Essential Inspirational Songs for your Music Library
I am one who truly believes that in order to be a good musician, you must have appreciation for a wide variety of music. At one time, it might have been very difficult or very expensive to be well versed in such a wide variety of music. In this day and age, however, it is much easier to attain some of the more widely acclaimed pieces for inspiration with such avenues as iTunes or MusicMatch.
In my opinion, there are many songs that one can be inspired by. I will try to compile a list of music here that every music artist should listen to at least once or twice. The songs I will list here are easily attainable. These are all mainstream songs. I will not be listing obscure musicians, and I will not be listing rare songs. My intent is to broaden your horizons in a way that will inspire you and help you to grow as a muscian. Any good writer can pull from other writers in order to form their own identity. It's the nature of art. So with this list, I'm hoping you'll also be inspired. Take it with a grain of salt. You might not like some of these songs. But each should be reviewed and considered for its worth. I will begin with some of the more widely acclaimed pieces. Then, I will drift onto more modern works.
"Symphony #5" by Ludwig van Beethoven
It only seems fitting that I would start off with a musical piece by one of the most renowned musical artists of all time. I didn't pick this piece because it's a classic. It is studied by music students all over the world. It is considered one of the greatest orchestrations of all time. One can spend a whole essay describing the intricate detail set behind this arrangement, but I'm going to sum up everything in two words. Simplicity. Repetition. The bulk of the piece involves the repetition of a very simple note sequence. The syncopation between the measures is identical. The primary change is the notes, but each follows the same pattern. Mr. Beethoven has taught us with this piece that repetition and simplicity will get you far when it comes to music. Complexity has its place, but simplicity is the defining moment. And repetition is the glue that holds your piece together.
"Rhapsody in Blue" by George Gershwin
Who say's you can't blend styles? Gershwin is definately a man who has jumped in the face of that belief. Gershwin is a man of jazz. But he was educated in the classical and baroque music styles. Blend them together, and you get one of the more famous contemporary pieces of all time. This is another song that has been used for advertisements and many other things. Tom and Jerry fans (the cartoon) will recognize the piece, as it is the background music for almost every classic Tom and Jerry cartoon short. I feel like I need to point out the repetition issue again. There is a certain note seuqence that is repeated throughout the song in many different tempos on many different instruments. I think Gershwin must have studied Beethoven as well.
"Bolero" by Ravel
Ravel was a different person. He described "Bolero" as his interpretation of the sexual experience. I'm not sure I would describe it quite the same way. The piece starts out very soft, and it grows and grows in volume and in mass. It grows from a single snare, a clarinet and some plucked strings to a vast orchestra. Repetition is the basis of this song, but monotony is not. The same sequence is repeated over and over again, but there is always just a few elements that change. The real key behind this piece is the subtle changes that are made -- rather, evolve -- throughout the entire song. If you find a good recording, you'll barely even notice the changes without searching for them. You'll just be pulled along as if hypnotized by the music. This is music.
"Take Five" by Dave Brubeck
This is a song you've heard at least once. It's been used in everything from car commercials to sound tracks for movies. It's a jazz piece, and it's considered one of the best of all time. It's got a catchy chord progression and base line. It's saxaphone lead will hang in your head for hours. But this song is truly unique for one very important reason: It has a 5/4 time signature. Most jazz tunes are written in 3/4 or 2/4. But it is very difficult to compose in the 5/4 time signature. But this peice does it effectively and seemlessly. While I'd like to believe that Brubeck is a genious, I'm sure he came across this piece almost as an accident. He was probably playing around on the keyboard one day, and found this really cool note riff with his piano. When he tried to transcribe it on paper, the only way he could make it work was to put it to a 5/4 sequence. And his music evolved around that aspect of the tune. Experimentation is a virtue, and it will sometimes yield a pretty catchy tune. But one must not be afraid of the status quo. He did write, after all, a song that didn't follow many of the rules. This is a major aspect of jazz, but it doesn't have to be limited entirely to that genre. There are a lot of artists these days that have followed in these footseps, including Tori Amos, Steve Malkmus and even U2.
"Eleanor Rigby" by The Beatles
Any rock fan has respect for the Beatles. They have done a wonder to the world of rock. They have changed the face of rock, and they are considered one of the most influential bands of all time. "Eleanor Rigby" has, unfortunately, not been one of the songs that was widely acclaimed as a trend setter. It does not have the trend setting techniques of "Hey Jude" or the haunting sounds of "Yesterday". But if you were to sum up the Beatles in so many elements, they would all fall into this song. Take a viola, cello and violin, make them play rock riffs, add some haunting lyrics and mix it all so everything swims around your head. You have just overstepped the bounds of any music style that is currently known to man (at least in the time of the Beatles). And this song was widely accepted across the world. Don't be afraid of limits. If you can cross them with reason and finesse, they can be crossed.
