A few posts ago I wrote about creativity, and decided the definition of creativity I liked best was Ken Russell’s: ‘The process of having original ideas that have value’
I also listed a few of the characteristics of a creative songwriter (Take a look at the post for more detail):
You’re not afraid to fail
You make unexpected connections
You challenge the listener
You have a wide musical pallette
Your style changes
This post is going to look at how you might use your skills of creativity to find inspiration from a given source. It takes inspiration from a teaching exercise I’ll tell you about below, but also from this blog post about creativity and how limitations can help.
Starry Starry Night
The Vincent Van Gogh picture at the top of the post famously provided inspiration for Don McLean’s ‘Vincent’. It was also used by my head of department at work to challenge us to be creative. We were shown the picture and asked to come up with teaching tasks, for any subject, based on the picture.
There are lots of obvious tasks – in music or art you could use the picture for inspiration as McLean did, painting in the same style, or writing a piece inspired by the scene or painter.
Once we’d exhausted the obvious list we were challenged to go further. Ideas we came up with included:
Music – split the piece into horizontal strips and play it like a graphic score.
– You could plot the stars and other points onto a score and use those points for the contour of a melody or rhythm.
Maths – Draw triangles between the stars and use them to teach about triangle theory
Science – Astronomy of course, but also something about colour perception or synesthesia
PE – the shapes could be used to plot an obstacle course
Food Tech – Design and cook the menu that Van Gogh might have eaten while looking out at that scene
Now to Songwriting
How could we apply this exercise to songwriting? As we sat staring at the picture I found myself doing some very clear and simply things: I systematically went through the possible subjects we teach at our school, attempting to find an activity for each of them. I also turned the picture round to see it from different angles, treating it sometimes as abstract shapes, sometimes making use of it’s possible meanings.
To generalise that to music, rather than subjects we might use different elements of the song and ask, how can we get a melody from the picture? A chord sequence? A structure? A lyric? A rhythm? An arrangement?
As well as the musical ideas I’ve already mentioned, here are some more ideas:
You could have a musical idea to represent different parts of the picture. So a regular, structured back beat or riff could represent the buildings, a swirling melody could represent the swirls of colour in the sky and lush unexpected chords could punctuate that melody as the stars do. If I was to compose that I’d probably produce a loop based piece with different layers appearing to represent the different parts of the picture.
Moving left to right the stars follow this sequence – 1 low, 1 high, I low, 2 high, 3 at the same time, 1 high, pause…. high low high. That could easily be turned into a loop or melodic idea that could be developed.
Chords? Rotate the picture 90 degrees clockwise and take just the top portion – there are five patches of colour, the third and fourth of which are a very similar shade of blue. Perhaps each patch of colour is a different chord, darker shades minor and light shades major, with the two similar sections representing the same chord?
Lyrics? Of course there are all sorts of characters who might be looking out at this scene – Van Gogh might be well known but you could always imagine another character and tell their story. You could describe the scene, or get more creative and take inspiration from the names of the things painted: Building, sky, star, blue, tree, hill, church, spire.
The possibilities are endless, and will be coloured by the attitude you have to music. For me, being as far from a visual thinker as one can get, this was a real challenge but a rewarding one. It forced me to think and to find ideas in places I usually wouldn’t look.
How would you use this picture to inspire you?