Creative & Out of the Box Musical Exercises

Playing the same chord progression over and over? Want new ideas to spice up your compositional and improvisational skills? Then take a look at these exercises, designed to break free from the musical box that musicians can sometimes feel confined in.

Developing Associative Synesthesia

Pick up any painting you would deem art worthy (artwork from the expressionist, surrealist, cubist, or abstract modernist movement are preferable as they may provide more subjective personal interpretation). Deconstruct the painting in your mind’s eye; analyze the colors, the line weights, and the tones, etc. What is the emotion conveyed in the painting?

What aspects of the illustration support your reasoning for such emotional depiction? If the painting is an abstraction of shapes, is there is a method behind the artists’ abstraction? What do the lines, shapes, blobs express to you?

Synethesia translates sounds into colorsOnce you find that you have sufficiently spent time analyzing the painting and its emotive qualities, ask yourself what kind of music would you attribute to the painting? Imagine that you are a film scorer and compose a piece of music yourself that you feel successfully illustrates the artistic intention, or acts as an accompaniment to the piece (which you may choose to counterpoint with consciously).

This process helps the musician develop associative or metaphorical Synesthesia. Synesthesia is defined as “the mapping of one sense onto another,” and is a rare occurrence where certain individuals are able to see colors or shapes upon listening to music.

Getting Your Instrument to Sound Like Other Instruments

Trey Anastasio encouraged his students to emulate the tone of their favorite singers on the guitar (much more difficult than it sounds – try to differentiate between the tone of Whitney Huston and Dolly Parton while performing “I Will Always Love You”), while Steve Vai encouraged his readers to try to give a guitar value to mundane actions (like trying to emulate the act of sneezing or taking a whiz on the guitar). This next exercise shares the same theme – whatever your primary instrument is, pick another instrument, and try to get yourself to sound as close to the other instrument with your primary instrument as possible.

This has already been going on in the musical repertoire. For example, heavy metal percussive palm muting is an attempt for the guitars to sound more like percussive drumming instruments, while the bluesy and jazzy guitar bends are attempts to sound more like brass instruments.

Transcribing Soundscapes

Grab your recorder, and head out to town. Sit down in a comfortable spot, and record the sounds of your surroundings for about five-ten minutes. It doesn’t matter where you live (noisy city or quite a suburbia), every recording you make will be different and give you different criterion for you to work with. Upon returning to your studio, listen to the piece over and over, and start to establish a list of different sounds you have recorded (footsteps, animal sounds, ruffling leaves, sounds of transportation, electrical buzzing, wind…etc). Make sure you have listed and classified every sound on the recording, and have not missed anything.

After the classification process, score what you have recorded – or rearrange the sounds you have recorded into a sound collage until you have transformed the series of sound clutters into something that sounds musical. It is up to you to embellish it to make it sound musically emotive, or just transcribe the sounds you hear.

Jam Out of Tune

Get everyone in your band to each play on a different scale, a different beat, maybe even different tempo and try to create the most intolerable, most cacophonic, most chaotic jam ever. When each of you is playing on their island, you all start to perform what are you are most used to the standard licks and passages that you have practiced on and on. This initially isn’t an exercise to get you to improve, but rather an exercise to get to know your band members and their playing better. At first, what may seem cacophonic and chaotic will eventually spring forth new sets of ideas that your band has come up with together.

Rearrange and cover the songs of pop artistsRearrange Popular Pop Songs

Make it into every musical genre you can think of. Take a teen standard like Britney Spears “Hit Me Baby One More Time” (everyone has done this one… maybe you can think of something else), and arrange the music (no vocals) to fit the style and essence of many different genres. This will allow you to figure out what are the limitations of each style, as well as the boundaries of the chord progression and form of the pop song. Once you feel that this isn’t as challenging as it was, broaden your horizon to non-western music. Good luck with that, most non-western music is not based on chords, so you need to figure out different ways to seek musical expression (here is a word that might be handy: heterophony).