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Finding Inspiration in Unlikely Places

By David A. Gatwood
June 17, 2003

People keep asking me about my inspiration as though there were some magical inspiration fairy that doles out ideas willy-nilly to artists, writers, lyricists, musicians, and others. What most people don't realize is that inspiration isn't like that. In all fairness, sometimes inspiration comes naturally—when you meet that special someone or land the perfect job—but creative people usually have to make their own inspiration.

One thing I've found over the years is that there is no set formula for creating inspiration. However, there are many common roadblocks to inspiration. Once you overcome them, you will find inspiration flows more freely.

We will divide this article into four basic sections:


Patterning is by far the most common problem facing musicians in search of inspiration. It is far too easy to get into a rut in which you find yourself playing the same chord changes over and over in every song. It is even easier to write music in which you suddenly realize that the chorus consists of the same four chords as the verse, in the same order, offset by two. Clearly such repetition leads to music that is of lesser quality.

A related problem is patterning one's music off that of someone famous. It's easy to impersonate the style of another musician. However doing so will not provide the diverse musical background needed to create good music.

There are a number of ways of combat these problems. First and foremost is to listen to music. Don't just listen to music you like. Listen to music you hate. Listen to rap, country, blues, bluegrass, rock, classical, filmscore, contemporary, aleatoric/tone poem, international/cultural, and folk music. Try to find something you like about even the most hideous works.

Second, force yourself to find new chord changes. There are many reasons why people get into a rut, and many ways out of that rut. In addition to those described in Visual and Motion Correlation, a good technique is to listen to music you don't usually like and pick out complex chords. Classical music is good for this, as is Jazz.

Third, take a song by a musician you like and do a cover of it. Try to intentionally diverge as much as possible from the original recording. Don't do any of the same licks between verses or in the solo passage. Experiment with different instrumentation—if the original song was written for guitar, try it with piano, or vice-versa.

Finally, try turning your chords upside-down. Try to play every chord in an inversion other than the one you're used to using. You'll find that it feels awkward at first, but eventually you'll start to hear subtle nuances and even possible passing tones and leading tones that you had never even considered before.

Above all else, though, the music will take on a avery different character and feel when the chords are played in alternate inversions. You'll usually end up forgetting most of the alternate inversions, because they will rarely fit the melodic line and bass line. Occasionally, however, you will find something that works. When you do, keep it. It will add depth to the music.

Visual and Motion Correlation

Another problem for many musicians is visual correlation. Musicians are generally not visual learners. However, once they have learned something in a visual way, they find that it is hard to "unlearn" it and try new variations upon it because the visual information is so ingrained in their minds. They may also find it hard to shed the rigorous confines of learned patterns of motion.

There are two good strategies for avoiding this problem. The first is scat singing. You simply can't associate a sung note with any visual image, and thus many great improvisers recommend singing when creating a new musical passage.

While that may work for people improvising on wind instruments or solo guitar, it doesn't work well for instruments like piano, where musicians generally want to play more than a single note. Some people find that they can hear the harmony in their heads while singing. I can do that, too, but I usually forget most of it before I get back to the keyboard.

Instead, I recommend a slightly more radical approach: dark playing. With this approach, you seal yourself in a room that is completely dark—no overhead lights, no street lamps outside, no night light in the next room, just complete blackness. Carefully feel your way across to the piano bench. (It helps if you leave the light on until you are roughly seated.)

Next, slide around the bench randomly. It is important that you have no frame of reference whatsoever. Try to become so disoriented that you barely know where the keyboard is, much less where middle C is.

Finally, play. Start with a note or two. Octaves work well. Move one hand until you have figured out what key you started on. Once you have this in your mind, continue to improvise a new melody in your choice of keys, beginning with the notes you have already played.

Experiment while doing this. Try starting on white keys first, then try starting on black keys. Try sitting backwards under the piano and playing with your hands over your head. Even in broad daylight, this is difficult, as everything feels backwards, but once your mind has adjusted, you will find yourself creating melodies that seem utterly alien, yet are inspired by parts of your mind that needed to be more thoroughly exercised.


This works both ways. Isolation can be both good and bad for inspiration. In one way, isolating yourself can free your mind to concentrate on your music. However, excessive isolation can be destructive if it continues for a long period of time. The same skill set that is used when writing music is also used when conversing with others about complicated subjects. This is one of the reason that so many computer programmers are also skilled musicians—they use those parts of their brains regularly.

It is important to have a good social life in order to write good music. Make friends, spend time with people, have a good time, then go back home and spend some "alone time" relaxing and creating.


Finally, the most important thing when seeking inspiration is location, location, location. I recommend spending an hour each week walking around your town or city. Find a secluded place where you can sit and think. It might be a park bench on a city street or a glade in the forests over Santa Cruz. It might even be a window overlooking a small guard house on the back side of Mont-Saint-Michel in Brittany, France. The important thing is to find a place that makes you feel comfortable.

Sometimes the best location isn't even a physical place at all. Sometimes it might be a state of mind. Whether induced by getting dumped or occurring naturally due to lack of sleep, states of mind are usually hard to get into and even harder to escape, so make sure you choose an emotion that you can live with.


Everyone has different needs, and each of us has our own inner muse; some of us are even blessed with an actual muse—a boyfriend or girlfriend or best friend or brother or sister or even a neighbor—someone who makes us appreciate what we have or desire what we don't. In any case, we are all inspired by different things. The most important step you can take towards finding that creative spark is to get out into the world and find out what inspires you. Only then can you find your inspiration in unlikely places.