There are millions of exercises out there that might be able to quicken your thinking or raise your level of alertness. Theater improv exercises and games of Sudoku are great ways to keep your brain active and stave off dementia. But whether these things help with music and composition is anyone’s guess. Today’s set of exercises is aimed directly at playing and writing music, focused on widening the mental pathways that allow us to create and perform songs. Let’s begin.
1. Write a 10-minute song
I once knew a music professor who had composed and written a page of music every day, for 366 days straight. Of course, his full-time job was to sit in a room with a piano and a book of blank staff paper, so he had an advantage over most of us. Also, writing out a full page of sheet music takes more than 10 minutes. But the concept remains. Maybe you want to try it for a week, three days, or a month.
You have 10 minutes to write and record a song, so don’t waste time. Pick up an instrument or just start singing. There’s no time to think about whether the song is good or whether anyone wants to hear it. Strum some chords, scribble some lyrics. Now grab some sort of a recording device – probably a smartphone, as that’s quickest.
Sometimes the results of this exercise are sheer brilliance. More often, they’re a little awkward. And they’re almost always funny. But regardless of the outcome, this practice will train your mind to always be writing music.
2. Turn a non-lyric into a lyric
Some would say that the only difference between poetry and prose is the line breaks. For this exercise, you’ll be making that very change.
First, find a short piece of writing, less than 100 words. A letter to the editor in the newspaper is a good length. It could also be the text of a flyer at the bus stop, or the instructions that are always printed on something that doesn’t need instructions, like a box of macaroni and cheese or a bottle of shampoo.
Adjust the line breaks in the piece to make it more poetic. Then, find a key phrase or two and repeat it – that’s your chorus.
What started like this:
Wet hair and apply. The amount used will vary depending on the volume and length of hair. Work through the hair with fingertips.
Turns into this:
hair and apply.
The amount used will vary
Depending on the volume
Depending on the length
Of your hair.
You get the idea. By the time you’re done, you’ll probably be hearing melodic ideas in your head as well. So sing them!
3. Dismantle a song
Start with a short song you like and already know how to play. Keeping the same music, write new lyrics for the entire piece. Keep in mind that you only have 10 minutes, so there’s no time to think – just do it. If you think about it, it’s impossible to keep the regular lyrics and melody out of your head. So don’t think.
Now, take a moment to forget the music you just wrote to, and view the lyrics you just wrote with fresh eyes. Now it’s time to write new music to these lyrics. You’ve just written a completely new song in 10 minutes, using someone else’s music as a supporting structure. And you can’t even be sued for copyright infringement.
4. Let your unconscious mind do the work
Take a real event from your life. It could be anything that feels important or sticks in your head, like the time you fell in the pond at the park, your first kiss, or almost getting into a car crash. Write two or three paragraphs, vividly describing the event. That’s your 10 minutes; you’re out of time. Go about your business, and come back to this tomorrow.
The next day, come back and give your story the line break treatment as we did in the second exercise. Make the story into a poem. Now take a break once again. Even if you don’t think about it consciously, your brain remembers that it’s working on this exercise and will be chewing on the problem of making this into a song for the next 24 hours.
On the third day, grab an instrument and look at your poeticized story. Now build a song. You’ve already done the hard part, and your mind may have some great rhythmic and melodic ideas in storage. Sleeping on a song puts your brain in gear to hack the problem while you’re thinking about something else, and the unconscious mind thinks more freely and imaginatively than the conscious one can. You can put the back of your mind to work and write better, more interesting material.
Jesse Sterling Harrison is an author, recording artist, and part-time farmer. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife, three daughters, and a herd of ducks.