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It has been in my head for so long.
I am a visual artist, animator, I do motion graphics, 3D artwork and most of my work is done visually. I am puzzled by this question. Visual artists, they draw their inspiration from everyday life. their vision. Things we see or even imagine. Something within what we see is so profound and true, that when is moved to the paper, canvas, digital world makes a perfect sense and people feel that beauty. We of course can manipulate what we see. Interpret it.

What I don't get is where do amazing composers, musicians find their scores and melodies? I mean, if it weren't for the TV, digital world, papers, art magazines etc, a visual artist would still have his/her eyes to experience our world and have something to interpret. But music? Although I can see patterns of rhythm in nature... I can't hear any music playing in nature! (which is purely mathematical AFAIK, notes have a precise order with a mathematical definition of the wavelength between them)

How and where do you guys come up with those astounding melodies and artworks?

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Reminds me of the answer some 20th-century writer gave, after being asked for the gazillionth time where he got his story ideas. He explained how he went to a beautiful, isolated cabin in the woods w/ a view of mountains etc etc; thus leading the audience to imagine he's going to explain about meditation and idea growth. Then he says, " and down the trail, under a rock, is a hidden wooden chest. I open that up and take out a new idea for my next book." PWND. –  Carl Witthoft Jun 3 '13 at 11:37
    
@Matthew Read -- no complaints about changing my note to a comment. I did sort of look at it as having a "hidden answer" inside the parable, but no big deal. –  Carl Witthoft Jun 3 '13 at 19:58
    
@CarlWitthoft I thought that too, just that it was too hidden :P –  Matthew Read Jun 3 '13 at 21:34
    
@MatthewRead - I am not fully understanding the motivation for the bounty - are you looking for something more for an answer? –  jjmusicnotes Jun 6 '13 at 7:41
    
@jjmusicnotes No, once the 24-hour waiting period is up I'm giving to slim. It would make more sense if such bounties could be awarded instantly but I think they're trying to prevent rep abuse by keeping some visibility. –  Matthew Read Jun 6 '13 at 14:42
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10 Answers

But there are rhythms, harmonies and melodies in nature.

When you walk, you establish a nice solid beat. Two beats to the bar, at its most basic level - but by adjusting your gait or the way you count, you can think of it as four beats, or three, or as many as you like. Skipping brings in different rhythms.

The musical intervals that make up melodies are based on fundamental physical properties of nature. An octave is what you get when you halve the length of a string (or other source of pitched vibration). A fifth is what you get from a third of the lengths. These harmonics are present in the pitches of nature.

When the wind blows through the rocks and trees, you can hear tones and their harmonics, coming in and out of focus. Those pitches also "fall out" of instruments - the first time you stretch a string across a sounding box and start plucking it, you will find them.

Of course, there are cultural inputs too. Speech feeds into music, influencing both melody and rhythm. It's pretty easy to see how conversational speech leads to chanting and poetry, which leads to singing, which leads to melody.

Then add millennia of cultural feedback and technology. All sorts of things go into the mix, from the dripping of water in a cave, to the rhythm of a horse-drawn loom, the clatter of train wheels against tracks, to the sounds made when a transistor-based oscillator is fed through a loudspeaker.

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@Ted - as slim says, there is music everywhere. Composers are steeped in it the way painters are steeped in color. Also, most composers continuously "hear" music in their inner-ear (called "audiation".) In addition, we use theoretical knowledge and history to develop what we want. There is a saying that amateurs wait for inspiration - and it's true. We must continually create our own inspiration, and use theory to work through putting things into action. Not trying to piggy-back slim, just didn't think it appropriate to start a whole new answer. :) –  jjmusicnotes Jun 3 '13 at 15:03
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When asked about how "masterworks" are created, Nadia Boulanger, a French composition pedagogue during the 20th century, had this to say:

"I can tell whether a piece is well-made or not, and I believe that there are conditions without which masterpieces cannot be achieved, but I also believe that what defines a masterpiece cannot be pinned down. I won't say that the criterion for a masterpiece does not exist, but I don't know what it is."

Of course, the original question is specific to wonderful melodies, but really, melodies are no different from the composition process than anything else, and much like the composition process varies greatly from composer to composer, so too is the fickle creature of inspiration ceremoniously wrangled and subdued for a moment.

For composers like Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Schubert, writing was very easy and came intuitively. Other composers like Beethoven, Brahms, and Joan Tower labor relentlessly, tearing themselves asunder in the pursuit of their art.

