It’s 3:28 AM on one of those restless nights, and your chattering mind doesn’t seem to care about the fact that you have to be awake in a few hours. Just as you finally begin to slip through the edges of consciousness into dreamland, BAM. You’re hit with an idea for the most epic song hook of all time (or at least of the past few weeks of writing attempts). Now you find yourself facing the age-old decision: to tear yourself from the bed and sacrifice another night’s sleep for your music, or give your waking mind a rest and pray that the idea is still with you in the morning.
Maybe your eureka moment strikes while at a party with friends, and you find yourself fleeing the scene without pausing to say your goodbyes, trading social graces for the appeasement of your muse. If you’re a songwriter, producer, or artist of any medium, then you are no stranger to scenarios like these. We’re taught that moments of inspiration are fleeting and outside of our control, so we must get ideas out of their nebulous states and into concrete form as soon as humanly possible, otherwise we run the risk of forgetting (or worse, someone might magically steal them)!
But what fun is creating when we work in this fearful haste, plucking the fruit of our minds before it’s ripe? I don’t believe our ideas are going to leave us if we don’t pin them down while they’re still in rough forms. Instead of rushing to jot down a chord progression or sketch the moment it enters your mind, take some time to sit with it. Let it begin to blossom in your mind’s ear. See if you can hear what every instrument is playing, instead of just a melody or rhythm. What about visualizing a full arrangement instead of just the chorus, verse, drop, or buildup sections? Could you imagine an entirely finished song before sitting down to start creating?
If the idea is truly worth remembering, you don’t need to fear forgetting. Challenge yourself to develop your music further inside of your imagination before playing it out loud. If you get a half-baked thought down in your computer, then come back to listen to it the next day, chances are it’s not going to sound quite as great as you remember it, and the motivation to finish it might wane. Before you know it, you’ve got a hard drive full of sketches to nowhere, and wonder why it’s always so challenging to finish and release your work.
Trust your imagination. Strengthen your ability to mold ideas in your mind. Learn traditional notation or write down lyrics in a notebook if you need help to jog your memory, but don’t start tracking the song until you can fully hear it. And in those spaces between divine inspiration, practice your ear-training and transcription exercises to sharpen your technical skills, so that it will be easy to get these ideas down with very little interference when they’re ripe. It may never turn out to be exactly what you hear in your head, but the goal is to get a little bit closer and closer each time you make something.
This approach isn’t for everyone (I see you non-committing types! Don’t you dare use this as an excuse to postpone your work!) but at the very least, I think everyone could benefit from a pause before bringing their thoughts into reality.
Cross training exercise: spend some time each morning reflecting on your dreams from the night before. How much can you remember? Write them all down with as much sensory detail as possible.