I’ve been writing down small music (and other) ideas for over 20 years. I’ve generally struggled to store, organize, and retrieve them effectively. As I was going through my archives recently, it dawned on me that there are two fundamental types of ideas: one is “concrete” and the other is “meta.”
A concrete idea is specific and actionable. It may be a chord progression like:
A minor for two and a half bars, then a G major chord for half a bar. 132 beats per minute, 4/4 time…
I could record it, add some melodies to it, add some other sections, and eventually ship this completed song.
This post will focus on the other type, the 💡💡meta idea💡💡.
- The definition of “meta idea”
- How to act on meta ideas
- Categorization of types of meta ideas
- My meta ideas
- Others’ meta ideas - brief discussion and lots of resources
What is a “Meta Idea”?
A meta idea is an instruction that, if acted on, could generate a concrete idea. Some analogies:
- It’s like a 3D printer and its design capabilities
- In the programming world, a meta idea is like an object-oriented class, and the concrete idea is an instantiation of the class. Object-oriented programming - Wikipedia
Here are some examples to illustrate what a meta idea is:
- “Write a new jazz melody a day”
- “Start your songwriting process with a drum beat and add parts from there”
- “Read through an old journal entry once a week to get into that mindset and write down your impressions”
- “Listen to an album you like, pick a moment you like, and come up with a variation on that moment”
- “Use a random word/music generator” like this one
(There will be a lot more examples later.)
None of these examples are Top 40 song ideas or best-selling novel ideas. None of them contain artistic content. Your action on them though may lead to creating one!
Often when someone offers composition and songwriting advice, it’s in the form of meta ideas. There’s really no shortage of these. As with most advice, the power is acting on them, not merely acknowledging them. How do we do that?
Acting on Meta Ideas
For the naturally creative mind of a child, the creative act is mostly effortless. For adults, a creative flow can be difficult to reliably acquire - for many, it can be blocked entirely (the infamous “writer’s block”).
The recommendations of great creative minds, like Stephen Pressfield in his “War of Art” will remind us of the “1% inspiration, 99% perspiration” dogma. Put your ass in the chair at the same time every day and “do the work.” I’ve been rebelling against this wisdom for a long time. I thought spontaneous inspiration was the supreme Ideal of idea creation.
Scott Adams in “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life” explains that systems beat ideas. Having a creative habit is better than a single amazing idea.
Aside: Derek Sivers’ book summaries are the bomb.
Given this wisdom and the distinction between meta and concrete ideas - I now separate the creative act into two approaches.
- The first is simply going with some particular concrete idea if I’m consumed by it at the moment.
- The other is to regularly take advantage of the many meta ideas that are out there (and yet to be created).
Can meta ideas be prescriptive or formulaic? Absolutely. Part of the creative process is making something interesting from simple instructions. Another part of the process is making meta ideas personal. Which meta ideas are most inspiring to you? If none, can you come up with some (perhaps by using divergent thinking)? You won’t know unless you put in the work.
Here’s a non-exhaustive list of categories in which meta ideas may be classified (with a focus on music):
- Generator tools - like this one
- Question prompts
- Limits, boundaries, distinctions, confines
Non-art (conversations, philosophy, business, news, politics, any domain of human knowledge)
- your psychology: dreams, opinions, emotional reactions
- Aesthetics in general (simplicity vs complexity, experimental vs conservative)
- Collaboration, Audiences, performers
- Non-music art forms (words, poetry, stories, non-fiction, visual)
- Existing music (which can be used as a springboard)
Music theory concepts
- “Sonic” - texture, timbre, music-concrete, instrumentations, genres
My Meta Ideas
One beautiful thing about meta ideas is that no one can really copyright them. There’s nothing to steal. They’re basically suggestions. You only get out of them what you put into them. So, I’m happy to share my meta ideas here and will update this page with new ones. (Organizing this list will be an ongoing process.)
General / non-music
Limits and boundaries. Ideas can come from anywhere. As soon as you define a boundary, you have something to work with. If you’re limited to a very small space, you’re more likely to find some interesting details, rather than taking a large swath of something.
- Example: Look through https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Astronomy. Use the first word that strikes you as an analogy or metaphor in a lyric.
Aesthetics - a paraphrased quote from Chef’s Table. Creativity has to be new. Every parameter has to change. Doing what’s been done before isn’t creativity. Is that avant-garde? Or is avant-garde not new anymore?
Getting the creative mind warmed up in other ways
- Drawing, painting, sculpture, etc - Visual arts - Wikipedia
- Acting, standup comedy, improv
Songwriting / lyrical ideas
- Analyzing dreams - great songwriting material.
- Nassim Taleb. Antifragile, etc. Such good stuff.
- Work on political album. Responses to people. What’s bad. What’s good. Stream of consciousness.
Composition / Music Theory
- use random music generators (shameless plug)
- Negative harmony (just google/duckduckgo/ecosia it.)
- Sample my favorite moments from Schoenburg pieces: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=voyLno0HdoA
- Subtractive composition. Start with the busiest part of the song. Make it as minimal as possible. Then decompose it to create the rest of the song. add variety as needed.
- Write music for middle school. If you can write music that sounds great and is simple to play, you’ll have a HUGE audience for it.
- Any simple melody, harmony, or rhythm could have an interesting counterpart.
- DON’T follow tendency tones. They make my melodies too predictable. (and write a post about “What I Had to unlearn from music school”.)
