This is an excerpt of the book Processing Creativity: The Tools, Practices And Habits Used To Make Music You’re Happy With. If you would like to download an excerpt or buy a copy you can do so here.

“True inspiration is impossible to fake.”

Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in the movie Inception

Inspiration is to creativity what food is to energy. Without inspiration, there's nothing to draw from creatively. Even if there's a limited amount of inspiration, the perspiration is weak like an athlete trying to compete without proper nutrition. What we take in as inspiration leads to how open or closed our mind is to possibility, which forms how we express our intent. If your mind hasn't been opened to the possibility of certain options, it's far more difficult to understand they're available to use in your expression.

"Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work." ― Chuck Close

Some of the most generalized advice about creating is to sit down and force it out, whether or not it’s good. The above quote is used by inspiration deniers that think you sit down at a desk and start plunking away until a song comes out, with no concern for the potency of what's created since content must be made. This thought neglects that you need to have inspiration to express emotionally to make good music. While you can always produce some bland content, great music needs inspiration to fuel a potent expression of what you want to say. The boneheads who push this argument value content generation, not the potent expression of new truths that music can bring us.

Inspiration is often compared metaphorically to fishing, but I find a better comparison in farming. Your inspiration is the seed of what you can perspire. If you’re keeping the soil healthy by regularly watering your inspiration seeds, they can grow into perspiration. While not every seed of inspiration grows into a healthy crop, you need to take in enough inspiration that you have crops to choose from when others don’t fully grow. Time needs to be spent nurturing these seeds by nurturing the proper nutrition for them to grow, along with perspiring enough of it that you have sufficient choices to harvest.

One of the reasons there's so much bad advice about inspiration is the huge spectrum of where artists fall in how inspired they are presently. On one side, there's someone who's extremely inspired with ideas oozing out of them who doesn’t need to ingest anything else since the last thing they need is even more ideas. On the opposite side is a more experienced artist who’s empty from creating so much that they no longer have enough inspiration to make anything that lives up to their standards. Also on this side of the spectrum are those who are new to creating in a format that don’t have enough inspiration to make resonant work. They’ve yet to take in enough nutrition to perspire a new expression they find emotionally resonant. Most artists are in need of some inspiration in the many different facets of creation, so the idea of just getting to work ignores the fact that much of the work is getting inspired.

To muddy the waters even more, some songs come right out of us in a seamless flow whereas others are struggles to find what we're trying to express. This can be confusing, to say the least, but the most common reason a song isn't meeting our standards is the inspiration hasn't come to us on how to express ourselves to paint the emotional picture we’re trying to convey. To realize it, there's a variety of practices needed to get it out into the world if we want to continually sustain the ability to easily express the inspiration within us.

Research Is Part Of The Process

“Waiting for the muse is a bunch of bullshit – you need to go out there and find it.” ― Molly Crabapple

No one would ever tell you to write a book or a movie without doing research. But in music for some reason, the word research is bad. There's an idea in musicians’ circles that if you're listening to anything but your favorite song, you're committing a mortal sin against art. Inspiration is research, only in a much more fun and interesting way. In fact, the two terms are laughably similar in definition with practices that are nearly identical. The difference is when we say inspiration, it seems so much more fun since getting inspired is a largely enjoyable process. But research – as someone who just finished reading 450 pages of scientific studies on creativity, I can tell you it’s one of the most boring things you can do.

If you read articles on how a musician made a record, you'll hear them talking about "crate diving" or having intense listening sessions. Nile Rodgers talked about doing research for David Bowie's record Let’s Dance in his memorial to Bowie: “For the next few weeks, we went on an art search. We were looking for inspiration: what would this album, which would end up being called Let’s Dance, sound like? We didn't know. So we just went out and started researching. This being way before the internet, we actually went to the New York Public Library and to people's houses who had large record collections. We also went to record stores to go bin-diving."

Along the way, this research won't be all fun, as Albert Einstein said, "If we knew what we were doing, we wouldn't call it research." I joke that no one listens to more music than me to not enjoy 99% of what I hear. Every week I'll listen to a dozen or so records while I work that I greatly dislike. This isn't out of some sort of musical masochism. Instead, I listen to a lot of music to find inspiring thoughts to apply to my work. Part of my job as a producer is to understand the inspiration my collaborators are taking in so I can make them happy with what we create. I need to have an inordinately large musical vocabulary to understand how I can help express their vision.

