One of the things people frequently ask me about writing songs is: “Where do your song ideas come from?”
I find this to be a fascinating question that often leads to mutually enlightening discussions about creativity and the human experience. In fact, the love of this very question and the ensuing discussions is what led me to create my radio series, In Search of a Song, in which I talk with fellow musicians about their work and we ponder the mysteries of great music.
Mythologist Joseph Campbell shared a sentiment that I have found to be very helpful when considering the nature of art and creativity. He said:
“People are not so much seeking the meaning of life, as they are seeking the experience of being alive.”
Now, read that quote again slowly to yourself. Do you, like me, find this distinction between meaning and experience to be profound?
“Seeking meaning” to me implies an intellectual undertaking. Your mind employs logic and other tools to arrange and rearrange facts, information, and opinions until you arrive at a thesis or narrative that “makes sense” to you. In that context, seeking meaning is like trying to solve a puzzle. This puzzle may have no solution, or many solutions.
“Seeking the experience,” however, would seem to be more about sensation. The appreciation of beauty, whether it’s visual art, music, or the natural world, is a visceral experience. When it’s really good, you feel it first in your body. You get chills; you feel a sense of elation; you hold your breath; you laugh; you cry.
The physical manifestations of emotion don’t require a command from your logical mind. No “meaning” must be sought before a feeling is experienced. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: Sensations are often spontaneous. You notice them after they begin and often can’t control them. I think these emotional, visceral experiences are among those to which Campbell refers when he talks about “the experience of being alive.”
So, where do song ideas come from?
I think songs come from that same emotional, visceral state you are in when you hear a song or a performance that truly moves you; when, instead of simply hearing music, you are experiencing music. You laugh; you cry; you get goosebumps. The performer is likely feeling something similar, as did the songwriter when creating the song. In other words: Music can be, for the listener, the performer, and the writer, a shared “experience of being alive”.
I once asked singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier what she thought was in her mind, and in the mind of her audience, when she was giving an effective performance of a great song. To paraphrase, her response was, “Ideally, the same feelings I felt when I was originally writing the song.”
Great creative works are experiences you feel in your body and your emotions, likely originating in your subconscious mind and/or from some mysterious place beyond the frontiers of your brain and body. Maybe that is some place spiritual. I certainly don’t claim to know.
As an artist, I try not to think too much about the “experience of being alive,” but I do strive to be fully present when it happens. This is kind of the opposite of Woody Allen’s joke that he isn’t afraid of dying, he just doesn’t want to be there when it happens.
When trying to capture an idea, my aim is always to stay in the emotional realm as long as possible and allow the experience to emerge in its own way, much like you “get lost in the music” as a listener and just enjoy it, without analyzing. But trying not to break the “creative trance,” so to speak, is easier said than done. It’s sort of like walking on hot coals. Thinking about the hot coals in the middle of the walk is probably not helpful.
The challenges of successfully birthing and capturing an “experience of being alive” is what makes the great creative works that do populate our world so truly special. Being someone who occasionally brings forth one of these experiences (or at least feels like he does), and getting to frequently feel joy and awe for those experiences brought forth by others, are things that make my life worth living. How about you?
(Thank you to Dave Wallace, Jr. for his editorial assistance on this piece! – JW)