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Making Music When You've Put Down the Instrument

There’s an Amazon Prime TV series called Mozart in the Jungle that’s great fun for anyone who enjoys classical music. One of my favorite characters is a composer by the name of Thomas Pembridge who spends most of the series sitting in his home trying to finish his first original work. Every scene has him sitting at his beautiful baby grand piano, frustratedly playing, looking for either a miracle or flash of inspiration to help him complete the last few lines. He tries all sorts of techniques to get his muse back but, whenever he is working on his piece, he is completely chained to his piano. If only Maestro Pembridge had studied Mozart, he would know that great composers often make their masterpieces without ever touching an instrument.

             You can slave away at the piano for hours trying to force magic out of the keys, or pick guitar strings until your fingers are painfully raw, but both history and a study conducted by the AHRC Research Centre for Musical Performance as Creative Practice indicate that it might not be the best approach. The researchers found that musicians are the most inventive when they aren’t focused on playing an instrument. Instead, it turns out that creativity flows best when you’re doing simple tasks like tapping on a table or humming.

             According to an article by the Guardian that covered the study, “They talked to students about when they felt particularly creative or when something new emerged about their understanding of a piece – described by the team as creative episodes. One horn player was filmed undertaking private practice. Watching it back he identified 34 creative episodes, 23 of which took place when he was not using his instrument – it was when he was humming, tapping on a table, gesturing, whistling and conducting himself.”  

 Playing Music vs Creating Music

             It’s a common misconception that the best way to write music is to sit with your instrument and play until an epiphany comes. In actuality, playing an instrument and writing music are two very different skills. Creating music requires original, open, creative thought. Playing music means hitting the notes and chords correctly, which requires muscle memory and active thought that consumes brainpower—brainpower that could be better be applied towards creating. Consider Michael Jackson. Contrary to popular belief, the King of Pop never actually learned how to play an instrument proficiently and had no formal composition training. Instead, he crafted entire songs in his head—from the bass to the vocals to the harmonies—all through simple actions like humming and beatboxing. Don’t believe me? Check out this early demo of Beat It where he voices every element of the song (https://youtu.be/eZeYw1bm53Y). Never did he sit for hours musing with an instrument to make music. 

             Mozart was the same way. He created entire symphonies in his head from start to finish without putting a single note on paper, let alone experimenting with chords or melodies on a piano or violin.

 You Can’t Force It

             Creating music is like looking for shooting stars or falling in love—you can look for it but you can’t force it to happen. Shooting stars never flash by exactly where you’re focusing your vision and no one wakes up in Winslow, Arizona thinking, “Today, I’ll meet the love of my life standing on a corner,” only to have it happen exactly as planned, (if they did, that would already be inspiration enough for a hit song).

             Playing your instrument in the hopes of creating music is like focusing too hard on one narrow patch of sky to see a shooting star. Sure, you might see one or two flashes of light—you might stumble upon a nice melody, but it’s not the most productive way to go about it. Instead, simplify what you’re doing to allow more room for your brain’s natural creative processes to bloom—relax and widen your gaze of the sky. Put down the instrument and tap out a basic beat or hum.

Let the music originate from your mind instead of your instrument-playing muscle memory. You may surprise yourself with what you can create.

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Liam Brodentel