The Creative Spark;
Where Does Music Come From?
I've always been fascinated by the creative process
that results in a musical composition. I've always wondered where the ideas
for a new song or composition come from and how the idea is fleshed out
to result in a final product. Is it a flash of genius, a skill that can
be learned or a divine intervention? The process of arranging and orchestrating
a melody is one that can be learned and is taught in music schools, even
on-line now on the internet. But just where does that melody come from,
where do the words for a song come from and what starts the whole process?
This issue will explore those questions and more as we try to look inside
the mind of a successful composer to find out the answers to those questions
and many more about the musical creative process.
Of course we are all aware of famous composers who have
written symphonies and other grand music. Mozart is most often looked to
as a creative genius within whose mind entire symphonies were created, virtually
heard then committed to paper for posterity. If you ever saw the movie Amadeus,
you saw this genius in action as romanticized by Hollywood. In my own mind,
I've had musical ideas that seemed original, in some cases I've actually
heard them fully orchestrated in my mind. From songs to a piano concerto,
I've "performed" these works in my mind but frustratingly, I've never been
able to pull the ideas from my head and get them onto paper.
Songwriters such as Irving Berlin and the many other great
songwriters you've seen on our site managed to write hundreds, even thousands
of original songs during their career. Some were often based on prior musical
ideas or motifs but most were separate and distinctly different creations.
By the way, a motif is a small but recognizable series of notes that is
recognizable and often repeated in a work. For example, Beethoven's Fifth
Symphony begins with what is probably the most recognizable motif in history,
the famous Dah Dah Da Dah is only four notes but is the foundation upon
which Beethoven built a masterpiece. How can one mind create thousands of
variations of notes? To complicate things, some composers also created the
lyrics to accompany the music.
In songwriting, we most often see a team of a composer
and a lyricist. The lyricist creates the words, often more poetry than anything
else and the composer somehow creates a melody to showcase the lyrics. Some
people have poetic skills but no musical skill, others have prodigious musical
skills but could not write anything near to poetic if their life depended
on it. Many composers have taken poetic works and set them to music. One great example of this is the terrific On The Road To Mandalay.(Scorch version) based on the Kipling poem of the same name. Carrie Jacobs-Bond most often wrote her own lyrics but also used poems from other sources that were not originally intended to be songs. The combination of these skills in one person though not necessarily
rare, is nothing short of miraculous and makes for the most unique and talented
songwriters that can be found.
In researching these ideas, we've interviewed two contemporary songwriters. First, we happened to connect with
a contemporary composer, David Mallamud who has written much music but also
wrote a unique set of Parlor Songs that are retrospective in nature. David
set out to create a suite of songs that were reflective not of today's musical
conventions but those of the past. David sent us a copy of the songs and
we were stunned at his grasp of the songs from our past and the beauty of
his compositions. Being titled as Parlor Songs and combined with this historic
perspective, the songs made for a perfect fit with Parlor Songs and the
idea for this article.
By the way, you can read David's biography and hear more of his music at his web site at: davidmallamud.com .
Secondly, my son, Christopher Reublin gives us a more contemporary view of songs, specifically in the rock genre. For several years, Chris was bass guitarist and a collaborating songwriter for the rock group Blackfish. Blackfish was under contract with Sony records and produced one CD in 1993 and a second was in progress when the band was released. Prior to their association with Sony, they had produced a number of records under the name of "The Unknown." Blackfish enjoyed a long run as a top band in the Fort Meyers Florida area and toured nationally, once with Winger and also participated in several battle of the bands competitions finishing in the top three. Though the rock genre is fairly well removed in style meter, rhythm and overall sound from
the songs of the early 20th century, the musical creative process seems to be essentially the same.
For quite some time I have contemplated an article
on this subject but till David contacted us, and I decided to explore Chris's songwriting experience, I had no insight into the successful
(compared to my unsuccessful) songwriting process. So as a part of this article, we will showcase the music
of David and Chris and delve into their minds to try to discover where songs
come from and how they evolve from an idea to a finished product.
