Composing is one of those elusive “in the moment” type of things that one cannot force. However, there are a number of techniques that I believe can help act as a catalyst for your creative juices.
Simply sitting down with our instruments and “waiting” for inspiration is not only impractical, but we could be waiting for months! Sometimes we must force ourselves into a position of creativity through hard work and diligence. Steve Vai talks about the power of meditation to get into the “zone” and sitting there working on a riff until we get into a deep state of heightened awareness. This is a great technique but takes true focus and dedication and a certain type of personality.
One of my favourite techniques is to take myself away from the guitar all together and compose using an unfamiliar instrument. This takes us away from our comfort zone and our “bag of tricks,” and makes us have to find what we want. Sometimes having favourite chord shapes and scales can actually hinder our creativity as it makes us always use the same set of tools to draw from. This can ultimately obscure what our head and heart really want us to create. An unfamiliar instrument makes us search for what our heart wants to hear. Also, if we used a piano, they are laid out in such a way that the notes flow in order from left to right, so it is often easier and more logical to find our ideas, and it also helps us execute chords that would be very hard, if not impossible, on the guitar.
Another method that I use is to compose using my recording software and programming ideas straight into the software itself, either using the mouse or even a piano controller. This is pretty cool as it forces you to sing the melody and then try to program in what you are hearing directly.
We can also sing and record ourselves, then fit chords around that melody. This is often the most musical approach as there are no barriers between your mind and the idea. However, I find that sometimes a combination of approaches leads to the execution of ideas that may not have come to fruition with one technique alone. For example, I may come up with a melody on my guitar that I may not have thought about singing originally.
The final thought for this article is, should the chords come first and then the melody, or melody first and then the chords? The answer is, simply, that there is no right or wrong way to do anything in music as long as the final product sounds good. Sometimes writing the melody first is cool as we can decide what type of harmony we want underneath, which can affect the mood of the melody. Writing a chord progression first can lead us to write cool melodies that we may not have come up with otherwise.
I encourage you to be as creative as possible and never to be afraid of creating something in a way that others do not. Inevitably it’s the sound that matters most in the end – the way you came to make that sound is irrelevant. Some of my best compositions sometimes baffle me because I know the melodies are not typical ideas I would sing and sometimes I have a hard time remembering how I came up with an idea. But, it’s always a great thrill to hear something you have created and be happy with it.
Have fun and happy composing!