"Tusk" by Fleetwood Mac
I'll give any band credit if they can write a very serious song about an erection. However, that's not why this song made my list. This is one of those songs that, in my opinion, breaks all sense of order. I would describe this song as organized chaos. As oxymoronic as that might sound, it really does describe it. There is a definite structure to the song, but you can't help but to think that at times the world is going to fall apart and leave you with shattered fragments. Chaos is widely accepted in almost any art form. It is, however, a difficult concept to pull off with music. Many of the more modern electronic styles thrive on this element of disarray. But only a few pull it off as well as "Tusk". If you're an electronic writer, I highly recommend grabbing this song and seeing how you might be able to morph its principals into your own style. And if you're one who believes in order, you need to listen to this song to realize that disorganization can sound beautiful. But you need the patience to make it sound beautiful.
"Brothers in Arms" by Dire Straits
Overdriven guitar can sound sentimental. Apply some very soft and sensative lyrics, and some southwestern harmonics, and you get the sound that is Dire Straits. A dramatic beginning, and a very dramatic piece. The song builds from a very subtle beginning to an incredibly breath-taking end. It helps to have a guitarist like Mark Knopfler as well. The man can make a guitar sing as if he's playing it with a bow. It's a ballad with stringed instruments (probably synthesized), but it is still very rock. This is just a demonstration of how almost any music style can be sensative and touching. It might even bring a tear to your eye.
"One Million Miles Away" by J. Ralph
This is one of the most inspirational songs I've ever bought to date. And that says a lot considering I own over 7,000 songs. I discovered this song in an advertisement for Volkswagen, and I've fallen in love with it. It has been a favorite ever since. Officially, it is classified as New Age, but it might not even fit into those boundaries. J. Ralph has had a lot of classical and contemporary influence with this, and all of his, songs. There are so many elements to this song that I cannot fully describe here. I would very easily be able to analyze this song across a multi-part article. But my space here is limiting. Grab the song and listen to the way the strings help to form the song. The tension builds as the lead violin starts to sound panics and confused towards the end. The 2nd and 3rd chair violins build more tension by having some very quick and repetative strokes, ever repeating the same notes only chaning to follow the key. The cello starts with soothing tones, but eventually starts to sound flustered and confused. The woman who sings in the song is both relaxing and haunting at the same time, as if to say "One million miles away [Oh no! what am I going to do about that?]". If you grab a single song from this list, you must grab this one. I have recommended this song to hundreds of people now, and I have yet to hear a single one of them say it wasn't worth the download (yes, it is available on iTunes).
"Her Majesty's Secret Service" by The Propellerheads
If someone else were writing this article, they would not consider listing this song as part of this list. I, however, think that this is an incredible example of how any of the music listed above can be applied to modern music. The Propellerheads, as you may or may not know, is an electronic music group. If you are not familiar with this particular song, you might be more familiar with "Spybreak" from the Matrix soundtrack which played during the scene where Neo and Trinity destroyed the lobby of an office building. "Rhapsody in Blue", as listed above, blended the styles of classical and jazz. But this piece blends the styles of techno and classical music with a bit of 1930's big band music thrown in. In the opening of the song alone, you'll hear brass instruments and stringed instruments playing very traditional riffs while you hear a bass guitar and finally some synthetic bass sounds coming in. If you were to listen to one part in the middle of this song, you might not even think of it as electronic -- until it returns to its high-energy guitar riffs. This is a wonderful marriage of the styles, and a piece worth listening to for inspiration.
"Teardrop" by Massive Attack
The last song I'm going to leave you with is not one you might expect. Massive Attack deserves to be on this list somewhere. But many would select songs other than this. "Teardrop", however, is fully deserving to be on this list -- and I'm going to make an example of it. There are many electronic artists out there that believe that you can do anything with a well selected sample from a beautiful sounding singer. In many cases this might hold true. Moby has long been a master of selecting the 'perfect sample'. But even Moby would prefer to write the lead vocals and record them from a fresh recording. When you listen to "Teardrop" I want you to realize two things. First, I want you to realize that the song can stand alone without the lyrics. Yes, the lyrics make up a major element of the song. But good mixing, good orchestration and creative (and simple) percussion goes a lot further than good lyrics. The second is the fact that lyrics should fit into the song in such a way that the listener cannot conceptualize the song without the lyrics. Lyrics are an instrument, and they are a part of your song. Throwing out a few guitar riffs with a few things shouted here and there might be an art form, but it is not great music. Everything should be placed well, should be placed so that it fits, and it should reflect entirely on the whole of the song. If you remove the lyrics, one should feel empty. It is the webbing that helps define your song. So make sure you pick or write good lyrics, and make sure they fit well. "Teardrop" is an amazing piece. It's simple, it's beautiful and it puts you in that place far away from where you are right now. This is music.
Music is a subjective art form. You may be familiar with some of the songs I have selected. You may or may not disagree with some of my choices. In fact, if you truly expect to grow as a musician, I expect that you would disagree (or at least question) at least one of my selections. The nature of any subjective art is that you must learn to debate. You must learn to pick out elements that you like and dislike. You might dislike a song, but one should not discredit every element of that song. Isolate the details, discuss and debate what you like and dislike, and only then will you learn. You cannot learn through ignorance. I don't care if you don't like classical music, you should at least listen to some of it to gain knowledge and wisdom. Collaborate with other music artists. Discuss with them what you like, and see what their "influence" list consists of. Your own inspirations will grow, and you will grow as a musician. So what do you have to loose. You can start with my list. You can only expand from here.