Saturday, February 12, 2005

Peripheral Hearing: a method to find inspiration when composing music

About this technique

Technique in a nutshell: Play some music. Sit in front of the speaker with a fan behind you. Fluctuate the volume at a very low level. Pick out melodies from the distorted sound.

Music composers can find inspiration for melodic ideas by distorting the sound of existing music while playing the music at a low volume and then allowing their ‘peripheral hearing’ to pick out new melodies.

The Method

To create the distortion, the composer can use the noise created by a normal desk fan. The composer sits in front of a speaker or other source of sound and places a fan approximately a foot behind them.

The composer then uses variations in the volume of the music heard to cause further distortion. There are three ways the composer can utlilise volume variation:

1) The composer starts with the volume on zero and fluctuates the volume, but ensures that the volume is always at a level where recognition of the track cannot occur.

2) The composer starts with the volume at zero but fluctuates the volume so there are split-second ‘bursts’ or music at a volume that would be high enough to recognise the track (but recognition does not occur because the volume returns to zero immediately).

3) The track is played at a steady very low volume without any fluctuation.

The composer can use these three approaches in combination. However, my personal experience has shown that approach one and two are the most productive.

The composer will find the method more effective if they do not allow recognition of the track to occur. Experience has shown that creativity CAN continue if the track is recognised, but the melodic ideas will often not be as interesting and are often too similar to the original track.

They will also find that skipping forwards and backwards through the track will help to avoid recognition.

Treatment of melodies heard

The composer should find that they pick out strands of melodies through the distortion. The composer then has a choice of either recording EVERY melody that they hear or wait until they hear a melody they like. When they hear a melody they can either record it directly as heard, or allow a little embellishment and creativity.


Switching the fan to a different power level has been shown to provide a freshness of melodies when the composer has been working for some time.

A different type of distortion and ‘feel’ can be achieved by using a pair of headphones as a source of sound instead of speakers. The headphones are placed in front of the composer. Again, the composer can switch to this method when they have been working for some time and would like freshness.

Distortion and source of sound can be produced from one source if the composer uses a badly tuned radio. The composer finds a frequency where there is much distortion and slight traces of melody and then they fluctuate the volume.

The composer can approach the split-second burst method by playing music at a very low level, covering their ears with their fingers and moving their fingers for a split-second.

The composer can play music at a low level and listen to it from another room.

It is worth noting that using volume fluctuations alone does not work well – a form of distortion is also needed to make the method most productive.

A suggested approach to using the method

The composer can use the following approach, consisting of three stages.

Stage 1) The composer plays the CD and applies the peripheral listening technique. Any interesting melodies heard are recorded (a Dictaphone is a good way for non-musicians to record ideas). The composer can opt to develop the melody a little or simply record as many different ideas as possible.

Stage 2) The composer listens to the ideas recorded at stage 1 and works the best ideas into structured songs. (A degree of ideas that sounded promising at stage 1 will be disappointing on a second hearing).

Stage 3) The composer can wait some time before listening to the songs from stage 2. At this point new ideas for the song may develop or the composer will think of nice extra touches.

Combinations of these three stages are possible. For example, The composer could be so inspired by an idea at stage 1 that they opt to develop and finish a song there and then.

What music to use as 'Inspiration Track'

There are three possibilities for the composer:

1) Use existing music from CD's etc.

This may lead to fears about plagiarism. Plagiarism should not occur unless too much of the inspiration-track is accidentally lifted. Experience has shown that often melodies are created that are completely different from those of the inspiration-track. (I have experienced listening to songs completed using the method and being totally unable to tell which song was used as the inspiration-track.)

2) Use the melodic ideas created at stage 1.

This has been found to be a very productive way of working. Using stage 1's ideas should end any fears of accidental plagiarism as the melodies created will, once again, be different from those created at stage 1.

3) Use completed songs created at stage 2 and stage 3.

Experience has shown that this is the most productive method of all, with most melodies heard being original and musically interesting.


Like anything, some people will adopt this idea with great ease and find it a productive method, while others will not find it to be productive. Some – like me – will see it as the pivot of their songwriting strategy while others will treat is as just another tool in their songwriting weaponry.

The discovery of this method was very much a Eureka moment for me. I was confident with my talent for crafting songs but lacked a means to provide inspiration. This method provided that.

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