Arrange it Yourself
- Have a bunch of old, unfinished ideas? What if you put the work on the performers to arrange the idea? What I’d provide is 1-2 pages of description and original guitar tab / notation. Can include suggested scales, form, instrumentation, tempi, song or artist influences. As many piano staves as necessary. Performers wing it or prepare something. Record it. Give them credit. Give prizes to the best arrangements.
Pitch classes are merely structural guide tones.
I want to make “bored” music. Why should music have to be “emotional” all the time? I just want to write my music and get it over with. If people don’t like it, who cares?
Check on Evernote - got a lot of writings I haven’t looked at in a while.
- sometimes just looking over old ideas is inspiring. Why don’t I schedule that and do it regularly?
Write songs with fewer choruses or none at all.
Ginastera. List of tone rows Wiki https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_tone_rows_and_series
Album / genre ideas
- Instrumental album called Information Overload
- songs about over-achievement, being compulsive about impressing people
- groove album - all instrumental, get a jazz-expert to help me turn them into song forms with melodies and interesting sections
- Do jazz covers of rock songs
What to do with “improvs” - turn them into classical guitar pieces. Duh! Why didn’t I think of that 10 years ago?
- An album called Mistakes and All. All improvs.
- Write serial jazz. Has it been done before? How does one go about doing that?
Got interesting results with a student by choosing from a list of random chord qualities, and random root notes. (One of the many moments that inspired the random music generators app.)
- write a new melody for existing chords (or vice versa)
- Alternate tuning
- Playing mostly on the lower strings
- Play my partner some old songs, see what she thinks
- Imagine you’re playing for a small group of friends.
- Find musicians that want to be record A LOT of music. Quantity, just excited about making music.
Meetup idea: recording musicians who can trade their services
- Echo - second voice repeats shortly after the first
- Register - theme in bass, or other voice shift
- Rhythmic Displacement - starting on a different beat or subdivision
- Function Change - melody becomes background
Harmony & Accompaniment
- mode areas: changing a key or mode (parallel or relative, natural/melodic//harmonic minor) with form (see modulation)
- stylistic - altering the rhythmic feel of a melody or piece to be “straight,” “swing,” or “latin,” etc.
- sets - using serial trichords, tetrachords, etc. example: the famous
jazz voicing ideas:
- shell voicing - root, third, seventh (no fifth, can omit root)
- extensions - add 9th, 11th, 13th, etc.
- quartal - 1, 4, b7, b10, b13, etc, the “So What” chord
- quintal - 1, 5, 9, 13 etc
- parallelism - chromatic or diatonic
- locked hands/tonicization - alternating a sixth chord with a diminished 7th chord diatonically
- octave changes - drop 2, drop 4, drop 2+4,etc
- multiple functions - the “Jim Hall” chord: 1, #4, 7, 10, b13
- Juxtaposition - Stravinsky’s musical organization as a “block structure” and that “within such a framework, two or more blocks of relatively heterogeneous content are repeatedly and often abruptly juxtaposed.”
- Traditional Forms: Binary, Ternary, Rondo, Theme+Variations, Sonata, Fugue, Passacaglia, etc
Others’ Meta Ideas
Generating Ideas, in general
- How to Build a Creative Mind That Will Never Run Out of New Ideas
- New Ideas - Strategies and Techniques - Creativity Tools From MindTools.com
- The 6 Simplest Ways to Generate Great Ideas
- 10 Great Ways to Generate Business Ideas
- Tim Hurson talks about Productive Thinking - YouTube
- Convergent Thinking Versus Divergent Thinking - YouTube
- Productive Thinking: Creative Thinking, Critical Thinking, Problem-Solving, and Logic/Reasoning PDF
- War of Art - by Stephen Pressfield | Derek Sivers
- How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big - by Scott Adams | Derek Sivers
- Tools of Titans - by Tim Ferriss | Derek Sivers
Many famous composers and improvisors have written about their systems of idea generation. Here are some that have struck me in particular, but there are treasure troves of interviews, articles, books, and videos that can be sources of inspiration:
- Variation Techniques for Composers and Improvisors - 2002 - Larry J. Solomon
- Creativity and Self Expression - Tom Hess
- 3 Productivity Tricks To Improve Your Songwriting
- Writing better lyrics (notes on Pattison’s book) – Oxford Songwriting
- Inspiration | The Essential Secrets of Songwriting
- The Advancing Guitarist - by Mick Goodrick | jazzguitarlessons.net
- Mode of limited transposition (Olivier Messiaen) - Wikipedia
- Approaches to Improvisation - The Jazz Piano Site
Paul Simon on Songwriting
My favorite passage:
“I have gone through different phases in my music writing. There was a time when I used a little exercise - incorporating all of the 12 notes in the chromatic scale - to get me going. In serial, or 12-tone, writing the writer had to use all of the notes before he could repeat a note, so the centre key was blown away. but what I was doing was more for the fun of it, I got the idea from Carlos Jobim. I used to analyze his music, and one day I realized that he was using every note in the scale.”
Brian Eno on Creativity
- Developing Your Creative Practice: Tips from Brian Eno - Adobe 99U
Oblique Strategies (subtitled Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas) is a card-based method for promoting creativity jointly created by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt, first published in 1975. Each card contains a gnomic suggestion, aphorism or remark which can be used to break a deadlock or dilemma situation. A few are specific to music composition; others are more general.
Share your Meta Ideas
Have any suggestions or ideas of your own? Please contact me.