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While it is possible to get a great track just by starting and seeing what happens, it can also be helpful to begin with an idea. With a goal in mind, it's easier to create a cohesive track where the pieces of the puzzle come together to make a unified image. An idea, even if completely abandoned later on or altered beyond recognition, can serve as a great starting point and as a simple sketch to refer to when the painting gets complicated. This article is about coming up with ideas that start tracks, some places to find ideas, and how to be prepared for it when inspiration strikes.
One way to get inspired is to take advantage of the rhythms and notes we encounter in everyday life. For example, you might find that while jogging through a neighborhood, your footsteps and the sounds of a sprinkler together create the basis for an interesting percussion pattern, while a bird adds a melodic riff to your composition. Turning the themes you hear in everyday life into a song can be a fun challenge to get you started on a track; for this illustration, maybe the footsteps would become a kick drum while the sprinkler becomes gated white noise or a hi-hat, and the bird could become a synth or wind instrument.
Whether you live in the city or countryside, there are plenty of songs waiting to be taken from your environment. A great example of this is in a scene of the film August Rush where the rhythms of wheels and the notes of car horns literally come together and turn into a song. If you're at your desk in your studio and you're having trouble getting inspired, consider going for a walk. You may be surprised what audible song ideas can come from changing your surroundings.
Rhythm and Melody in Language
Another place to find the basis for a song is in one or two words. It is not uncommon to hear dance tracks that base a song around a single word, sometimes using a sample of the word somewhere in the song. Producers sometimes pick a word or two, and make a song that reflects some aspect of the words, such as the rhythm, notes, or mood that the words invoke. For instance, a composer for the video game "God of War" used this technique. He said in an interview for a public television piece about the Video Games Live concerts, that the main theme from the soundtrack was based on the rhythm of the Greek words for revenge and redemption, which plays into the story and setting of the game.
While the percussive pattern inside a word can be a source of inspiration, words can also have melodic characteristics depending on how they are spoken. This is especially true for some languages, like Chinese, Vietnamese and others, where the pitch bends, or lack thereof, in a word can change what the word is. But even in English speech notes make a subtle appearance; the presence of notes in everyday speech has been exaggerated, exploited, and edited in autotune parodies on the Internet.
In a presentation given at the 09 World Science Festival, research suggested that certain intervals - that is, the musical note distance traveled - in a word or phrase can communicate emotions like sadness (a descending minor third) and anger (one raised semitone). It is not hard to imagine that other speech intervals exist, for example if you find a group of people realizing something at the same time, you might discover that they all say something like 'oh I understand' in a similar rhythm with matching pitch changes like a choir. All that is to say is that the notes and rhythms found in speech can also be an abundant source of ideas and inspiration for a song.
Less-audible things can be inspiration for a song as well, such as events, places, challenges and emotions. Many great songs are inspired by very personal things, yet are written in a way that allows them to be relatable to a large audience. While it's true that sometimes a great song is great just because it's catchy, there is something to be said for music's ability to connect to someone's soul and make them feel a certain way, think certain thoughts, and do certain things, even if that thing is simply dancing.
Capturing the Idea
Wherever the idea comes from, it is good to be able to capture an idea as soon as it is thought of, as ideas can easily be forgotten. One of the best ways to do this is to record some audio of yourself singing or beatboxing what's in your head, perhaps by leaving a message on a phone or on a portable recorder. If no such device is available when inspiration strikes, writing the idea as you best as you can is often enough to jog the memory later. Maybe that looks like a few words and a step sequencer grid with Xs, or a rhythmic squiggle of ink and some circles.
Whatever the method, it is important to capture the idea whether you're inspired in or out of the studio, as song ideas can be forgotten even as you work on the song itself, because it is easy to get caught up in choosing and adjusting sounds.
If you're looking for more places to find inspiration, check out this article about 7 places to find inspiration for songs. Recently, Audiotuts readers shared some of their techniques for capturing inspiration in the comments of this Open Mic post. Look out for an upcoming post that will show an example of how to start a song by beatboxing it.