From Plato To Syd Barrett, and Beyond! A Brief Look at Music Inspiration


“Where The Winds Come From:” A Look At Inspiration And Music Creation

Plato, scribing away all those years ago, quotes Socrates as saying: “For all good poets, epic as well as lyric, compose their beautiful poems not by art, but because they are inspired and possessed.” (Ion, 380 B.C.).

Viewers of the popular CBS news program 60 Minutes on November 26, 2006 learned about a 14 year old prodigy named Jay Greenberg, whose symphonic compositions are, by all accounts, masterpieces to the extent that he is being compared to the likes of Mozart, Saint-Saens, and Mendelssohn. But he doesn’t merely compose his symphonies; Greenberg says he hears them in his head first.

Greenberg, who composed 5 symphonies by the age of 13 and is contracted to Sony BMG, told correspondent Scott Pelley that he doesn’t know where the music comes from, but that it comes in as a fully realized orchestral composition. “It’s as if the unconscious mind is giving orders at the speed of light,” he told 60 Minutes . “You know, I mean, so I just hear it as if it were a smooth performance of a work that is already written when it isn’t.” Wow.

Who Could Be Writing This Song?

We now digress to the rock sphere, and the last-ever song of a struggling Syd Barrett to be recorded by Pink Floyd, “Jugband Blues”, which combines mundane and prosaic descriptions with strange observations that are quite striking:

It’s awfully considerate of you to think of me here

And I’m much obliged to you for making it clear that I’m not here.

And I never knew the moon could be so big

And I never knew the moon could be so blue

And I’m grateful that you threw away my old shoes

And brought me here instead dressed in red

And I’m wondering who could be writing this song.

(Jugband Blues, from A Saucerful of Secrets, 1967)

It’s the last line that really grabbed me the first time I heard it. Being that he’s Syd Barrett, one might dismiss the lyrics as musings from a troubled soul. After all, Barrett revolutionized a stream of consciousness, surreal approach to lyric writing that others, including Michael Stipe of REM and art rock pioneer Robyn Hitchcock have taken hold of and made their own.

See what artist Deniz Tek had to say about the mysterious origin of lyrics in a 2001 interview at Perfect Sound Forever: (from

PSF: Your lyrics have a heavy dose of symbolism – from Birdman ‘Theatre of Cruelty, Fish and a Giant Bird’ – Artaud connections! – ‘Egyptian Bird God.’ Do your songs come from the supernatural?

Tek: “I don’t know where songs come from. Maybe where winds come from. It seems like they are out there and anyone who is tuned to the right frequency on a given day can get them. Of course it is possible to sit down and deliberately craft a song. But the best ones write themselves, out of thin air.”

For further insight, we spoke to John Crawford, the super-rational singer/songwriter and architect of Berlin’s meteoric rise to fame in the early 80s. When I interviewed him in 2005 on the occasion of the release of his solo disc Surrender, I discovered that he too felt that he was an instrument for words that were not his own. Check out the following interview excerpts:

Q: You’re writing about reconciliation these days —

A: “Yeah. Probably more so. I don’t know where they come from. I don’t want to take any credit for it because I don’t feel like I’m seeking them.”

Q: You’re the instrument?

A: “Exactly. I think He’s using me, cause I don’t ever sit down and struggle to think ‘What should I write?’ It always seems to be given to me, and I just go with it.”

Automatic For The People

Another approach comes from an artistic method that would later be championed by the new age movement. Followers of surrealist theory in music, literature, mathematics(!) and visual art utilize surrealistic automatism (as opposed to mediumistic automatism) a method similar to a stream of consciousness approach, without the attached metaphysical trappings of the more spiritual traditions (for more info, visit: This idea of reaching deep inside oneself for ideas, concepts and insights is compelling, and revolutionized art in a variety of media throughout the 20th century. Still, Socrates’ hypothesis (via Plato) maintains its appeal as it speaks to us through the millennia.

In 380 B.C. he wrote: “For the poet is a light and winged and holy thing, and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his senses, and the mind is no longer in him: when he has not attained to this state, he is powerless and is unable to utter his oracles.” Plato continues: “Many are the noble words in which poets speak concerning the actions of men; but like yourself when speaking about Homer, they do not speak of them by any rules of art: They are simply inspired to utter that to which the Muse impels them, and that only.”(Ion.)

Whatever your belief, there’s an array of explanations for the apparent mysterious nature of at least some musical compositions, and other literary works — and it’s likely that they are not mutually exclusive.



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