Developing musical creativity: Music design

Where does original music come from? For people who can make it, it often feels easy. For those who cannot, it may feel impossible.

Imagine this: every time I practice musical creativity, I am tending my musical garden. I start by wandering. I play little bits of music I have improvised and designed before, removing weeds from areas my fingers have not been in a while, until I discover a new bud. Some new, closely related idea I haven’t considered before. And I begin to play with it, nurturing it, seeing where it leads. Parts of the garden that I used to tend to have withered, but they would come back with a little love. On the whole, it is thriving better than ever. Everyone’s garden is unique. You can tell when something comes from mine. Sometimes I choose to take one of my plants, prune and polish it, and send a copy to friends or post it online. Where did that composition come from? It came from fifteen years of tending my garden. When I write music, I do not start from scratch. I start with my garden.

The purpose of teaching musical creativity should not be to teach students to follow certain steps in order to produce a product. It should be to help students to start their garden. To teach them to tend it, and show them what is possible.

So how do you help students start their garden?

Every student already has a garden. Every musical experience they have ever had planted a seed. Every student has a unique collection of seeds. And some students may already have some plants growing. The first step is to walk around their garden with them, finding out as best you can what is already there.

Music design is creating original music through an iterative process. Every student has a different garden, but the process for making it thrive is the same. The first phase of music design development is becoming comfortable using each of three sub-processes:

  1. Imagine (vision, purpose, performers, audience)
  2. Make (gather and improvise loops, samples, field recordings, beats, chords, melodies, bass lines, lyrics etc.)
  3. Iterate (assemble, combine, transform, listen, assess, refine, structure, cut, edit, polish)

This is not typically a linear sequence. By the time you finish, you may jump between these processes 100 times.

The clearer your vision, the easier the rest of the design process becomes. But being able to develop a clear vision before you begin comes with experience, and even experienced designers often find it easier to discover a vision through experimentation than in the abstract. Listening to music can help.

Making can mean trying to realize what you imagined. Or it can be doing things at random. Or it can be exploring different loops, samples, and other sounds. Or improvising.

Unlike some iterative design processes, with music, you can try something, listen to it, and make changes in rapid succession. You can do this by improvising the same basic idea over and over and refining it. Or you can do it by putting ideas into music software.

For steps 2 and 3, you will need some kind of tool. Increasingly, musicians are using software tools. For phase one, focus on getting comfortable with just one tool, such as a specific DAW.

Gather preexisting material from various websites, or improvise your own. Arrange the materials in a way that you like. Remember, there is no right or wrong way. It’s up to you. As before, start simply. You just want to get comfortable with the processes. And don’t judge your designs in comparison to the works of others. Then iterate.

The beginning is the hardest part because you are starting from scratch. What if your musical ideas don’t fit together well? Simplify and prune. Take your favorite idea, cut everything else back, and try to build around that. Experiment. Don’t have any ideas? Revisit your seeds. What music do you love? What ideas can you borrow? Figure out what you like, and prune what you do not. This is how a garden begins.

Once your garden has enough momentum, designing music will feel comfortable. At this point, you are entering phase two of development. If you want to continue growing as a designer, practice designing music in new musical styles and contexts and going deeper on familiar ones. In no time, your garden will flourish.


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