We'll do that through an interview that seeks the source of music in the mind of the composer and will illustrate some of their work as published or recorded by them.
If you are new to us, to enjoy the full musical experience,
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Richard A. Reublin, August, 2008. This article
published August, 2008 and is Copyright © 2008 by Richard A. Reublin
and The Parlor Songs Academy Text, images or music may not be reproduced
in part or in total without express written permission of the author
or a company officer.
A Taste of the Composers' music:
From David Mallamud's Parlor Songs set, here is an MP3 of Itsy Bitsy Baby. This song is very reminiscent of many of the early 20th century novelty songs. It definitely has the structure and harmony and the lyrics fit the times as well. This is definitely a nostalgic look at early American popular music. This song and all of David's other songs featured this month are beautifully sung by James D. Sasser.
From Blackfish's 1993 album, Blackfish, here is an MP3 of Chris Reublin's (co- written with Steve Ballard) I Wanna Know. Certainly not a 1910 piece but definitely a representative piece from the early 1990 period of American rock. The song starts out almost as a ballad with only acoustic guitar accompaniment..then, it rocks!
Lead vocal, acoustic and Electric Guitar by Steve Ballard, Bass guitars by Chris Reublin, Drums and percussion by Andy Howard, backing vocals, rhythm and lead guitars, acoustic guitar, 12 string by Mike Mahaffey.
So where do these songs come from? I posed the following question to Chris and David to try to find out.
Where does the inspiration for the songs you've written come from. Is it triggered by some event, experience, person or feeling? Or, does the music just creep up on you out of nowhere?
I suppose it could be any and all of the above. In the case of "Parlor Songs" it was a somewhat slow process. I knew I wanted to write a set of songs and I knew that I wanted them to be in the style of American popular music from about 1850-1900 (even though stylistically, Itsy Bitsy Baby is a bit later.) I basically sat at the piano every day for about a month or two and improvised--I'm not much of a pianist, so I'll generally just sing and play chords. When I get something I like I'll try to work with it a bit until I have a complete musical thought and then I'll record it into my minidisk. Throughout this process, I'll generally go back and work through musical thoughts until I have a complete section, and then enough sections that go together to make a song--usually AABA or Verse-Chorus. At the end of this process with "Parlor Songs" I had the music for roughly thirty to forty songs. At this point I also had a fairly clear sense of the variety of songs I wanted in the set. I then went through and listened to the songs and picked out the ones that I liked best that fit with the balance I wanted to create for the piece and then hammered them out even more, to get the final form, tempo, number of verses etc. After I have this, I'd generally work out the lyrics, although in the case of these songs, I next worked out the accompaniment. I started with voice and piano, and then orchestrated.
As I consider myself much more of a composer than a lyricist, the lyrics were something of an afterthought--my main concern was that they sounded good with music. With lyrics I've always been much more interested in the sound and style of the language than the meaning--this could well be why I'll probably never be a particularly good lyricist. In some cases I had dummy lyrics that just kind of came with the music. In most cases the lyrics that wound up going over those parts either retained most of the original words or, at least, the original sounds. Since I was writing in a particular style, I read through a bunch of lyrics from the period to get the general content in my head and the sound of the language in my ear. I then just started writing lyrics starting with the sound and then following whatever phrases I came up with into a particular subject. If I had a subject in mind, I would shape the sounds into the subject. There are always parts you have to leave blank until you come up with something that works: a rhyme you can't find, phrase you can't quite articulate etc.. In some cases I knew what the subject would be--in others, I'm still not sure. Itsy Bitsy Baby, for example, doesn't really make a whole lost of sense, I just thought it would be a fun song, musically, to close the set and I used phrases that seemed to go with the style. In the case of My Only Love, after I came up with the music, I knew it was going to be about lost love and I knew I wanted to relate the rise and fall of a relationship with the changing seasons--this also seemed to be a common theme in the period. Frump on Your Lappelle, I knew from its inception had to be about fashion.
All of the above. I was never a disciplined songwriter. Meaning to say, I didn't sit down and force myself to write very often, it usually just happened when it happened. Sometimes an event or an experience or a person could be an inspiration, but there was always some sort of emotion that I need to express.