Brahms once wrote that he would have given anything to write the melody for the Blue Danube Waltz, yet he wrote the "lullaby" melody we all sing when we are children.

Scriabin described writing as if he was looking behind a mystical curtain into a land of unfathomable possibilities. Picasso described painting like vomiting and indigestion. It has nothing to do with music, but I find his description hilarious.


As other answers have pointed out, musicians are drawn to sounds around them - whether naturally occurring or synthetic. We spend out lives dealing in sound. So, the lady speaking Japanese next to us that you're tuning out? Yeah, I'm distracted. Instances like the one I just mentioned may be attributed to the theory of multiple intelligences, for which I am a solid proponent.

Just like you deal with visuals daily and naturally understand balance but are similarly confused by music composition, so easily would a musician be able to respond as acutely to your profession in kind. It's just what we do.

When people have heard a piece of mine for a large ensemble, let's say an orchestra, they might say to me afterward, "How did you think of all of those sounds? How did you hear all of those sounds?"

Much like drawing, architecture, painting, or other mediums, you start with broad strokes, broad sketches, and gradually add more detail as things progress. It happens in layers and it does not happen from left to right - much in the same way you do not sculpt from the top to the bottom of a piece of rock in complete finished detail.

In my comment, I alluded to waiting for inspiration and audiation, which I will discuss further in the next page break.


Though you talk about melodies in your question, your question is actually about inspiration. I will limit the scope of my answer to address melodies, though my comments may be extrapolated to include other elements as well.

Inspiration for Melodies may be evident is several forms:

  • External Stimulus (elevator, siren, cell phone)
  • Internal Stimulus (self-hearing -> a.k.a "audiation")
  • Pre-existing from a composer's scrap catalogue
  • Pre-existing from a composer's previous complete work
  • Pre-existing from another composer's previous complete work
  • Aleatoricism (chance operations)
  • Serialism (order and control)
  • Pure Compositional Exercise (using theoretical knowledge)

This list is not comprehensive, but should provide a good foundation. I believe most of the above items are self-explanatory, but I will briefly describe aleatoricism and serialism further.

Aleatoricism is a process by which composers alleviate themselves of control and allow the universe to "choose" for them. Essentially, it is the same as flipping a coin. This style largely became popular with the New York School in the mid-20th Century with John Cage, but scholarly research supports that even Mozart played dice games not only to write melodies but also to decide on how to order sections within his pieces.

Serialism by contrast, the complete opposite. In this style the composer can assume total control over pitch, rhythm, dynamics, articulations, etc. Music in this sense can be essentially manufactured, and several composers became very, very famous for doing it - albeit for different reasons.

Now that has been covered, I would like to add here that composers also frequently make decisions while they are working on pieces. A composer may plan for a piece to go a certain way, but in reality, when playing their work back at the piano or on a computer, their ear may be leading them in a different direction. This type of filtering procedure interferes within the original germinal idea, but it is necessary and good and saves composers from writing a lot of bad music and audiences from hearing a lot of bad music.

Here is the bottom line, and you probably will not like it:

To compose a melody is to create art and no one, I repeat, no one yet fully understands how human beings write the music we do - from germinal idea to finished product. The process for each individual is unique contingent upon their personal and artistic aesthetics, their culture, and their upbringing. Within that, each piece is unique and special to each composer, like a small child.

We appreciate the art because we do not understand it and it is foreign to us. If there were a store to purchase manufactured melodies, art would be devalued as the depth of its meaning has been translated to tangible, worldly goods, and therefore speaks little of time, passion, and commitment. It is the same reason why homemade food tastes better and handmade gifts more sentimental.

Unfortunately, I cannot tell you exactly how "great" melodies are written, because by no fault of your own virtue the question's scope is philosophical and too broad to answer simply. However, I have described some of the ways and techniques in which composers operate, which should provide a clearer understanding of the question as well as your own pursuits.

As an aside, I have written fairly extensively on this topic and would be happy to discuss in greater detail via chat.

Best of luck.

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Wow. What a great post. I worked pretty hard on mine but I respect your expertise. –  AsianSquirrel Jun 6 '13 at 11:21
    
@AsianSquirrel - thank you, I appreciate that. –  jjmusicnotes Jun 6 '13 at 15:55
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Just like in the visual arts, this ability comes with development of the imagination. Imagination can work with any of the senses. Perfumers imagine scents. Chefs imagine tastes and textures and aromas. Musicians imagine music.