 The ride of research is about discovering what you don't like just as much as it is about what you do like. Just as you wouldn't expect everything you read when researching a term paper for school to be worth putting in your paper, this process also explores what not to do. Part of research is taking in some inspiration you dismiss as well as ideas you feel passionate towards that you investigate further. Just as we talked about when finding your voice, figuring out what you don't want to do by finding why music isn’t emotionally resonant to you can be more helpful than knowing what you want to do.

Steal From Your Favorite Thieves

One of the worst fictions of being creative is that to make good music, you must never steal, otherwise you’re not creative or original (which are somehow synonymous). If you hear someone else's idea and apply it yours ― no matter how creative the recontextualization ― you must be a hack. The first mistake of this thought is a concern with how your music is received instead of making the music you want to hear. The second mistake is that there's never been a song where an educated ear can't spot an inspiration point.

Anyone who’s made “original” music that's a breath of fresh air knows where their influences come from. They view their own work as being quite derivative, since they know exactly how those influences shaped their creation. These influences are either not the common influences everyone is used to or they possess diverse enough influences that it doesn't sound derivative of one single artist. They've learned a vast vocabulary of inspiration to draw from so that it doesn't sound like an imitation. A common creative quote attributed to a handful of people is: "Steal from one author, it's plagiarism; steal from a hundred, it's inspiration."

A perfect example of how inspiration can be both veiled and obvious at once is the classic Beastie Boys’ song "Girls." While the lyrics are excessively sexist (to put it kindly), there's no doubt this song was solidified as a classic a long time ago. But until producer Rick Rubin revealed it, you'd never know that the song form is stolen from The Isley Brothers’ ubiquitous song "Shout." While the song doesn't share the same chord structure, emotional intent, tempo or lyrical content, it imitates the form by saying "girls" instead of "shout" in between every phrase. Had Rubin gone to his grave with that, few listeners would have ever noticed. Whether or not you know the inspiration, the song is still thoroughly enjoyable.

The takeaway from this example is the use of one small element from an influence applied perfectly to a very well researched sound. Since they draw far more from hip-hop influences and, in this song's case, childhood nursery rhymes and frat boy clichés, the influence of The Isley Brothers song is hidden in this recontextualization until the inspiration is exposed. The inspiration helped further the song’s intent while being thoroughly disguised among a collage of influences.

Expanding Upon Great Ideas

"Amateur artists imitate; great artists steal" is a famous quote that sounds great but neglects the way great artists interact with their influences. For example, take the influence The Beach Boys and The Beatles had on each other. Brian Wilson was famously blown away by The Beatles’ Rubber Soul, specifically that it contained no “filler tracks” or covers. The Beach Boys were still filling albums with padding for singles and cover songs, so Rubber Soul’s elevated creative height struck Wilson as a new mark he had to hit. The innovation in Rubber Soul was groundbreaking at the time, so Wilson responded by crafting Pet Sounds. The Beatles then heard Pet Sounds and responded with Sgt. Peppers. Paul McCartney would later say, "Without Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper wouldn't have happened ... Pepper was an attempt to equal Pet Sounds."

When gaining inspiration, a musician will ask, "How can I do something just like this?" What they should be asking is how can they do work that improves upon this with their own strengths, tastes and emotional intent? As a creator, learning to hear the ideas an artist is expressing by elaborating on them with other influences is the key to making worthwhile work. Instead of imitating, try to gain a vision on how this can be improved upon within your voice by drawing from what's emotionally resonant to you.

Research Helps You Obtain Vision

Musicians are often unaware that playing a part softer in a vulnerable soft song will help elaborate on the emotion they're trying to convey or composing large dynamics in their song will help reinforce a dichotomy evident in their lyrics. They can't even hear the little inflections in their favorite music since they haven't studied it sufficiently. They've never heard the difference between a soft drum hit to start a song and a big one that determines emotion. They don't know the nuance of a dark cymbal making the mood of a song darker than a bright one. Too many musicians have never put the time in to hear what emotions they can convey by playing a different gauge of string, using less treble on their tone, or putting a quiver or more breath on their vocal. They simply hope it works out instead of choosing intentionally.

Research allows you to obtain this vision. As you research, you can begin to find the subtle shades in sound that can help your vision of how to express yourself emotionally. If you know the tools at your disposal, you can expand on performances to reinforce your emotional intent.

This is an excerpt of the book Processing Creativity: The Tools, Practices And Habits Used To Make Music You’re Happy With. If you would like to download an excerpt or buy a copy you can do so here.