As requested by my friend Wendy Morgan, this post is about my career as a composer and how to generate a musical idea.
I have always found that the best ideas, the real substance of a musical composition, come from the area of my mind that can’t be commanded directly. It is that “subconscious,” or “right brain,” or whatever you choose to call it that can be coaxed or bidden but never ordered. I know that the left- and right-brain theory, in which the left brain takes care of verbal and related functions and the right brain does the creative stuff, has been refined in recent years, but I’ll continue to use the terminology anyway. (The brain is now seen as much more “holographic,” with all parts participating together.) My trick for having a good idea for a piece was to get the right part of my brain in a “creative mood” and then to “listen.” I’ve developed and learned a number of techniques for making that happen.
In my first years of serious compositional study I practiced a form of self hypnosis that I had learned from a book. I would put myself into a light trance and make the suggestion that I would have a good musical idea. Then I’d wait to “hear” what happened and note it down. Sometimes idle improvising at the keyboard would help that process. Once I had the idea, which might be a melody, some harmony, or even just a rhythm, I could begin to work with it and develop it using the skills I was learning in the composition class—how to extend and play out variations on my idea to make it into a complete piece of music. The self-hypnosis method I just described was my own invention. No composition teacher I ever studied with dealt with the fundamental process of having a good musical idea. Instead, they taught how to develop an idea into a complete composition.
In later years I often used visualization to “trick” my mind into coming up with an idea. I would imagine as strongly as possible that I was attending the first performance of the piece I was beginning to write. The performers would come on stage, the audience would applaud, and they would prepare to play the piece. When the performance began, the music was always there, supplied by my subconscious—which seemed to abhor a vacuum. Again, this method was never taught to me by anyone. I did, however, teach it to all my own students and I offer it to you free of charge. It works for other creative activities equally well.
I also used “dream time” to work on musical ideas. I would lay the groundwork, much as described above, just before going to bed. If I was in the middle of a piece, I would look through the score to the point I had left off and then go to sleep and see what developed. I have found that the subconscious mind never sleeps. It will continue chewing on an idea all through the night. More often than not I would wake up with the continuation or the beginning of the piece running in my head.
So, Wendy, there you have it—the “source” of my inspiration as a composer.
This article first appeared in my memoir, Pebbles: Memories of a Small-Town Kansas Boy, pp. 95-96..