Craft, Creativity, & Customization

In this article, I'm going to share with you 3 essential and very effective concepts for making music that I teach and help execute with my current students.

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3 Keys to Successfully Writing Music

Creating music is a wonderfully satisfying experience that not only can be appreciated and performed by the Composer, but by the listener as well. In this article, I'm going to share with you 3 essential and very effective concepts for making music that I teach and help execute with my current students.

*If you're skeptical about the teachability of creating music, then I recommend you read my stance on the subject HERE first.

1. Craft

This could be considered the grunt work. Learning your Music Theory, Counterpoint, Ear-Training, Arranging, Orchestrating, etc. However, just learning something isn't good enough if you want to be able to accurately express everything you want in music.

You have to practically apply everything you learn so that it becomes ingrained in your creative self. This is partially on your instructor, but most of the responsibility falls on you. That's why the 3 P's (Patience, Passion, and Persistence) are so important to your musical development.

What does it mean to practically apply something musical? In my lessons I approach it as is best for my student (will touch more on this in the customization section), however there are two main ways of practically applying something you just learned musically.

The first is to listen to and play through examples that utilize the technique/concept you just learned. For example, if you've just found out what a Tritone substitution is then you should listen to many different styles that use this concept, play through them, and analyze why/how they work. (This is as far as a majority of the Good music schools will go). Perhaps even more importantly, analyze what you love or hate about it and how you can integrate this new musical concept into your own music (If you even want to at all!).

The second thing to do is to actually use it in your music. Write a few short examples (or perhaps an entire song) utilizing this new concept. For the first few examples you write, make them more traditional so you understand where the concept originates. However, after that feel free to put your own unique twist on the concept. This could mean many different things Change Meter (Maybe even Polymeter?), Tempo, Key, Styles, Orchestration etc.

2. Creativity

I can already hear the cries of blasphemy on this one (haha), but before you skip ahead or begin to close your mind on this matter hear me out. Creativity in most cultures is something that people tend to believe one is born with or without. Furthermore, because it's believed that you're born with or without Creativity (as if it was a quantifiable gift), it's concluded that Creativity can't be practiced. In addition to this, the theory of Right & Left Brain can falsely lead one to the conclusion that there would now be a set physical limitation on ones ability to be creative. However, I challenge this belief with two simple questions

1) How do you measure Creativity? 2) Are you in control of your own Creativity?

As for the first question, I'm unaware of any specific physical instrument that is able to accurately measure one's Creativity. Sure the Right & Left Brain theory explains which hemisphere controls what function, but does that infer an ability to physically measure that function's effectiveness? No. In fact, this theory actually makes the issue even more complex. The Theory states (and most people know that) the Right Brain tends to be more intuitive while the Left is analytical.

However, did you know that Music is understood in a non-musician's brain as living in the Right Hemisphere, where as Music is understood in a musician's brain as living in the Left Hemisphere? How could this be? you may say. I thought Creativity is a Right Brain only thing and music is surely a product of Creativity right? If you were saying or thinking anything like the following, then you'd be both right and wrong. Music is surely a product of being Creative, but chances are that your understanding of Creativity is slightly skewed.

This is probably because Creativity means different things to different people. In fact, if you look up Creativity in different dictionaries there is a high probability that each one will have a slightly varied definition of the word. Some simply mention it is A state of being creative, in which we then have to define creative. Often this is defined as Someone who creates. Following this logical thread, we find that to create is simply The act of bringing something into existence. So is Creativity our ability to simply bring something into existence? Is someone more Creative than another because they have brought more into existence than the other?

To further complicate this matter, some dictionaries define Creativity as the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc. As you can see, this dictionary's definition conflicts with our previous definition of Creativity as it states that transcending traditional ideas, rules, patterns, etc. is actually Creativity rather than the ability to bring something into existence. Which is the right one?

The answer lies within both definitions. Both definitions seem to infer a balance of Left & Right Brain function. Absolutely it is true that unique and divergent ideas are a part of creating music (Right Brain), but it is also true that analyzing, arranging, and detailing are a part of the music making process (Left Brain). It is then easier to see why a professional musician may use their Left Brain more than the right, because they now understand certain musical concepts (Theory, Arranging, Orchestration, etc.) and after the initial intuitive rough draft, they come back and analyze/organize the music so it is coherent and expresses their intent as clearly as possible.