My observation: Though both David and Chris acknowledge
that the inspiration for a song can be triggered by events, people or an emotion, both show a distinctly different approach. Whereas David is a trained musician and composer, Chris (and many rock band songwriters) are less trained in the formalities of music but are excellent at what I call creating music out of thin air. Sometimes they seem able to simply have a jam session and a song emerges. I recall when Blackfish was touring they stopped by our home for a real home cooked meal. Steve Ballard asked if he could use our piano because he had a musical idea and wanted to work on it. So we had the pleasure of witnessing the creation of a song right there in our living room. It was an amazing experience that I'll always remember.
Next I asked: Do the ideas come in the form of a melody or lyrics or just a concept? (I think I'll write a song about beer and horses)
Almost all of the songs I've ever written seemed to follow a certain progression. I would be in a certain mood, or emotional state, and the music I would play, whether alone, or with the band, would come out as a kind of soundtrack, or representation of how I was feeling. There were a few times where we set out to write a certain type of song, but even then, if you were depressed, or melancholy, you just didn't have the interest in writing a happy song.
For me the inspiration generally comes from the music. That is, I get excited about writing a particular style of music in a particular mood. So it's not "I want to write a song about losing a lover" but I want to write joyous klezmer, or something sexy and latin or in the case of My Only Love, melancholy 19th century popular music filtered through british music, Filtered through Stephen Foster. Something about the music as a plain idea divorced from concept seems to excite me most.
No matter what people try to tell you, everything's rooted in a style. Nothing is wholly original and there are an infinite number of ways of interpreting emotions, dramatic situations (etc.) musically.
When setting lyrics, or writing a musical for example, then you definitely have to start with the concept. Even there, though, I generally use the content as a way to figure out what style of music is needed, and derive my inspiration from that. That said, although I've certainly done this in the past, I don't particularly like setting lyrics. When I have my druthers, I write the music first and then either give it to someone to write the lyrics, or, as was the case with Parlor Songs, just write them myself.
Observation: Again we see a difference in approach but with some shared seeds of inspiration. The shared sense is a feeling or need for expressions of sometimes and emotion or a mood. Whereas Chris would create music from a feeling or need for expression, we see that David approaches it with that as a seed but creation is founded in musical structure and style.
In a case of the "chicken or the egg" scenario, I then asked: "Which comes first, lyrics or melody? Or do they come together? If one before the other, how do you come up with a melody (or lyrics) to go with it and how do you go about merging the two?"
I pretty much only like to do music first. That said, on some level I think writing to pre-existing lyrics can be easier, but the result when I do it is never as good. Sometimes when I'm writing both the lyrics and music to a song, they will come together--but more often it's just the sound that comes, and then I have to mold those sounds into content. I believe that certain sounds are inextricably linked to certain musical phrases. The best lyricists I've worked with generally want dummy lyrics and sonically tend to stay very close to them. Generally when I do work lyric first, I'll read the lyrics until I can sing them. As I mentioned earlier, with the kind of music I like to write, the best lyrics basically set themselves.
When writing lyrics to music I've already written, I generally start by looking at the form of the song and basically figure out what needs to go where based on what I want the song to say. I then generally just sit at a computer and work it out, usually keeping in mind the dummy lyrics--as sound is always my primary concern. Until I started writing with a variety of people I never realized quite the extent to which lyrics can effect the sound of the music. The extent to which bad lyrics can ruin a perfectly good tune and good lyrics make a tune sound even better never ceases to amaze me.
"The music always came first, usually in the form of a single phrase, or pattern or hook that we stumbled on while rehearsing or improvising. Then using a typical framework like say, Verse - Bridge - Chorus, we would experiment with different arrangements. Vocal melodies seemed to just evolve from the music, and the lyrics always came last for me. A lot of the time, lyrics wrote themselves from words that evolved from humming the melody. Certain words and phrases just fit the timing and cadence and syllables. Sometime this even dictated what the song was eventually about."