The time element is the only real difference between audile imagination (or audiation), and these other, more static images. One can play a melody in one's head, rewinding, speeding-up. stepping out the solfage between consecutive notes.

It's basically the same thing that might happen to you when you get a song stuck in your head. Through attention and practice, one can develop a certain amount of control over this ability. Having learned the words and the melody, maybe you start paying attention to the drums as well. Going over the song again and again, one develops the ability to hear the drums, too, and how the rhythms interact with the vocal rhythms. Sometime later, another part is added to the mix. And another. So merely from obsessing over your favorite song long enough, you can grow a multitrack synthesizer/sequencer in your own fpga (neocortex).

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I'm really just guessing about the neocortex bit, but it sounds cool. –  luser droog Jun 4 '13 at 17:40
    
Best answer for the quest to "draw inspiration from everyday life". –  Shawn Strickland Jun 5 '13 at 5:51
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What I Think

Music isn't some kind of mystical half-random thing that is beyond all understanding; it has its rules and regulations --and in some ways, more structural restrictions than other art forms. It can and usually should be somewhat predictable and, really, there are only a few combinations of rhythms out there --it's all about how you put them together and what notes you slap on them.

Now, that's an extremely crude way of putting it, but really, despite the fact that your question has been asked countless times over the ages, it is still extremely difficult for any one person to answer (even on StackExchange! :) ) because well, the actual creation process is different for everyone.

Because of this, I can't speak for all composers, etc. out there...but I can speak for me by recounting my own personal experiences. I'm not saying I'm a good composer, or a prime example of anything. I'm just saying....that's really all I know.


What I Do

Here are some examples from my own personal experience:

  • I write a lot of songs just messing around on piano. Many of these songs are derived from me messing around with my latest chord obsession, or just making up a chord sequence in my favorite key (which changes every now and then; right now it's either E or B, but it used to be D, and before that it was F and Bb). Then once I come across something that sounds cool or pretty or something, I either develop the melody further or move the pattern's handshape around different inversions of different chords, constantly revising the piece all the while.

  • I've written songs on guitar, too. This doesn't happen often, most likely since I am not that great at guitar (and I also don't play often, so that probably doesn't help things), but on rare occasions such as this one I'll come up with something that I could work with and turn into something palatable (earable?). I don't know how this happens...all I know is one day I'll be playing, and suddenly, out of the suckiness comes unsuckiness, and I try to see if I can make the melody I can kind of hear a few beats ahead come out of the instrument. Literally. That's really all I do. (Which might explain why it's pretty mediocre?)

  • Other times I try to make a song fit a preexisting work. For eighth grade I did a project for Shakespeare's The Tempest. It was a multi-movement piece that used a different concert band instrument for each character (flute for Miranda, clarinet for Prospero, sax for Ferdinand, trumpet for Gonzalo, horn for Caliban, muted trumpet for Trinculo, vibes for Ariel, etc.) and for each scene, the instruments involved would play off a theme that I felt fit the events that went on during that scene of the play. (For instance, in the scene where Gonzalo is excited about landing on the beach or something and Sebastian and Friends are mocking him behind his back, it alternates between the trumpet playing a fanfare-like phrase and the oboe and baritone repeating it in a distorted, ornament- and pitch-bend-filled manner.)
    For another song that I wrote for my friend's project on a book called Clockwork Angel (which involves a girl, demons, and a giant clock tower), I decided the intro should start off with just tubular bells playing eighth notes with a syncopated accent pattern over a shifting time signature, with occasional chime chord hits on particularly important accents. My thinking behind this was that it would be like, "Hey, clock tower! ....But something's not quite right here." I added to that feeling when the Victorian-era (the setting of the book) instruments and the eerie pad synths joined in after the rumbly, super-low piano hits... it turned out pretty well, actually. So that was my thinking behind that.

  • For this song (there's an entire guitar part missing; I recorded it but forgot to include it when I combined them), the main motif that the whole song is based on (the beginning part) just randomly popped into my head one day (it's a long story). But the whole way home I hummed it to myself so I wouldn't forget it. Then I played around with it on guitar and then some more in Finale, recorded it during spring break freshman year, and...here it is!

  • For the cool piano interlude in this arrangement [note: not finished], I basically was just trying to keep the song going but slowly transition into the whole "Carol of the Bells" accent pattern, etc. (It's a piano and French horn duet, in case you're wondering...no accompaniment here!)

