I wrote a tune in July called "The Original Deluxe Aggravation." I was on my annual family trip to my favorite place, a lake in the mountains of Washington, and I wanted to write something while I was there.
I use a number of different techniques and ideas for composing. I vary my approach as much as possible. One simple way to spark ideas is through the title. Any time I title a tune, it affects how I see it and how I approach the composing process. Sometimes I finish all the music before I discover an apt title. Sometimes I make a connection with the work I've done when I'm halfway through it, and that steers the rest of the work. And sometimes I begin with a title before writing a single note. I used the latter approach on this tune.
I sat down with the intention of writing a song and looked around for an idea to get me started. Sitting on the table next to me was a board game my family plays after dinners at the lake. It's called "Aggravation," but written on the box for marketing purposes was "The Original Deluxe Aggravation." So that was the first part of the piece that I wrote. Everything else came from that title. "Aggravation" is an apt title for the game. Players move their pieces around a board via dice rolls, knocking other players' pieces back to start in the process. Now that I look back at the tune, I can see a few musical connections along these lines. The form is 15 bars long with four related but distinct thematic sections, as if being sent home every few seconds. The melody seems simultaneously frantic, playful, and furious. (The game would normally bore me to death, but playing with the particular people in my family introduces these powerful emotions with the highs an lows of a narcotic.)
These connections between the music and its subject might only be clear to me. Others might not see it that way at all, and that's fine. In fact, I find the process by which I created these notes and chords far more fascinating than any superficial connotations. I wasn't consciously trying to make anything sound like "Aggravation," I was just keeping that game and all my memories of playing it (and winning every time) in my head while I composed. I suppose any similarities between the music and the game could be coincidental, but the important part is that this tune never would have existed were it not for that title. Had I began with a different title, I would have ended up with an entirely different result. Viewed in this respect, the title of a tune can play a vital role, far more exalted than an afterthought, which I imagine is common with instrumental music.
Have an anecdote to illustrate the point. The other night in jazz seminar, we were asked to submit our newly-penned compositions, and one of my classmates had a bag of grapes on the table in front of him. The professor asked if the grapes were his piece. Joking, he grabbed the bag, set them on the piano, and played a weird chord. He called it a "round chord." Everyone had a laugh, but I noticed something profound about the situation. Had there been no grapes on the table, he wouldn't have played anything. And had they been a different fruit, he likely would have played something else. While there's no way to anticipate how an ambiguous cue like that is interpreted (I'm sure every person on the room would have played something different), it clearly had a direct impact on the creative output. I'll be thinking back to this moment every time I set up an environment conducive to creativity.