There are commonly-used words in the music world that have several meanings, depending on who’s using the word, and the context in which the word is being used. For example, you’ll find that the word “hook” can mean a short, catchy bit of music, but it also might mean an entire chorus — depending on who’s talking, and on what they’re talking about.
The other word that has several possible meanings is inspiration. In general, we know that we’re talking about a kind of musical excitement when we talk about inspiration. For example, someone might ask you, “Where do you find your inspiration to write?”, and by that question they want to know what excites you to pick up your guitar and pencil and start composing music.
I like to make a distinction between inspiration and motivation when it comes to writing music. If someone asks me what inspires me to write, I never quite know what to say. But if someone asks me to describe what motivates me, I feel that that’s a question I can answer.
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That’s because most of the writing I do these days is because I’ve been asked to do it, not specifically because I feel inspired. That doesn’t mean that I don’t get excited about composing, of course. When someone says that they’d like for me to compose something, let’s say, for their choir, for a performance on a certain date, I feel highly motivated, and I find that musical ideas start popping into my mind, even at that beginning stage. It doesn’t take much to get me excited about writing. If that’s what you call inspiration, then I guess I’m inspired.
But for me (and not to simply play around with words) I would describe that as a motivation to write.
What should inspiration mean to a songwriter? There are any number of definitions for that term as it applies to writing music, but here are three closely related – but different – definitions that get used by songwriters in different contexts:
- Inspiration: the excitement at the start of the songwriting process. You might have witnessed something emotionally powerful, such as the birth of your child, the death of a close friend, even the changing of the seasons. You feel a welling-up of emotions that make you want to write music to express what you’re feeling.
- Inspiration: the ability and desire to generate musical ideas out of thin air. You find that you can write music even if nothing powerfully emotional is happening in your life. In this sense, inspiration is a sense of motivation (a desire to write) coupled with an innate ability to assemble music purely from your imagination.
- Inspiration: the continually-replenishing desire to keep writing. You find that as you write, your new musical ideas excite you to keep going. Each idea you compose makes it easier to generate new ideas. In other words, you get excited (inspired) by your own music.
Perhaps you see now why I like to make a distinction between inspiration and motivation. The second definition simply requires that you see yourself as a songwriter. For many, that’s what makes them what to write. It’s who they are, and perhaps that would describe you as well.
You hopefully also identify with the third definition. You feel a sense of musical excitement that keeps generating and growing as you write. In other words, your own music supplies you with the necessary fuel to keep going.
For me, the first definition is the one that I struggle with. If you find that you can only manage to write if you’ve got some emotional event to incentivize you, then you are likely heading for a serious bout of writer’s block.
If you wish you were the kind of writer that could write music at the drop of a hat, here are some thoughts:
- Think about who you are. What are your values, your opinions, and/or your position on the important issues of life.
- Listen to music daily. And don’t just listen – think about how your favourite songwriters are able to manipulate the way you think and feel about a topic through their use of music and lyrics.
- Write music daily (or almost daily). Don’t feel the need to compose full songs every time you sit down to write. Give yourself short tasks. Something like these lyric-writing “games”, for example.
- Don’t wait for inspiration. Waiting for inspiration is usually a waste of time. You should be able to generate musical ideas without feeling an initial excitement or inspiration. The very act of writing will or should generate the necessary kind of excitement that keeps you going.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter