Creative musicians find inspiration in other music. While we seek to make music that is uniquely our own, every other piece of music we hear is automatically processed and becomes an unconscious part of our musical vocabulary. Taking too much is theft. Taking too little fails to acknowledge our influences.
For musicians who aim to find and develop a unique voice, there will always be an internal conflict to resolve when hearing music that is inspiring. To truly be original, is it necessary to ignore all external influence? How much can you “take” from other music before what you’ve made no longer feels like it’s yours? What and where is the boundary between homage/inspiration and plagiarism/copying?
Unfortunately, these aren’t questions with “right” answers. Objective legal issues aside, each artist needs to determine their own level of comfort when borrowing from other sources. But there are some strategies that let you infuse your own work with the “essence” of your inspiration, while simultaneously forcing you to make something new. One of these is to write a catalog of attributes.
Listen carefully—and many times—to the piece that inspires you (the “source”). Study it, element by element and layer by layer, until you can write down a catalog of its attributes. Once the catalog feels complete, set aside the original source, instead referring only to the catalog as a template for your own new work (the “target”).
Consider the attributes of sound, harmony, melody, rhythm, and form. Write something concrete about what you hear for each attribute. If you re comfortable with notation, feel free to use it in your catalog, but sparingly; the goal is to capture only the framework or scaffolding of the source, including the aspects that make it inspiring, but without simply recreating it. You should end up with a description, not a transcription.
The catalog’s level of detail may vary depending on a variety of factors: your own ability to translate what you hear into words, the depth and complexity of the source, the amount of time you choose to spend, etc. What is important is not the actual level of specificity, but only that it gives you enough to use as a template without having to refer to the original again during your own creation process.
A basic catalog of attributes might look like this:
- 122 bpm
- Sound elements: drums, (808, four-on-the-floor, lots of filter motion on closed hats), bass line (FM-ish?), electric piano (distorted but dry), female vocals (breathy verses, full-voice choruses), lead synth (big supersaw, but only after the second chorus).
- Harmony: mostly D minor alternating with A major until breakdown. Breakdown section is in D major (sort of?). After breakdown, rest of track is in E minor alternating with B major.
- Melody: not much. Lots of D, with occasional jumps up to A and down to B♭.
- Rhythm: four-on-the-floor drums (basic house beat). Bass line is mostly offbeat eighth notes (trance influence?). Cool metallic hit on the “and” of beat 2 every four bars.
- Form: additive layering; drums start, then each element enters one by one. At breakdown, everything drops out except hi-hats and bass line, then rebuilds additively. Form is all 16- and 32-bar sections. (Verse 16, Verse 16, Chorus 16, Breakdown 32, Chorus 16, Chorus 16)
This catalog of attributes could describe an endless number of new works. In fact, you can probably hear music that fits these attributes in your head already. It is complete enough to serve as a template but not so descriptive as to allow for a recreation of any particular piece of existing music; if two musicians read the catalog, there would be almost no possibility that they would use it to write the same thing. Now try to put yourself in the mindset of one of those musicians; using only the catalog as a recipe, make something new.