Now are we in control of this Creativity? If you answer No, we are not in control of our creativity, then I ask you What is the point of Brainstorming sessions? If we are truly not in control of our Creativity, then why waste our time sitting down and trying to solve issues with unique/original concepts and then attempting to bring those ideas into existence? We've already concluded that Creativity is a mix of Left/Right Brain function, so by saying No, you're essentially stating I will wait and it will happen on it's own. I don't know about you, but I personally am not one to willingly sit by and wait/hope for something to happen if I truly want it to.

With this said, I would like to re-state that random inspiration can occur. Sometimes you're not looking for great unique/original ideas, but they come to you randomly anyway. In these cases at least a small portion of it was not in your control, but the important thing to consider is What will you do with that inspiration now?

So, now that we have a little bit better understand of what Creativity is and that we can control it at least to a certain degree, I'd like to share with you a few techniques for practicing to expand your ability to be creative.

1. Bursts of Writing

A. For 30 or 60 second intervals you should write down as many song titles, ideas, themes, etc. as you possibly can.

B. A lot of these ideas will come forth intuitively. If you think/analyze too much here, then it will hinder the exercise and your growth. Never erase anything, even if you think it sounds dumb!

2. Observation

A. Look, listen, feel, smell the world around you and document it in absolute detail.

B. This, unlike the previous exercise, is helping you intellectually/consciously develop the connection between your senses and how you express them.

3. Make it Happen

A. Turn this collected data into something bring it into existence.

B. Through your knowledge of Music Theory (Harmony, Counterpoint, etc.), Ear-Training, & Musical intuition, it's time to answer questions like What does an aromatic, velvety-red rose sound like? An exercise like this trains both your intellectual process and musical intuition.

3. Customization

The last subject I would like to discuss is that of customizing your lessons and creative process. At the beginning, it's very beneficial to have an instructor guide you along this path and create custom content that caters towards your goals (although in all honesty, it can be useful for all musicians of any level).

Eventually through tons of practice and guidance from an understanding instructor, you'll be able to not only recognize but conceive of and execute your own customizable practice plans.

It's true that a majority of all people who ever pick up an instrument or try to write their own music give up after 6 months of trying on their own. The key to surviving through this period of unbearable ignorance is a supportive and understanding instructor (a bad one can make you want to quit too I did when I first began taking lessons). A great instructor is then able to help you thrive after that point so you're able to quickly reach your goals with high quality results.

To better help yourself and your instructor guide you towards accomplishing these goals, I recommend asking yourself and answering the following questions in detail so that you may be better aware of who you are, what motivates you, and how you learn best.

1) Realistically, how bad do you want to accomplish your goals? Are you willing to do anything to accomplish them?

2) Why do you want to accomplish your goals? What do you hope to gain from reaching them?

3) Have you found that you accomplish more when people are supporting and encouraging you, or when others think you can't do it and you're out to prove to yourself that you can?

4) Are you the type of person that needs to physically play something before memorizing? Can you just hear something and understand it, or must you have a visual representation of that which you're trying to learn?

5) What inspires you to create music? When you see people, a situation, a painting, hear birds overhead, smell pastries from a bakery what do you do? What triggers the music in your brain to play?

I hope some of you take away quite a bit from this article, even if it is controversial and you don't agree with some of the points/conclusions. I only ask that before you pass judgement on any one thing, that you at least give it a fair trial. Try these things out and honestly evaluate your music making abilities before and after attempting the techniques mentioned above.

If you truly want to be able to create music, but have yet to see improvement after trying these techniques by yourself, then get in contact with me HERE. I will work with you so that you better understand how to practice and improve your ability to create music and hopefully move yourself that much closer to expressing whatever it is you want.

Thanks for reading and keep composing fellow artists!

Kole is a Composer for Media, Guitarist, and Instructor living in Los Angeles, CA. To find out more you can visit his main site here: www.KoleMusician.com

Copyright 2010 Kole (Kyle Hicks). All rights reserved.

