Decoding Inspiration

April 9, 2019

 Inspiration. I’ve been curious about this topic ever since it became practical in my creative career. As creatives, we’re told to “be inspired”, “seek inspiration”, “inspire others” etc and through our native impulses, we seem to know the mechanics of inspiration. And rightfully so, for because we’ve been involved in the acts of receiving and giving inspiration as far as we can remember, we just didn't call it that, yet.


Like many, I never really took the study of inspiration up to an intellectual level, because it's something that can be easily understood and executed. Just like how most of us never pursued a higher intellectual discourse in the working of our limbs, because….they just work, right? So why bother?

I’ve eventually taken a deeper interest in this topic due to the realisation over time that inspiration is in fact multi-dimensional, and its functions are far reaching into many aspects of our lives. Being inspired at the right time and in the right way can change the lives of creatives and those they serve in unimaginable ways. It can be the difference between a mediocre and a revolutionary piece of work.


The “How” and “What”

Many of us stuck in creative deadlocks would struggle with the “how?” How do we get the inspiration we need? Quite often, it comes in utter frustration and helplessness. With deadlines breathing down our necks, the stress certainly isn’t a great assistant…or is it? In a movie lightbulb epiphany moment, inspiration magically shows up during the climactic moment to solve our creative knots. We're "inspired" and found what we're looking for, but we don't know how we got them. So the cycle continues.


Secondly, we need to know “what” inspiration is? Simply put, inspiration, whether given or received, according to the oxford dictionary:


“The process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative” and “A sudden brilliant or timely idea”


A comment from a Quora post by a user Kevin Kieninger also explains this very plainly:


"Inspiration comes from the knowledge of the world and categories that we already possess"


Inspiration Types
Active Inspiration

Active inspiration is when we consciously dive into our mental recesses in search for stored information relevant to our work at hand. Our mind then synthesise the information and provides us with options. It’s similar to searching on computers using keywords on search engines.


When a composer is working on a melody, he/she is usually either stumbling on the keyboard, listening to relevant reference music or…my personal all time favourite: Staring into the ceiling waiting for divine revelation to appear, aka “Day Dreaming”.


All three of the above mentioned involve an “active search” in the mind. With the first, the composer is using his/her mental faculties to construct melodies based on previous experience of theoretically/musically probable pitch combinations. Secondly, they’re using music, heard of and/or new, through listening in the physical realm and/or mental recollections, and determining the suitability of the reference. Thirdly, the “daydream” method, is using the above two, but performed entirely in the mind. The daydreamer would be doing mental gymnastics of playing the “keyboard” in their minds and scouring their vast mental library of music for close matches.


It is also worth mentioning that the quality of inspiration gets better with experience, and it's not surprising. Because the more we know, the more resources the mind has to play around and work with.


Subconscious Inspiration

We would know this better as the infamous "A-Ha!" moments. You could be idle or involved in a totally unrelated activity, then in a moment of epiphany, the solution to your problem or a random brilliant idea would just magically appear. Most people would credit a force beyond themselves for this, but in reality, the mechanics are no different from the workings of active inspiration — It’s just happening under the radar, deep in our subconscious.


Subconsious inspiration are like gears always working in the background when the brain is in need of a solution. Similar to the function of our heart and lungs abling us to live — they’re always working. For example, we could be randomly strolling in a park while taking a break from composing a piece of music, and then hearing birds chirping a particular melodic pattern. Recognising this as a potential fit to the equation at hand, the subconscious pushes this through to our consciousness and alert us of the findings — Think of it as an assistant stealthily working behind the scenes to solve his/her bosses problems and showing up only with solutions to show for.


Another example of how the “A-ha” moment materialises is when we're stressed under tight deadlines. Stress, or “healthy stress”, is seen as a useful ally that can motivate and push us to accomplish beyond our personal expectations. With deadlines approaching and we’ve still yet to conceive that killer idea, we get anxious, nervous and begin visualising the negative outcomes. It’s this fear of failure mixed in with the zeal for success that drills the subconscious into overdrive mode and concocts the “A-ha” moment.


The mind is a primal organ that can barely tell the difference between getting fired from a job and getting killed by a sabre tooth tiger — both are deemed as life and death situations. Its primary function is to keep us alive, and when encountered with a survival threat situation like a job deadline, it pushes through its regular capacities to device, in our case, a creative “A-ha” inspiration moment to weather the storm. Many great ideas, innovations and achievements were made under such circumstances.


The Wrap Up

It’s important to note that our experience is the primary, if not the only source of all the inspirations we’ve had and will ever get. No one knows for sure if there’s really such a thing as “divine inspiration”. It’s a better bet to depend on our own hard work in acquiring experiences from which our inspirations can draw upon. We can trace the inspirational sources of humanity’s greats from various disciplines like Mozart, Michaelangelo, Alexander of Macedon, Sun Tzu and Metallica to their rich personal experiences.


The more we experience life in its variety of richness and splendour, the higher quality our inspirations can become.We are a massive storage drive containing what we’ve consciously and subconsciously absorbed since birth. Our experiences, whether still fresh or faded into distant memory are well within us. They exist in various levels of depth and are waiting to be conjured when the moment is right and ripe.

Special thanks to Sean Sinclair and Jessica Luk for their valuable inputs and edits.


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Kian How is Asia’s leading Visual Media Audio Specialist, with over $100 million in accumulated project revenue and over 10 years of experience. Based in Shanghai, he produces/supervises audio for various global visual media outlets. He also teaches in art institutes and writes articles on his views pertaining to the creative arts.

For more information about me and my work, please visit my website: Contact me at For more articles, please visit

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