One of the most grown-up review sites around

54,928 reviews
and more.. and still writing ...

Search MusicWeb Here



International mailing

Founder: Len Mullenger                                    Editor in Chief:John Quinn             

Inspiration - "In The Air"? Arthur Butterworth September 2005

Composers are often asked how inspiration comes to them. When plagued with this question Elgar is reputed to have said, perhaps somewhat airily: "Oh, you just pluck it from the air, itís all around one. May be these were not his exact words, but the implication was clear enough .... or maybe NOT clear enough to those who are not composers. Creative artists of every kind seem to have a secret muse which visits then in some mysterious way, but how this comes about remains tantalisingly elusive to most people. So, how do musical ideas: tunes, melodies, harmonies, rhythms, shapes, forms, structures arise in the mind? Composers themselves are perhaps vague about this. It is not that they are coy or want to keep the technique secret. More often than not we generally just donít know; it can be quite true the way Elgar put it: musical ideas do indeed seen just to float around in the air; the imagination's inner ear perceives musical motifs much in the same way, one supposes, that inventors have brain waves that lead to some totally new concept, such as the brilliant notion that one man had that led to the invention of catsí eyes in the road to reflect the lights of approaching vehicles. Or consider the way that one pensive man - James Watt - perhaps being hen-pecked for lazily sitting around the fireside apparently doing nothing useful, was inspired by the sight of a wisp of steam constantly raising the lid of a kettle, to see that this could be put to wider use as a source of power.

Most normal young children, when playing contentedly by themselves have a creative urge. Generally this exhibits itself when they scribble with a pencil or crayon: seeking to reflect what they see around them. The sounds they hear can also be responded to, although, unlike a pencil or coloured crayon there is not quite so readily available the means of making sound; but they can use the voice to sing or croon in a very basic way. They are fascinated by the chinking of cutlery, glasses, pottery and every other source of domestic sound. So an awareness of different sounds is soon acquired. If a musical instrument - piano, toy percussion, or things to blow - is around this provides an even more tantalising stimulation. This is how one, in Elgarís words "plucks music from the air". Once having been experienced in this very basic way, musical ideas come into the mind of their own accord: more often than not quite unbidden. To most people this innate ability lies dormant or, as they grow older and have other things to think about, is ignored. Composers however, for some inexplicable reason known only to themselves (and often enough not even to them) possess a mental ability to garner such musical ideas; an inner compulsion seeks to express them outwardly.

But what of "inspiration"? This seems to be a higher manifestation of the phenomenon of musical thought. It is - perhaps - brought about by imagining inner connections between extra musical ideas and the symbolism created in sound patterns. The shape of landscape? The colour of some object? A visual picture? A conversation with another person? Virtually any kind of mental stimulation might suggest a musical expression as its symbolic counterpart. The word "inspiration" itself is sometimes suspect:

It can become sentimentalised or romanticised and perhaps it needs to be treated warily. A more accurate expression (though much less romantic) is "motivation": The inner mental driving force that seeks to express what a person feels through musical sounds, organised in a way that is somehow able to convey intelligible emotions or a sense of intellectual sense ... of satisfying shape or sequence of well-ordered sounds - a musical language - to other persons. Motivation thus is a kind of main-spring of invention. Inspiration might be motivation on a higher plane of the imagination and emotion.

Can it be bought and sold? The answer is both "yes" and "no". Ideally inspiration only really comes of its own accord: unsuspected, unbidden, a surprising bolt-from-the-blue, sometimes even faintly embarrassing, especially if one has no opportunity, there and then, to put it to good use; but for the most part it is an absolute joyful revelation that cries out to be taken notice of. This is probably why composers are so keen to foist their ideas on other people. They think that because they have suddenly been "inspired" that everyone else must inevitably want to share the good fortune. But this is so often a great disillusion: How can other people feel this? Indeed why should they? They almost certainly have thoughts of their own which are ó to them óvastly more important than the ideas someone else has. This is lamentably illustrated when we are puzzled by the ravings of those who suffer some kind of mental derangement: we cannot know what is troubling them; how can we possibly understand why they want to convey to us what they feel is so desperately important to them? Composers have this yearning to share with others the inner "sound-visions" they have. It is not then surprising that, for the most part, composers are NOT all that interested in what other composers have to express. Musical people - those who "like" music but do not themselves claim to be composers who have a message of their own to put over, have a wide appreciation of and can impartially respond to a wide variety of composers and differing styles. They are not competing for their own message to be preferred; but composers are not really like this: it is true that composers can admire and respect what their colleagues do, but deep down composers really like themselves most of all. This is human nature; a mother in a collective group of mothers inevitably thinks her own child is the best. I am often asked by my musical (non-composer) friends if I have recently heard this or that new work by I or Y. I am afraid the answer is that I do not generally share the impartial interest, much less the boundless enthusiasm, that my friends have for my rivals in the business of writing music.

Can inspiration be bought? In some ways "yes" it can. The song-composer is primarily, the servant of the poet, so that it can be said that his inspiration is a second-hand manifestation, as perhaps is all vocal music. Only abstract instrumental music is truly virgin-inspiration. Inspiration can be bought - although that seems an odd term - in the sense that a composer can be commissioned to write music. The commissioner in this sense "buys" the inspiration and the composer "sells" it. But he does not sell a commodity, as it were, lying on the shelf waiting to be sold. Even when invited to accept a specific kind of commission: its nature perhaps carefully specified by who is paying for it: symphony for large orchestra, chamber opera, little suite for recorders for school use, or whatever else, the composer still has somehow to invoke or hope for the muse to descend. This can be coaxed with ardent inventive imagination, though there is absolutely no guarantee that the result will be a masterpiece. Some such hoped for visitations of inspiration throughout musical history have all too quickly been sensed as utter flops, while other things have turned out to be memorable and lasting works of art.

© Arthur Butterworth

Advertising on

Donate and keep us afloat


New Releases

Naxos Classical
All Naxos reviews

Chandos recordings
All Chandos reviews

Hyperion recordings
All Hyperion reviews

Foghorn recordings
All Foghorn reviews

Troubadisc recordings
All Troubadisc reviews

all Bridge reviews

all cpo reviews

Divine Art recordings
Click to see New Releases
Get 10% off using code musicweb10
All Divine Art reviews

Eloquence recordings
All Eloquence reviews

Lyrita recordings
All Lyrita Reviews


Wyastone New Releases
Obtain 10% discount

Recordings of the Month

July 2022

John Luther Adams Houses of the Wind
John Luther Adams
Houses of the Wind

Horneman Alladin
Horneman Alladin

Stojowski piano concertos
Piano Concertos 1 & 2

Vaughan Williams on Brass

Yi Lin Jiang - Dualis I

June 2022

Beethoven Sonatas 29, 32

Orchestral Works

String Quartets Vol 1



Return to Index

Untitled Document

Reviews from previous months
Join the mailing list and receive a hyperlinked weekly update on the discs reviewed. details
We welcome feedback on our reviews. Please use the Bulletin Board
Please paste in the first line of your comments the URL of the review to which you refer.