One habit I’ve tried very hard to cultivate in the last few years is keeping track of every little scrap of musical inspiration I come up with. Whether it’s a chord progression or some face-melting lick, I want to record them somewhere that I can get to later when I need to jump-start my songwriting or improvising.
If the process of journaling is a healthy practice for writers, capturing every scrap of musical ideas is the equivalent for musicians. I find the process of just putting these ideas down somewhere helps me grow my own personal library of licks and tricks.
I’ve tried several different approaches over the years but, so far, each service or mechanism I’ve tried has somehow fallen short. So what is it I’m looking for? Here’s my short-list of criteria:
It needs to be fast. Inspiration is a very delicate and fleeting thing. No matter how I capture an idea, it needs to be dead-simple. If there’s a moment’s hesitation, I’m very likely not to capture the idea and then it’s gone forever. Bummer.
I need video. Nothing helps me remember a lick or musical idea like seeing myself play it. The fingering, the picking, the chord voicings are all details I want to capture. Sure, I could notate all of this in standard musical notation or tablature, but that’s to time-consuming when I’m just trying to capture an idea.
Easy Review. My workflow is typically to shove ideas in a box as quickly as they come to me and sort them out later. If the process of capturing ideas is easy, it can’t be a complete pain in the ass when I want to look back on what I’ve captured.
I need context. Sometimes the idea I’m capturing can’t be expressed entirely in short video. Maybe there are other parts I hear in my head that I want to remember. If I’m keeping the capture process lightweight, even something like GarageBand is too heavyweight for what I want to do. So I need to be able to add some text to help add context and details to the captured idea.
I’ve tried just stuffing videos on Dropbox, I’ve tried putting it all in Evernote, none of these has been totally satisfactory. But I think I may have settled on something that will last for awhile: Day One and private YouTube videos.
Day One is a wonderful journaling app that I’ve used since it was first released. It has a wonderfully simple and engaging interface that makes you want to write. There is such a wonderful positive feedback loop when you use something that motivates you to create. I’ve used Day One as a personal journal, as a travel diary and as a place for journaling related to my consulting practice. It is an extremely well-designed, focused application, not a do-all kitchen-sink kind of application. This means that the two things you want to do the most with it (capture ideas quickly and review them later) are the most immediate tasks available.
What I recently learned is that Day One will automatically display YouTube and Vimeo links right in your journal entry. YouTube and Vimeo are two of the premier video-hosting platforms and video-storage was one of the major shortcomings of my previous approaches. Taking advantage of the huge infrastructure of those platforms is a huge win.
After a little experimentation, my idea-capture workflow goes like this:
- Record a quick video on my iPhone or iPad using the built-in camera
- Upload the video to YouTube as an unlisted video via the built-in sharing feature
- Copy the YouTube link
- Open Day One and create a new journal entry
- Paste the link in the entry
- Tag the entry (usually I use "guitar" and "licks" or "musical ideas")
My ideas are captured and now they’re available on every device I have instantly thanks to Day One’s excellent cross-device syncing. Because YouTube is hosting the video I don't have to worry about file-storage or syncing large files. The only thing I have to remember is to mark the YouTube video as “unlisted” and not “private”. A video with private settings won’t get embedded in the Day One journal entry and I don’t want to mark these as public videos (not all of my ideas are that awesome.)
I can’t tell you how many times I've thought about just building my own app for capturing musical ideas. Thank goodness Day One came along to prevent me from such distractions and keeping me focused on the music!
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