because I had to or because I had a deadline. Now don't get me wrong, I do generally like most of the music I write, if not I find myself starting over or taking out sections to change them until I'm at least some what satisfied. But there are a couple of pieces that were part of my composition assignments that I really like and am quite attached to and proud of, and those happen to be the ones that came from a big inspiring idea that came to mind while doing something calming, like taking or walk.

After that, I started doing these calming activites to try and "force" some inspiration. It doesn't always work, but I did managed to get a few more ideas from it.

Sarah Bartlett said...

In regards to the last quote - there is definitely a line between good and bad music; some sits better in our ears, some has interesting chord progressions, and some music has neither. There is lots of good and bad music out there. However, the quality of a piece of music is also very subjective. For example, I know lots of people who love country music, but I can't say that I enjoy it myself. Whether or not a piece of music is good may depend solely on the listener. While there is usually a consensus about whether or not a piece is good, there is some subjectivity.
Like anything, if you work hard enough at something, you will eventually get better at it. While most composers start out writing music that is less-good than the music they wrote during the peak of their careers, it's not fair to say that music wasn't good because they didn't put x amount of time into it. There's no magic formula for how much time needs to go into composing a piece for its output to be good - arguably, what matters more is how much time goes into composing at all. By composing more music, you will build skills and learn what methods you like to use, what you like to include in your music, and develop an individual style. This will (hopefully!) end up meaning that the quality of your music will also improve.
I agree with your comment on inspiration, however - deadlines provide more than enough of it! Some may argue that having a deadline may inhibit creativity - there is the inverse argument that if you're never pushed to create, you may never start. Having a goal pushes you to at least create something. Whether or not that output is good is not the point, the I think deadlines push us to create even when we feel we aren't 'inspired' in a traditional sense.

Flutiano said...

With practising an instrument, there are ways to work hard and not accomplish much, and there are ways to practise less and accomplish more. This blog post has led me to thinking about how this compares to composing, and which ways are better at improving skill.

I decided to walk away from my computer after reading this blog and mull over the ‘provocative statement.’ I wonder how we define how hard somebody has worked, as well as the relationship between hard work and good results.

One thing that I found in high school was that I worked a lot harder at courses that I wasn’t so good at, but teachers thought I worked harder in the classes that I put less effort into because I was able to do them. For the “work effort” grades that I always hated I always had my lowest marks in the classes that I worked the hardest in. When we see work that is done well, people generally assume that hard work has gone into it, and when we see work that isn’t so great, we assume the effort wasn’t there. So, maybe it isn’t that the composer is lazy. Maybe, as other people have said, it’s a difference of opinion in what constitutes good music. Or maybe we’re making a judgment on how well they worked based on how well they produced.

As for the relationship between hard work and good results . . . what is it exactly? First off, is hard work merely trying hard or is it more than that; does it include how you organize your time, prioritize, how you get the work done? Also, I wonder if in order to get good results, hard work is highly valuable if not essential, but if it might not go the other way. It would be nice to think that hard work guaranteed good results, but that’s a lot harder to fathom than good results guarantee hard work has happened (which I think is fairly ridiculous in itself). I think that hard work increases the likelihood of being able to produce good results. I also am curious to explore what kind of compositional work is most effective, and if there are efficient ways of practising composing like there are for practising an instrument (it seems likely that there are—maybe harnessing the challenge aspect that Dr. Carter was talking about in her talk yesterday) I would like to figure out what those are.

As for the actual topic of this blog, I won’t say more than I think that perspicacity is the most important, which is fed by deliberate hard work, which is encouraged by the initial inspiration to try composing in the first place.

Timothy Brennan said...

Great post Dr. Ross! I find that compositions of mine which I am most proud of are the ones that were inspired by an event, image(s), or particular mood. I like working with pre-existing subject matter and writing programmatic music, as these ideas inspire musical motifs, textures, ideas, and can contribute greatly to deciding the form and structure of a piece. For me, this makes the composition process smoother and more enjoyable, as I have a deep interest in what I am writing. I feel that inspiration can come in many forms for composers. Messiaen, for example, was inspired by bird songs and incorporated them into his works. Beethoven took long walks to work out musical ideas and become inspired by his surroundings. In his religious works (cantatas, passions etc.), Bach was inspired by the Biblical texts and his deep faith in God as a devout Roman Catholic. He used certain musical gestures to reflect the texts he was working with. Mozart, on the other hand, was said to have had the ability to compose a full work in his head, and while writing it down he was composing another work in the same manner. Whether this was some "divine inspiration" or not, I believe that Mozart was stimulated just enough to produce these works, and this stimulation could have inspired the creation of his masterful works. Each composer is inspired in a unique way, and I feel that in order to produce works that we are happy with, we need to find our own method and tools for inspiration.

Jessica said...

I can definitely relate to the feeling of being uninspired. However, the pressure of meeting deadlines works wonders as far as "forcing" inspiration. Not having the time to sit around waiting for inspiration to strike (something that rarely happens at a convenient time anyways), I have been forced to simply buckle down and compose something, without worrying about whether it is good enough etc. Sometimes a piece composed this way doesn't actually turn out too badly. Taking this course has been a valuable learning experience in this sense. Regarding the final quote, I'm not sure that it is entirely fair to say that if a composition isn't very good, it is often due to the composer's laziness. While this may be true sometimes, I think that a composition may also not be very good if the composer doesn't possess a significant amount of natural talent and/or has not had a lot of practice. Both of these things may be remedied through hard work, but an additional factor may be at play if the composer has not had the opportunity to have had a lot of practice because they are new to the composing business and are still developing an ear for what sounds good. OR maybe the composer was feeling particularly uninspired (because this can happen) while writing this particular composition but they had to finish it quickly and made do with what they had. There are many possible explanations. I don't think any one possibility could explain any given composition that has been deemed "not very good." This is especially so (as has already been mentioned) in cases where different people can have very different tastes as far as what sounds good.

Pallas A said...

I appreciate a deadline when it comes to composing, so much so that I set deadlines for myself when I compose. I make sure that the music and basic articulations are set in stone days before the actual deadline. It gives me incentive to work with what I've got instead of waiting for a good idea to come along. I have gotten better at composing despite lacking inspiration, but I find it hard to motivate myself when I don't like the ideas I am working with. I thought it would be easier to write a piece where I liked all the ideas portrayed, but I'm slowly learning that music isn't just a string of good ideas. Inspiration is great, but those ideas need to be developed throughly and embedded in an overarching form. Additionally, there are so many musical decisions and technical aspects that contribute to a composition that it would be impossible for them to all come from inspiration.