22 comments sorted by best / new / date

    CoreysMonster
    "1) Realistically, how bad do you want to accomplish your goals? Are you willing to do anything to accomplish them? " In other words, are you willing to pay tons of money to somebody like this guy or any other of these stupid Tom Hess descendants for them to teach you absolutely nothing?
    Metal_Master_0
    This article, advertisement or not, is pretty good. I had the blessing of my first instructor being the best one possible because everything in this article (and more) he taught me. Although I never got into theory with him, he set a foundation and taught me how to build, instead of building it for me. The only thing I disagree with is the 'burst writing'. I think you should just let music flow from your heart & soul, because that's how the best music is made.
    RadioMuse
    I quite like this article. Other than some phrases that people are injecting their own emotional skew into there's nothing worded like an advertisement here. As a guitarist who's never had a paid lesson in his life (though I have taken music theory and musicology classes in college, those have little to nothing to do with instrumental performance), reading articles like this just help remind me to keep trying. I only write songs I like once in a great while, but I find that the more time I spend on it the more results I get. Same for just playing or dealing with theory. There's no mystery to how the best songwriters, musicians, artists, engineers, lawyers, and bankers became the best: they all worked hard for it, invested massive amounts of time/energy/money, and specialized their abilities to suit their craft. Erasing the illusion that artistic goals are in any way different than more tangible academic or societal ones is a worthy cause. Even if they want you to buy their lessons...
    krypticguitar87
    CoreysMonster : vidieowiz4 wrote: CoreysMonster wrote: "1) Realistically, how bad do you want to accomplish your goals? Are you willing to do anything to accomplish them? " In other words, are you willing to pay tons of money to somebody like this guy or any other of these stupid Tom Hess descendants for them to teach you absolutely nothing? I actually believe he meant are you willing to put in the time to learn music theory, Aranging, training your ear, etc. No, because that's the exact same thing that Tom Hess had aaaall over his articles and all over his website. "Are you willing to do anything to get to where you want to go?" Is all over these guys' websites, and it's so OBVIOUSLY just to sell their lessons.
    Dude I'm not gonna lie, this guy never said in this to buy his product or to start taking lessons with him he merely stated the way he feels about the subject. I don't feel like He's asking me to pay him for anything, it just seems like he was trying to teach something. The closest i can see in this is that he advertises who he is (not really a big deal since someone may be looking for a new instructor) and he says he may be able to help anyone who happens to be struggling. I would agree with you if he finished with, "If you answered any of these questions with a 'yes' then contact me now so we can get you started!"... but he didn't.
    Sabscope
    I really like this article - reading your other, defending your point of view, I think you should really impress the 'tools' view of 'learning creativity', as it's the same way I think of it - some people think that learning theory, ear-training, arrangment etc would somehow limit their ability to be creative. However, once you've learnt that all theory does is tell you that the cool riff you just came up with is in G minor or whatever, and did you know that these chords are the traditional choices for that key, you can use these, or some less traditional ones etc etc. Anyway, slightly off-topic there, but generally, good stuff.
    crazysam23_Atax
    CoreysMonster wrote: vidieowiz4 wrote: CoreysMonster wrote: "1) Realistically, how bad do you want to accomplish your goals? Are you willing to do anything to accomplish them? " In other words, are you willing to pay tons of money to somebody like this guy or any other of these stupid Tom Hess descendants for them to teach you absolutely nothing? I actually believe he meant are you willing to put in the time to learn music theory, Aranging, training your ear, etc. No, because that's the exact same thing that Tom Hess had aaaall over his articles and all over his website. "Are you willing to do anything to get to where you want to go?" Is all over these guys' websites, and it's so OBVIOUSLY just to sell their lessons.
    With all due respect, when have you ever seen Kole charging for anything? Everything has been released on UG as far as I know.
    MrVaffel
    adstr123 wrote: Music is an inherently a right-brain thing. You state that professional musicians use their left-hand side brain as they already know musical concepts. True.... But GOOD musicians try to come up with new, unique exciting things, never using their left brain to simply regurgitate what has come before. Thus basically an entire third of your article is a waste of time, imo.
    If you listen to the guy's music you can see that there is some right brain missing
