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Tips to inspire creativity in your music

  • 14 July 2016, Thursday
Half of a brain in rainbow colors

Hello, it’s Olaf again, and I’m going to talk about my way of getting new ideas.

The reason why we sometimes run out of fresh thoughts is based on a very fundamental principle in nature called entropy. It describes the degree of disorder in a system, and it gradually increases with time if no energy is input from outside. The same happens to our brains when we fall into routines. And as useful and necessary routines are for survival when they give us stability and automatisms, they can - on the creative side - be unpleasantly perceived as a lack of progression. If you are boring yourself to death by repeating the same techniques in order to find something exciting then it’s time for an injection of energy, for spiritual refreshment - we call it "inspiration"....

Freedom Of Choice

By far the easiest way to get surprising results is to roll the dice. In the first half of the 20th century modern music had come to the point where it became almost impossible for the listener to understand why the composer arranged the notes the way they did. John Cage was one of those who came to the most radical conclusions then. He just started using completely random structures in his music - who could tell the difference anyway? I’m not a big fan of music that is harmonically too undefined but a few random notes do add some pleasant surprises.

Practise #1:Try to play four notes you didn’t intend to play.

That’s already a tough one, and I leave it up to you to figure out how to do it best (hint: don’t play c, d, e, f !).You can take your results as small motives or melodies for your tracks - can be anything from lead to base line. Since most of us want to make music that is somehow popular and accessible to the common ear it is important not to take too many notes, because 3, 4 or 5 different notes define a chord, 12 different notes define almost nothing and the ear is lost in total freedom.

Practise #2:Play these notes as a chord (all 4 at once). Try to make it sound most pleasant to you by changing the octave of some notes (not the notes themselves! - F stays F but an octave up or down)

What you have created so far is a harmonic context. It is now a little trivial to play this chord with your left hand and to play the same notes as a melody with the right hand (a bit like putting bread on a pizza). It is better here to split this chord in half and give these fractions different functions in your track. Let’s say, two notes are played simultaneously with a pad sound and the other two are either played as a melodic motive or a baseline.If you repeat Practise #1 and #2 you might end up with a second harmony that, according to your feeling, works well together with the first one when played alternating. If not, try shifting it in halftone steps until it does.

I find it very important for an instrumentalist to do these things by hand because it’s a good training for your playing and improvising skills. Upon that, it helps you to figure out what works and why it does that.For those who are not trained (or patient) enough to do this in a reasonable amount of time there is computer software that does it for you. On June 16th we released "Time & Timbre 2.0" which is a Max4Live toolkit that comes with various randomisation functions. "TimeSTING" can randomise different kinds of melodies as MIDI-clips. You can easily do all of the above steps in Live then.

Construction Time Again

The opposite of randomisation is methodical construction. Following a rule to make something up. The results can be very beautiful - a fern leaf is "made" that way....

A major scale, for example, is a certain sequence of 5 whole and 2 halftone steps (w, w, h, w, w, w, h). If you change this order you get something else. Some of these scales are used for hundreds of years already and are called gregorian modes.

Now you can be creative:

Practise #3:Choose a note on your instrument and play h, w, h, w, ..... until you are one octave up. Listen to this scale a couple of times and enjoy it’s strange beauty.

Practise #4:Choose a note and repeat w, w, h until you reach that note again after a completed cycle. What’s going on here?You can do similar things with chords. Chords are a combination of intervals (c e g b = c e + g b = major triad + major triad).

Practise #5:Play a fifth with your left hand and a fifth with your right hand but one octave higher - play both hands together. Now reduce the distance between the two hands by a half tone. Keep going an listen to the results. Then try other intervals for each hand.

Rhythms can be constructed as follows:

Practice #6:Open a MIDI clip. Insert two notes in the first half of the first bar, somewhere. Then duplicate the first half of the bar. Alter the duplicate (shift by a 16th note, reverse, add/delete a note etc.). Duplicate the whole bar now and again alter the duplicate. Now you have a two bar loop.

I’ve shown you how to construct building blocks. Take these ideas, put them together and you will get bigger structures. You don’t need to use all methods at once, though.The first track of our 2015 EP "Time & Timbre" is a good example for these kind of techniques. Listen to the snippet here.

The baseline moves in that halftone-wholetone scale from Practice #3 in a 3/8 polyrhythm over 4 bars which is then repeated. On 1:35 you can hear regular minor chords descending in wholetone steps over one octave. Although the scale of the baseline hasn’t much in common with a wholetone scale nor with a minor chord, these two elements magically work together because they intersect on the timeline in a very meaningful way. However, this is a result of methodical work. I could have never come up with this just by ear.

Happy experimenting !

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