On inspiration.

Categories:  Composition/Songwriting, Inspiration, Music

I originally wrote this in 2010, for a now-dead blog page associated with an earlier incarnation of this website. I came across a printout of it and decided to clean it up a bit and repost today, since it’s still relevant.

Last night 60 Minutes did an updated profile of child prodigy Jay Greenberg, age 14, who can compose in his head entire full-length orchestral works in about the same amount of time it takes you or me to prepare, assemble, and eat a turkey & cran sauce sandwich.

BlueJay (as he signs his compositions) says he doesn’t know where the music is coming from, can’t turn it off as it flows through his imagination, and in fact hears multiple pieces “playing” at once. It’s a level of extreme giftedness that can make the merely super-talented blush and cower.

As unapproachable as BlueJay’s abilities are, I think many musicians and other artists would recognize some aspect of his inner world. Even someone like me, who’s only occasionally prolific, has experienced moments when an entire song seemed to appear out of nowhere, fully formed in my imagination, begging me to make my way to the piano and bring it into an objective, definitive state of being.

In fact, I went through a lucky period in the spring and summer of 2008 when I wrote a half-dozen songs in exactly this nirvana state of open-eared acceptance. As many others have noted before me, this type of productivity feels less like composition than transcription–just notating a music that existed before it happened to fall into my ear.

The mystically inclined will talk of God or the Muses, while other more scientific sorts will refer to the murky processes of the unconscious mind. Maybe those are just two different ways of saying the exact same thing. When it happens to you, it’s sheer bliss.

But it also sets up a potentially painful set of expectations. BlueJay hears the music all the time, more than he can transcribe. I recently read about another musician, a Nashville songwriter, who hears new songs so often that he can easily write one or two a day, and sometimes actually refuses to “go with” an idea that’s hounding him because he really needs a break to eat lunch or mow the lawn. Most of us, even if we’re lucky enough to experience that flow of creativity once in a while, are more likely to be found sitting at the piano bench with blank manuscript paper in front of us, waiting, waiting, waiting for hours or days or months, waiting for something beautiful to knock us in the head.