Yesterday I happened to catch a radio program with an interview of Jonah Lehrer, whose work I’ve blogged about before. Lehrer recently published a book called Imagine, How Creativity Works. Lehrer’s book and the interview are at least partially focused on how innovated companies inspire creativity in their employees, but I find much of what Lehrer comments on to be relevant to finding inspiration and creativity in musical composition as well. Lehrer said:
Moments of insight are a very-well studied psychological phenomenon with two defining features. The answer comes out of the blue – when we least expect it. … [And] as soon as the answer arrives we know this is the answer we’ve been looking for. … The answer comes attached with a feeling of certainty, it feels like a revelation. These are the two defining features of a moment of insight, and they do seem to play a big role in creativity.
I’ve found that when composing music the correct idea I’ve been looking for often appears suddenly, sometimes after a long period of struggling with finding the perfect phrase. And when it does come it also frequently feels correct. I just know that this phrase is exactly what I was looking for.
But having this sudden burst of insight doesn’t always come so easily. You can, however, put yourself in a frame of mind that will allow it to happen. Being in a relaxed state of mind and a good mood are useful. When you’re in a spiral of “composer’s block” simply plugging away with frustration isn’t going to allow you to find the creative solution you’re after.
When you look at where insights come from, they come from where we least expect them. They only arrive after we stop looking at them. If you’re an engineer working on a problem and you’re stumped by your technical problem, chugging caffeine at your desk and chaining yourself to your computer, you’re going to be really frustrated. You’re going to waste lots of time. You may look productive, but you’re actually wasting time. Instead, at that moment, you should go for a walk. You should play some ping-pong. You should find a way to relax.
That said, there also needs to be some effort applied to the problem before the flash of insight is ready to come out. It may be beneficial, or even essential, to try to tease out the phrase for a while before stepping away from your composition. Your mind will continue to unconsciously work on your composition while you’re otherwise distracted on something different.
It would be wonderful if the recipe for all kinds of creativity was to take showers and play ping-pong and go on vacation and go for walks on the beach, but when you really talk to people in the creative business, they want to tell their romantic stories about the epiphanies but then if you push them, they say even that epiphany had to go through lots of edits on it and iterations and lots of hard work after we have the big idea. And that’s a big part of the creative process too, and it is not as fun. In fact, there’s evidence that it makes us melancholy and a little bit depressed. But it’s a crucial part in creating something interesting and worthwhile.
Lehrer mentions a couple of times in the interview how the shower is a fertile place for insights for a lot of people, something I’ve found to be personally true as well. One of my regular composing schedules is to work early in the morning, over coffee and before showering. After spending an hour or so composing, I will take a break to shower. Particularly if I’m struggling to work out a transition or laboring away at a particular phrase I find that a long, relaxing shower is the right time and place for the correct idea to come to me in a sudden flash of insight.
You can listen to Lehrer’s entire interview here and read an excerpt from his book here. I’ve also blogged about overcoming composer’s block before, where you can read some similar and additional thoughts on inspiration and creativity in composition.