Observation: This is interesting in that both begin with the music or a musical idea, then lyrics evolve based on the mood or flow of the music.
Next I wanted to know: "Does music come to your mind in the form of a simple melody or a generally fully “orchestrated” idea that you must parse to get on paper?"
"It can be anything. Sometimes when I come up with a tune, I have a very strong sense of the orchestration, other times, I just have the tune and have to really work to come up with the orchestration. The most common thing for me however is to have the tune and bits of the orchestration. In "Please, Froggy, Be True," (see below to hear this wonderful song) for example, I always heard a flute arpeggio after the first line of the chorus. If it really is the rare instance when a tune sort of magically pops into my head, it's generally just the tune and implied harmonies. When writing instrumental music, however, it was certainly more common for something more fully orchestrated to come into my head."
"I have always had music and words churning in my mind. In fact, I have always had this strange obsessiveness about the musical quality of certain words I hear. I used to keep a diary of these words, because it would run in a loop until I wrote it down. It was never the meaning of a word, only the sound. A lot of the time the musical quality of the word would begin to evolve into something, and i would race to hum it into a tape recorder, or play it on a musical instrument, to sort of "cement" it, so I didn't forget. When the band was touring there was always a musical instrument around, so any time you were working on something in your head, you could pick up a guitar and it went very quickly from inner composition to reality. This led to hours and hours of recordings of hummed or strummed song fragments, most of which never evolved further. I still hear things coalescing in my head all the time, but I am a little more selective now about what i choose to keep or discard. As for written music, the only thing I have ever written down were words. I can't write or read sheet music. I can play anything I hear, but I have never grasped the concept of "seeing" music."
Observation: With these answers we can see a clear difference in approach yet as before, some similarities.
The contrast is in how the music gets "written." For Chris it is a case of actually playing (humming or strumming) the music into a recorder and writing down lyrics since Chris (like many very creative musicians) cannot read or write music in the traditional sense. David of course has the formal training and ability to translate ideas into scored music. The similarities between their creative process is the ability to actually "hear" a new musical idea in one's mind and then transform it into a song.
Let's enjoy another taste of David and Chris's music:
From the album "Blackfish" here is The Only One.
Lead vocal, acoustic and Electric Guitar by Steve Ballard, Bass guitars by Chris Reublin, Drums and percussion by Andy Howard, backing vocals, rhythm and lead guitars, acoustic guitar, 12 string by Mike Mahaffey.(MP3 format)
From David's Parlor Songs suite, a wonderfully humorous and delightful, Please Froggy, Be True, sung by James Sasser.
Continuing with the interview: "Sometimes do you just noodle around with melody ideas till something coherent emerges?
"For me it's generally much closer to this, with elements of the tune popping into your head. It's almost like you sit around and improvise until something pops into your head, and then you work that out."
"Noodling" is my preferred method, and is probably the most accurate way to describe my musical abilities: I am a "Noodler" who occasionally finds something useful. As a final note, I want to point out that I very rarely worked alone in the creative process. I tried to answer these questions about what goes on inside my own head, but i don't want to give the impression that I worked alone, or in a vacuum, or was more than a small piece of something that elevated my own limited ability. The band environment was essential to me personally as a songwiter, and many of my ideas would have remained just an idea without Steve Ballard's abilities as a songwriter to turn it into something cohesive."
Observation: This is revealing, though we cannot say that all songwriters approach things this way, it seems that just messing around with musical and lyrical ideas often results in that "eureka" moment for a composer/songwriter. Like most discovery/creative processes, there are many unsuccessful attempts before a real winner is found.
Finally, I had one final question: "Can an accomplished musician get an idea, compose it fully in their head then play it first time ‘round with no additional work required? Is this a conscious process or intuitive?"