    adstr123
    Music is an inherently a right-brain thing. You state that professional musicians use their left-hand side brain as they already know musical concepts. True.... But GOOD musicians try to come up with new, unique exciting things, never using their left brain to simply regurgitate what has come before. Thus basically an entire third of your article is a waste of time, imo.
    Deified
    CoreysMonster wrote: No, because that's the exact same thing that Tom Hess had aaaall over his articles and all over his website. "Are you willing to do anything to get to where you want to go?" Is all over these guys' websites, and it's so OBVIOUSLY just to sell their lessons.
    I really hope that Tom Hess and others like him don't make you doubt what some good ear training and music theory knowledge can do for your writing. Because I started learning theory about 2 years ago and it's done wonders for my writing, I would encourage anyone to take the time to learn some things about theory.
    vidieowiz4
    CoreysMonster wrote: "1) Realistically, how bad do you want to accomplish your goals? Are you willing to do anything to accomplish them? " In other words, are you willing to pay tons of money to somebody like this guy or any other of these stupid Tom Hess descendants for them to teach you absolutely nothing?
    I actually believe he meant are you willing to put in the time to learn music theory, Aranging, training your ear, etc.
    Kole*
    Thanks for reading guys and I'm glad the majority of you have found this lesson useful. Happy to help and keep composing! -Kole
    SilverSpurs616
    CoreysMonster wrote: it's so OBVIOUSLY just to sell their lessons.
    And yet here we are getting one for free. I liked this article, thanks to the writer! Given me a lot to think about
    ingames
    Good theories and pat-on-the-back talk. Can someone PLEASE put up examples of these hollow words?
    CoreysMonster
    vidieowiz4 wrote: CoreysMonster wrote: "1) Realistically, how bad do you want to accomplish your goals? Are you willing to do anything to accomplish them? " In other words, are you willing to pay tons of money to somebody like this guy or any other of these stupid Tom Hess descendants for them to teach you absolutely nothing? I actually believe he meant are you willing to put in the time to learn music theory, Aranging, training your ear, etc.
    No, because that's the exact same thing that Tom Hess had aaaall over his articles and all over his website. "Are you willing to do anything to get to where you want to go?" Is all over these guys' websites, and it's so OBVIOUSLY just to sell their lessons.
    cgolden
    I laughed to myself when I saw this post, because talking about how to compose is one of the most ridiculously challenging aspects of music. Composition is more of an innate talent than a learned skill, in my opinion in any regard. However, this article does an excellent job of addressing key aspects of the process to composition. I'm very impressed with this article, because the author avoids bias and advocates theory as the basis of composition, which is absolutely true. I think I have a pretty good knack for composition, but before I took multiple theory courses, and an A.P. course on theory, my work was not nearly as coherent or "good" in any form. Excellent article.
    crazysam23_Atax
    I don't know about y'll, but this article is one of the few that didn't annoy me on some point. Kole knows what he's doing. I look forward to more later. Now that I'm kind of teaching a friend, these articles that cover teaching and learning (student and teacher, so to speak) are definitely more interesting to me. I might use these ideas later on in my teaching.
    eds1275
    CoreysMonster wrote: "1) Realistically, how bad do you want to accomplish your goals? Are you willing to do anything to accomplish them? " In other words, are you willing to pay tons of money to somebody like this guy or any other of these stupid Tom Hess descendants for them to teach you absolutely nothing?
    I haven't seen a Hess article lately... Did he basically get run out of UG? Personally though I'd rather read these articles than Hess'... This felt a LITTLE less like an advertisement than his predecessor's articles did.
    Kole*
    vidieowiz4 wrote: I actually believe he meant are you willing to put in the time to learn music theory, Aranging, training your ear, etc.
    Exactly. This question is essential to answer and overcome, because there will be many moments in one's musical life where they hit a "wall" that seems impossible to pass. If you are willing to do anything to help yourself understand whatever is troubling you musically, then you'll be able to pass over the "wall" that holds so many others back. Thank you for clearing this up, Vidieowiz4.
    pandora_grunt
    Combining psychology and music on an easily accesible level for readers. Nice article. Glad I'm on the right track according to this nice piece of writing. To all the haters. This guy knows what he is talking about. I suggest you try out his ideas. Or atleast read the article without focussing on the words that COULD COME ACROSS as PROMOTION.