  • I wrote this song [would go back and fix the clipping, but I'm just too lazy] so long ago I still can't believe how easily the whole thing came to me. It's not that good, so there's nothing to really be proud of at all here, but I myself still have no idea how I came up with both the words and melody at the same time, as I kind of just thought through the song in my head.

  • Continuing on the whole lyrics thing, some of the time I come up with lyrics first, then write music to them. I have several examples of this, but none of them are worth listening to.


What Else I Think

(Don't complain about that last section title.)

Before I get a lot of downvotes because "this is a music StackExchange --there's a separate one for photography!", etc., I'd just like to say that if having visual inspiration and/or real-life situations to draw from makes the creation/recycling process easier or less mysterious for writers and "visual artists", what does that say about photographers? Sure, there are folks out there who say that photography isn't art because they only capture what's already there, or whatever, but I hope most people nowadays argue otherwise. (If you want to argue head down to the photography SE.) As a photographer (an amateur photographer, but still a photographer) I guess I can say that there's just as much of a creative process for photographers as with any other types of artists --the composition, shutter speed/aperture ratio, and other things definitely make all the difference, and there's definitely skill involved in using these things to capture beauty and pure awesomeness in even the plainest of things. I think that it's not really what you start with that matters...it's what you do with it.

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I like the fact this answer has a bit more about the practical side, as the others are more about creativity and imagination. The balance is important. –  Dr Mayhem Jun 6 '13 at 7:19
    
@DrMayhem Thanks! I honestly thought that the question was the usual "How do you come up with songs?" rather than "How does the conception of song specifically take place?" (I'm new on SE so I guess it really excites me that someone liked my answer enough to comment on it rather than just upvote [although I appreciate upvotes as well]... :) ) –  AsianSquirrel Jun 9 '13 at 1:10
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As has been said, music probably originated from imitation of the rhythms of walking, breathing, the melodies of speaking, bird song, etc. etc. Nowadays a lot of music is quite far from that. It's been abstracted and certain laws of music have been found. For example notes close to each other (in any way, like by frequency, time, timbre...) sound like they belong together whereas notes far apart sound distinct; tempo has a big effect on how much energy the music has etc. You use these laws to make the music interesting and coherent.

For me making music is in some way similar to making abstract visual art. (Well, I have no experience in that but I can imagine...) Abstract art doesn't necessarily represent anything concrete. You just use the laws of shapes and colors and psychology to create a piece which just somehow seems to "work". Different people will interpret it differently, or may not interpret it consciously at all, instead letting it just do its thing.

You can make music out of pretty much anything, for example any random bit of melody or a chord. You analyze your ideas to see what they can be transformed into. In my opinion "inspiration" is the feeling when you've analyzed and experimented with these ideas to the point where you start to see what kind of a whole it could make. The rest is a lot of hard work.

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It's thought that Beethoven would think up a sentence or phrase, write notes that matched the rhythm and inflection, and use that as a motif for a piece. He never told anyone what the phrase was, with two exceptions where he printed it in the published music: "Le - be - wohl" in the sonata for piano opus 81a, and "Muss es sein? Es muss sein!" in a string quartet.

I once tried taking a random piece of prose, reading it aloud and writing a melody to match the rhythm and inflection. It works, and if it's long you get something more like a Schubert first theme than a Beethoven motif.

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I am a computer programmer and an electronic music artist, so I have a different view of music from what everyone described here. Writing a song is a lot like writing a program for me.

When writing a computer program, I start out knowing what I want the program to do and having to decide how I want to get it to do that. The best way to do this is to think about the program in distinct components - small pieces of code that I can manage easily. For example, if I make a video game, I'll write some code that interacts with the operating system, some that describes how the different characters act, and some that describes how to draw everything to the screen. Each piece of code is small enough that I could take it out of the program completely and put it into a different one, and it would still work. This has a really big benefit: when I'm working on a piece of code, I can focus completely on what it does without having to remember what everything else is.

I write music in the same way. I start out knowing what kind of emotion I want to portray. Then, I decide which musical "components" I want to write. I might pick out a harmony that has a certain flavor, a rhythm that is clam or frantic, and a melody that matches my intent. Then, as I write more of the song, I can easily tweak or even replace different "components" of the song with others to explore different nuances of the emotion I'm trying to portray.