David gave us some excellent insights on the overall process in his response:
"This brings up the two kinds of writers and an age old debate: Institution vs. Rigor. I'm not sure about other disciplines, but in music the frontrunner for intuition is Mozart, and the frontrunner for rigor, Beethoven. Beethoven is notorious for doing endless revisions, sketches etc., Mozart is not. I've heard it argued that Mozart actually did revise a lot, he just did it in his head. I'm not sure how true that is, but regardless, with songwriting I think it is much more intuitive. When writing "classical" music I would often get initial inspiration--a short musical idea that I would feel sounded exciting or inspired enough to spin out into an entire piece and then there was a lot of working out. In songwriting, generally the initial inspired idea is close to the song, then there's a little working out, but not much--I think too much working out in songwriting would kill the ease with which songs have to flow. So I guess this is a somewhat convoluted way of saying that there is some working out, but not that much. Also, remember that for me to write one song I might throw out 15 ideas. So I guess my solution is to write a lot until I get it right rather than working endlessly on one idea to shape it into something that's "right." As in everything, though, I'd imagine everyone's different.
Rogers supposedly, after picking up the lyrics to "Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin'," had the tune in his head by the time he got to his car. Paul McCartney supposedly dreamt "Yesterday." I don't know how much of this is musical mythology and how much real, but I'm sure there are at least grains of truth.
Once I have music that I'm happy with for a song, although the individual sections won't change that much, the form might. I've found that sometimes I'll add a new section, remove a section, add a repetition, write a new section etc. But in terms of the elements within a section, they generally stay the same, occasionally I might change a note or two, maybe a rhythm here and there, but not much more. Lyrics, however, do seem to change a fair amount.
Observation: I think David's response encapsulates the two distinctly different approaches to composition that can be illustrated between Chris and David however, from my view, David is very much a combination of the schools of intuition and rigor while Chris is a pure intuitional composer.
So, from this interview and look at two different approaches to songwriting and genres of songs, what can we conclude about the creative process and where songs come from? Here is my take on it.
Though the formal musical training of David and Chris are vastly different, I am amazed at the similarities in the creative process. This seems to prove that the language of music is one that many can speak but not all can write.
- Both David and Chris draw on personal experience, events and inspiration as seeds for a new musical idea.
often use the concept of "noodling" as a method to discover, create or refine basic musical ideas.
- Mood is an important aspect of creation of music
- Lyrics play an important part in the development of a song's musical construct.
- Intuition is an important part of the process
The differences in approach are also worth noting:
Formal musical training can potentially streamline the compositional process.
The intuitive approach seems like it must be more fun. Anything implying rigor seems less attractive (to me).
How a particular composition is codified is very different for a trained composer vs. the intuitive one. In all cases of Blackfish's songs, none were ever actually written down, the documentation was in the form of the recording or performance. As a side thought on this, some of Blackfish's music actually changed over time as the band's style evolved. Listening to earlier versions of some songs shows evolutionary differences. Written music becomes more fixed and only changes based on a performer's interpretation. In the more fluid environment, the performance becomes the definitive "written" song.
Having read the article thus far, David added some interesting and important thoughts.
"I thought it might be interesting to point out that how I create music (improvising at the piano) is not so different from a jam session other than the fact that I'm the only one there. I suppose a jam session would probably be much more fluid and dynamic. I'll start playing and try for an idea and then stop if it's not working and switch directions, sometimes starting over. Since a jam session would have more people I think it would probably keep going, and I'd imagine there would be more morphing especially with the input and ideas of several musicians interacting. One other difference might be that a jam session would not necessarily be about writing a song, but more playing together as a band so if something worth saving didn't emerge there would be no major concern since the coming up with new material is only one aspect of the session. Despite those potential differences I think that solo improvising at the piano and jamming as a group to come up with material are not entirely different concepts.
As in Chris's case, my process involves a tape recorder (actually a minidisk recorder). I'll record ideas in, listen back, and work with it that way. Writing stuff down in music notation form is really the last stage. And is mainly just a logistical way to get music to the performers not usually part of the creative process."
That final bit of clarification reduces the differences between approaches even more, especially the part about writing down music being a logistical element, not even a part of the creative process! From that can we gather that being able to write and read music is completely external to the creative process in music? I believe yes. If we look to some of our greatest songwriters, many could not read or write music and hired arrangers to develop their musical ideas. There is evidence this was the case with Charles K. Harris and Irving Berlin (at least in his early career).
