Song Genesis

I’ve read about a lot of recording artists who claim to have written complete songs at the 11th hour, in absolute crunch time – indeed studio time. They’re not lying, of course, and such instances have actually produced timeless gems over the years.

Even though a simple, riff-driven song, The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” is said to be one of these last-minute sparks of creativity, having reportedly been written in 20 minutes. When director John Hughes decided to change the ending of his classic brat pack flick “Pretty In Pink”, the band OMD were given 24 hours to rewrite the song they had written to accompany the film’s original ending. This produced the exquisite and unforgettable “If You Leave”. When a poet friend of Franz Schubert’s once brought him a new poem to be set to music, Schubert is said to have given it just one read before declaring “I got it.”

Some people are just geniuses; some are very experienced and gifted writers of music who can tap into the Muse almost at will and mold inspiration into workable chunks on the spot… Sometimes the stars just align and all musicians involved (as in a jam or studio session) have their mojo working. Most importantly, they trust themselves enough to be sure that they’ll be OK with the material later on. These are facts and they have replayed successfully many times since the dawn of music-making.

Nevertheless, I still submit that for the rest of us mere mortal composers, such feats are far from feasible. Neither are they necessarily desirable. For the most part and almost always, any new musical idea needs to set aside for a few days before it can be properly evaluated. That’s just how the ear works; it needs the interlude in order for the subconscious to process fresh melodic information. To be sure, such new content can be perfectly fine and even ingenious but you can’t possibly make an objective assessment in the heat of the moment; you need the sobering distance of time.

I agree that there is nothing more magical and stirring than a split-second liaison with the Muse providing just the phrase we need, leaving us scrambling for notation paper or a voice recorder. But the subconscious just like the conscious mind can make musical mistakes. And our makeup also (if not primarily) consists of reason, i.e. the ability to assess and organize information logically.

A musical phrase (not to mention the motifs it is comprised of) is not just an end but also a means to an end. A composer needs to get his hands dirty and squeeze whatever he can out of every snippet, especially if the overall song doesn’t know where to go or he doesn’t yet know how to arrange the piece. Oftentimes, taking a motif and applying it elsewhere in the song or instrumentation – as in a complementary line, a recurring figure or ostinato part – improves the whole project 200%.

The result often makes you cringe at the prospect of having settled for less and rested on your laurels of apparent unadulterated inspiration. And throughout this whole process, the composer constantly needs to be putting ideas away and sleeping on them, constantly juggling inspiration, nuts and bolts application of rules and tools as well as ice cold reason and distance.

Fresh musical ideas don’t come off assembly lines ready to go. They need to brew and grow; they need to cross-pollinate …and then brew and grow again, etc. Supervising this process is essentially what music composition is about. It’s what professional creativity is all about.