To address your question specifically, here's what I'm thinking when I'm creating a melody:

  • There are several characteristics of a melody that determine its emotion. By carefully manipulating these pieces of the music, I control the emotion it portrays by itself.
    • What is its rhythm?
    • Is it fast or slow?
    • Are the notes close together or spread out?
    • Do the notes in the melody "clash" with each other?
  • In addition, I'm thinking about how the melody interacts with the other "components" of the song. This controls the precise nuance of the emotion the melody portrays as well as how the melody affects the overall emotion in the song.
    • Do the notes in the melody "clash" with the notes in the harmony?
    • Does the rhythm of the melody match, complement, or disagree with the rhythm in the drums?
    • Sometimes I'll have multiple melodies playing at the same time. Then I can have them share some melodic characteristics but disagree on others, causing them to play off of each other in interesting ways. One of my favorite pieces I wrote has a bassline that's determined, a melody that is sad, and a secondary melody that is playful all playing at the same time.

Most of the other answers here talk about how composers get there ideas for sounds from nature and how the process of writing music really is opaque and impossible to pin down. I disagree with them. I think music can be approached very intellectually and deliberately, and a clever composer will have an understanding of how different musical techniques will affect his or her music.

EDIT:

If you want to know more about the kinds of patterns that musicians use when writing music, you should look up music theory. This is a good resource for beginners: http://www.musictheory.net/lessons

If you want to learn about why music "works" scientifically, this is a really good book about that topic: http://www.amazon.com/This-Your-Brain-Music-Obsession/dp/0452288525/. As a composer, I don't think about the stuff it talks about directly when I write a song, though. Again, I mostly think in terms of music theory.

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although this may not be a popular comment (I don't fully see why, though), like you said, I believe that there are patterns.Mathematical patterns our mind recognizes. It has to do inherently with our perception of beauty and noble things.I see patterns everywhere.I think, or maybe believe that patterns are maybe so inherent to our perception I don't even know how deep that rabbit hole goes. Just like there are patterns we recognize in art (circle,center,triangle,proportions,height,width) There has to be (to my eyes) patterns for music.I don't know where they are, This what I am after here. –  Ted Jul 19 '13 at 20:45
    
@Ted: Thanks! I think the main reason I haven't gotten a lot of upvotes is because I answered this question a month after it had already gone quiet, which is fine. As to what you said, I agree. Although music is still art, we can break it down into patterns that can help us understand it better. If you want to go down that rabbit hole, I suggest you look up music theory: musictheory.net/lessons –  Kevin Jul 19 '13 at 20:52
    
If you want a scientific understanding for why some sounds are musical and others aren't, you should read up on overtones. Sounds that have pitches always produce a certain pattern of sound waves, and it turns out that picking chords and notes that mirror this pattern makes a song more consonant. –  Kevin Jul 19 '13 at 20:56
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This quote is attributed to at least half a dozen people and I really believe answers your question for 90% of the cases.

"Good artists borrow; great artists steal."

In the case of music, to me this means that musicians get their ideas by starting with something they heard from other musicians. In music, this is definately true because you hear the same phrases, combinations of notes repeated over and over again in many different songs. Sure there are variations with either ornamentation, modified chords or rhythmic changes but the similarities and chord progressions are identifiable.

While I am no song writer, I certainly have created hundreds of cool(to me) and original sounding riffs by messing around while learning a new song by someone else. Sometimes I stumbled on the riffs just by trying to vary the notes, other times by accident. And that was me, almost no talent and little time to become skilled in the song writing area. I could only imagine what someone who was truly talented, creative, knows the rules and when to break them could've come up with from the same messing around with a phrase that I would do. I'm certain they could create a basis for some good symphonies from that method alone.

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Speech is made up of two parts: words, that contain the logical content, and melody, that contains the emotional content. Consider any spoken phrase; by changing the melody, the infliction and stress, the meaning changes, just as it can be changed by changing the words. Thus music is relevant to us in our speech, and we are exposed to this music every day.

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In the days of the Brill Building there was a phrase "writing sideways" That was, starting with an existing song / melody / theme and changing it piece by piece until it was something new. Sometimes when I'm stuck I'll go to a period that isn't related to what I'm trying to write - for modern pop music I'll listen to Debussy / Ravel. For more "formal" art music I'll listen to Philly Soul or the Beach Boys (I gotta be me) - and wait until a phrase catches my ear. Then I'm off and running.

Also improvising over a harmony with enough discipline to stop playing and start writing periodically. Graham Nash said a title of verbal phrase would imply a rhythm.

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a title of verbal phrase would imply a rhythm. That's beautiful! –  Ted Jul 19 '13 at 20:59
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