I wanted to talk about a creative technique in songwriting that isn’t often talked about but can be very effective in inspiring good ideas. When you come to your studio with a blank slate, it can sometimes be difficult to decide what exactly you are going to do. There are several conscious or unconscious questions that will need to be answered.
* What style of music will I be making
* What tempo will the song be at?
* What key will this song be in?
* What mood would I like to capture?
Sometimes when you are inspired, all of these questions are naturally answered without any trouble, but without that spark of inspiration you are kind of wandering aimlessly hoping that some of your toying around with sounds or rhythms grabs your interest. This can be a long process or can end up with several false starts. A ghost track can be the solution.
What is a ghost track?
The process of a ghost track is very simple. Typically you find a song that affects you on an emotional level. Something that captures a mood & inspires you. You don’t have to know why it inspires you. No need to reverse engineer the song. Instead you are going to use the song itself as a template for your own work.
Drag the song into a new music project. From here there are several things you can do. You can use the song structure & chord arrangement as is, or you can grab a certain section & loop it. I like to grab a loop & work with that, preferably an instrumental section.
What you’ll do from there is simply play on top of it. Add your own melody, bass part, pads, drums. Just keep building until you have the beginnings or your own song. Just keep improvising on top of the loop for several minutes. Try to play something different that captures a similar mood for you. Later you will delete your ghost track & start picking out the good bits of what you’ve played. Soon, you’ll be on your way to completing your own piece of music with rhythms, structure & melodies inspired by the original ghost track.
It’s like having someone guide you towards something captivating & away from mental blocks. You don’t have the same pressure of making all these little decisions but instead you are just jamming to something you already love. What a great state of mind to be working from.
Great music inspires great music
It would be no exaggeration to say that much of the music you love was inspired by a song or songs that the artist loved. Many great songs have simply borrowed another song’s drum rhythm or chord structure. Sometimes a melody is hijacked noticeably, or sometimes it is altered just enough to disguise the original influence.
Think about how a genre of music is created. Do you think it’s just a bunch of unconnected artists that randomly ended up in the same place? Well, maybe there is a minuscule percentage of these cases, but overwhelmingly, someone does something that sounds fresh & a bunch of other artists jump on that idea & do their own version. They “borrow” 90% of someone else’s idea and put their own 10% twist on it.
But is it cheating?
This really depends on your idea of what cheating is. Where does cheating really start or end? If cheating is using someone else’s hard work for your own purpose, then pretty much any tool is cheating.
The piano is a beautiful instrument that has wonderful tone when played a certain way, but can you really take credit for how wonderful it sounds just because you assigned chords & notes to it? You’ve got to admit that some of the magic is in the sound itself, even if you’ve tweaked that sound.
Then there is your recording devices, the software in your computer (or hardware), the effects, the mixing engineer & the mastering guy. That would be a lot to take on to make something completely original.
You can’t take credit for the sound itself, just as a cook can’t take credit for the knives he uses or even the ingredients. How many people have made lasagna, or an omelette? Even though people make them at least 80% the same, there are those minor details that makes an average cuisine amazing. Imagine how awful it would be if there was no theft allowed in cooking? There can be only 1 spaghetti sauce. Only 1 peanut butter. What a waste of a chance to improve upon a good idea. Often times the artist might consider the magic moment as a mistake or a failure, but may inspire a whole league of loyal followers unexpectedly. This is creative evolution & nothing can be more natural.
We are always standing on the shoulders of giants with anything we do creatively. Nothing is 100% original. We are using tools that are improvements of other tools and so on. The tools are constantly being tweaked and refined for different preferences. These tool allow us to inject our own skills into the process without having to reinvent every necessary wheel. We get to focus on our strengths while benefiting from the creativity of those who came before us.
I think this kind of borrowing & theft can be a wonderful thing, even though some theft gives more creative results than others. This borrowing allows us to fully explore a sound with different artists coming at it from a different perspective. There will always be hacks that don’t really add anything to the pot, but then there can be a magic mixture that may only have a 2% tweak but it affects us in a very positive & special way.
The whole art of music is really a process of imitation & tweaking to one’s taste. This can pretty much be said for any kind of creative work. You learn the rules & then you break them. Are you trying to live on your own creative island or are you willing to interact with the magic that is all around you? I give you permission to join the party. I’m not giving up the ghost any time soon 🙂
Happy music making!