So, have we answered the article title's question; where do songs come from? Perhaps not for you but in my mind the answer is clear, songs come from the heart and mind of some very special and gifted people. In turn, they often speak to our hearts and minds in a special language and in doing so, they come full circle.
Finally, I want to share some of David's songs with you in the format you are more accustomed to seeing on our site, the Scorch view, played through midi. Unfortunately, since Chris's music is not written, we cannot provide this format but will provide a parting MP3 of another Blackfish song. Please keep in mind that these songs are the property of and copyrighted by David Mallamud and may not be reproduced or performed without his permission. For permissions or information about the availability of the music contact David directly. First from David's suite of songs we present:
Frump on Your Lapelle.
Words and Music by David Mallamud.
I selected this song and the others as they represent distinctly different aspects of past popular music that David's work illustrates. This is a delightfully playful song that has a sound that recalls in my mind the great stage music of Gilbert and Sullivan. Not only the music, but the lyrics hearken back to the days around the turn of the 20th century and this song would have fit right into almost any of Gilbert & Sullivan's operetta's as though it was written for it. The lyrics are humorous, fun and should make you laugh or at least smile. Click on the cover image to the left to see and hear the Scorch version (requires Scorch plug-in. If you do not have the Scorch plug-in, the window that opens will provide a link to obtain it)
For those of you that want to hear it as sung by Mr. Sasser, here is the MP3 version.
Please Froggy Be True
Words and Music by David Mallamud
This is another good humored song but in a different style and mood. reflective of the great waltz songs of the past, the song tells a story of a young girl and her search for love. It is a sweet song, with a memorable melody and perfect for the parlor settings of the days when the family gathered around the piano to play and sing songs. This wonderful song has a much different feel to it than the prior song but the composer's sense of humor and playfulness clearly comes through here as well.
Here is the MP3 version as sung by Mr. Sasser
Words and Music by David Mallamud
I chose this song as it has yet another of the classic songs of the past sounds. A bit more jazzy it is very reminiscent of the jaunty vaudeville songs that entertained the audiences of the early 20th century. In fact, the subtitle; "Homage to Jolson" places this piece right dead center in the vaudeville period. It is definitely a song you could imagine Jolson belting out. The melody is fun and once again, we see david's sense of humor coming through. I know you'll be walking around humming this one for quite a while!
Here is Mr. Sasser's performance in MP3 format.
Finally, for you rockers out there, let's end this article with another great Blackfish song composed by Chris Reublin with Steve Ballard; I Believe In You, Lead vocal, acoustic and Electric Guitar by Steve Ballard, Bass guitars by Chris Reublin, Drums and percussion by Andy Howard, backing vocals, rhythm and lead guitars, acoustic guitar, 12 string by Mike Mahaffey. (MP3 format) This is one of my favorites, a wonderful ballad with a great deal of emotion and meaningful lyrics.
In closing I would like to extend our thanks to David Mallamud and Christopher Reublin for their generous assistance in making this article a reality. We appreciate David's kind permission allowing us to publish some of his music here and hope that any of you performers out there looking for fresh and exciting new material will contact David about performing these songs or others he has composed.
I especially appreciate Chris' participation and sharing of his experience. Of course I am very proud of him and what he has accomplished in his life as a creative, compassionate and caring man, husband and father. It seems that Blackfish continues to have fans who appreciate and keep their music alive. For some additional information about Chris and Blackfish you can visit his myspace page and the page created by a fan on myspace, the music of blackfish, that features many more of their songs including songs from their never released second album.
This article published August, 2008 and is Copyright ©
2008 by Richard A. Reublin and The Parlor Songs Academy Text, images
or music may not be reproduced in part or in total without express written permission
of the author, Christopher Reublin, David Mallamud or an officer of the corporation. Though the songs published on
this site are often in the Public Domain, the MP3 versions and songs presented here from the featured composers are copyrighted and may not be distributed, copied or sold. MIDI renditions are also protected by copyright
as recorded performances.
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