Tech Tip:Finding music inspiration in unusual places

Music Tech Tips
by Dennis Kambury


Sometimes, inspiration strikes without conscious effort. For example, Paul McCartney woke up one morning humming "Yesterday"—the most recorded song of all time. Other times, inspiration is a little harder to come by, and the results can be a little less memorable. Witness "Ebony and Ivory," undoubtedly one of the least recorded songs of all time!


When the creative rut strikes, there are ways to use your tools and the world around you to give yourself a kick in the creative pants.

A few years ago, a stockbroker commissioned me to create a series of pieces that interpreted stock market variables in such a way that the listener would be able to "hear" the market in action. Using a basic MIDI sequencer, I mapped prices to notes, volume to dynamics, company to tonal color, and more. While it failed in its role as a prognostication tool, it gave me a whole new palette of musical phrases to work with!


More recently, composer Todd Barton began investigating DNA sequences from the Human Genome Project. By selecting specific chromosome strings and manipulating them in U&I Software's Xx and Metasynth programs, he is creating fascinating and compelling musical pieces.


Another synth technique that worked for me is not just playing the keys or the patches, but also the patch changes. I built a device with an IC timer and a relay switch that functioned like a momentary footswitch. Plugged into the back of my old Juno-106, it would rapidly sweep through patch changes as I held down a note or chord, adding a whole layer of rhythmic complexity on top of a simple triad.

Steve Reich, one of the minimalist pioneers, used a novel approach in the piece "Different Trains." By breaking speech patterns into small phrases and repeating them, he uncovered a wealth of found melody in the conversations of everyday people. Doubled with strings, this proved to be a very interesting and moving technique


Another source of inspiration is to modify your instrument so that it responds in unexpected ways. Composer John Cage would do this by preparing his piano with nuts and bolts, paper clips, and other objects. When played, the piano would respond with clatters, strange pitches (think slide guitar), and harmonically rich buzzes, leading the player in directions not anticipated.


Your guitar will respond to similar treatments. For example, threading paper through the strings near the bridge of your guitar will give it a buzzy, steel drum kind of sound. For even more percussive fun, pull the A-string over the E-string around the 7th fret for a snappy snare-like sound.


An extreme example of guitar modification occurred at the Monterey Pop Festival back in '67. After having exhausted the tonal possibilities of his guitar (yeah, right!), Jimi Hendrix lit his guitar on fire, creating both an incredible sound and one of the most memorable concert moments in rock history.


Needless to say, there are endless possibilities for experimentation. No need to go burning or smashing your guitar—there's no new territory there—but if you open your ears, you'll hear melody, harmony, and rhythm all around you!