Non-Musical Inspirations

Non-Musical Inspirations

While most composers feel somewhat comfortable discussing the technical “nuts and bolts” aspects of their compositional processes and techniques, it feels like you’re on thin ice when you ask them about what “inspired” a work or what ideas or mechanisms caused a work to emerge in its current shape. As I’ve been slowly racking up interviews with composers, I’ve tried to get around this thin ice by coming at the question from a side angle: “Do you incorporate non-musical ideas into your music and, if so, how do you go about it?” Seems pretty simple, but it offers for a toehold into the subject of inspiration and the role of outside forces on a composer’s output by asking a direct question that opens up a world of secondary questions, regardless of the answer.

Over the years I’ve heard many questions asked between experienced and emerging composers from both directions about whether or not the artist prefers to think of their work in terms of programmatic narratives or “absolute,” abstract musical concepts. Inevitably the first reaction is that the label “programmatic” is shied away from, even if there are connections evident, because of the baggage that has been accrued by the term over the years. Rare are the composers who can bring forth abashedly descriptive works, much less music that demonstrates an obvious narrative, without hesitation or qualification. And I understand this. My years studying film music instilled in me a sense that most of the modern concert world would always be resistant to music that was overly descriptive and not independent enough from external forces to the point that the music could not “stand by itself.” Whether or not this is true or not is another matter; the aversion to the programmatic in music with composers has been a consistent theme I’ve noticed in many circumstances regardless of location, experience, or context.

That being said, I have found that a great number of composers enjoy incorporating non-musical ideas or items into the creation of their work, either explicitly or behind-the-scenes, where most listeners would not recognize the influence. From surface aspects such as titles or basic structural concepts to building a work holistically around external non-musical material, many composers today enjoy selecting works of visual art, literature, theatre, and film, as well as real-life ideas such as politics, relationships, locations, or other such catalysts for their creative process. I feel the difference when comparing today’s composers with those of past generations is that there is a greater sense that the music should not be obvious; that the connections between the musical work and the external inspiration be evident at the root level of the piece but not necessarily on the surface. What is unknown is how subtle these connections can be and still resonate with an audience of widely varying backgrounds and expectations.

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4 thoughts on “Non-Musical Inspirations

  1. Tom Rex

    When I was young, I picked up a record of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and have always been thrilled with the concept of one art inspiring another. Until recently, I didn’t even know what that art was, since the concept was more alive in me than this particular work. I even took casual strolls through art museums, paying more attention to my own promenade than the works I was seeing.

    That changed, however, when I made it a small project to not only listen to the work, but to research those Pictures. I found some of Viktor Hartmann’s surviving pictures at

    I was surprised when I discovered that the Pictures were done by one artist, who was a friend who had died, and that there was a narrative that went along with the piece, some by Mussorgsky, and some by the Russian critic, Vladimir Stasov. This was not a casual stroll that Mussorgsky was taking!

    I found that Mussorgsky’s Pictures had also inspired Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Mekong Delta to come out with their versions of the suite, along with numerous other classical arrangements. I then remembered that I also had a jazz version done by Ralph Burns, which I had bought in the 1950’s.

    Finally I found that the so called new musicology had allowed me to view this work experientially, while still appreciating the musical analysis of the suite.

  2. lawrencedillon

    So true! “Programmatic” is a dirty word in our world. I’ve had a lot of chuckles over the years hearing variants of the following, “my piece is about two people who meet and fall in love and go on a safari together – but it’s not program music!”

  3. Woody Sullender

    By using the terms “non-musical” (some also use “extra-musical”) you imply a specific boundary around “music” that I do not agree with.

    If you look at current art discourse around relational practices, the site of art does not simply incorporate formal practice but can also incorporate a myriad of social relations (thinking Rirkrit Tiravanija’s soup, Tino Sehgal’s performances, Félix González-Torres’ candy piles).

    If you concede that organizing sound often frequently involves organizing people (musicians, audiences, and so forth), we can’t talk about important artists such as the AACM simply in terms of their individuals’ formal music choices, but have to consider their organizational practice and its larger social significance as equally important.

    The social is just one “extra-musical” component I would accept as being actively within the site of music. We could also consider the role of the audio media object not just as vessel but as site for music-making (thinking Christian Marclay’s “Record Without a Cover”, recently Tristan Perich). Or we can consider the construction of the site of the performance and how this dictates the experience.

    Since you place “politics, relationships, locations” in the realm of the “non-musical”, what is within “music”?

  4. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    Not to psychoanalyze too much (and not that I’d be qualified anyhow), but I wonder if our aversion to the old notions of programmatic narrative really have more to do with our expectations for the audience than our philosophical predilections. Sometimes I believe the allure of the avant-garde, of Babbitt’s message in “Composer as Specialist” comes from the idea that normal people don’t NEED to understand what we’re writing. We’re safe from criticism if we can always claim that people just can’t comprehend the underlying stuff. We’re vulnerable to all sorts of attacks if our music is either narrative or emotional. Not sure I believe this, but I suspect it’s true for at least a certain number of composers….


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