On how (not) to write music

Well, I was just reading an interesting article on Thomann’s Facebook page (Musikhaus Thomann is one of the world’s largest musical instrument warehouse located in Germany) about how to write good songs. This was an enlightening writing – I still don’t have a clear vision on how to create quality music, but now at least I know that everything I’ve done so far was nothing but an endless series of errors and mistakes (at least from the perspective of how to write songs with the intention of being popular – or more accurately, commercially successful). Although I personally know dozens of music snobs who consider self-trained musicians like me incapable of forming a decent opinion on such questions, I still think that there’s no need to have degrees and certificates in music education to shape a consistent view on what art (in general) and music (in particular) are for.

All joking aside, the paper I’ve read was an excellent summary on how human psychology works, and as a musician, how to take advantage of it. The author stated that catchy songs shouldn’t last longer than 3-3.5 minutes, should have a simple and easily followable structure with an interesting bridge after the second (!) chorus (I usually don’t even have chorus-like musical building blocks in my songs LOL…) and must put a special emphasis on the first, middle and final parts. I may be wrong (and here I must emphasize again that being a self-trained guitarist I don’t claim to have the knowledge on how to write music in the technical/theoretical – or rather, academical – sense of the word), but according to this checklist of song characteristics, art is (at least, according to the author) not an entitiy that flows freely without limitations, but rather constitutes a well-designed and regulated “something” that can (and should) catch the attention of the listeners by fulfilling their general expectations and needs. In this context, a successful artist is a well-trained person who research, analyze and understand these expectations and serve them out well. An artist, therefore, is nothing else but a mere answering machine. With all due respect, I have a characteristically different view on art – and consequently tend to agree with one of the comments below the original writing: this is not the way of creating quality stuff, but rather the way to become hopelessly mediocre and calculable. Let me explain, why I think so.

First of all, let’s subtract the need for commercial success from the equation. Having a full-time job as a neuroscientist it’s really an extraordinary luxury for me that I can create anything without being threatened by losing my income if my musical creations don’t fulfill the expectations of my listeners. Not that I’m not interested in the general reception of my music: independent artists usually develop an even bigger desire to be heard, accepted and valued by their listeners than their “professional” counterparts, because they (we) have only a very thin chance to break through the glass ceiling and emerge from the overall noise. Still, I value the advantages of being an independent musician: it’s a great privilege and a responsibility at the same time. On one hand I’m completely aware of the fact that it’s hard to find an audience who’s open to lenghty instrumental prog/thrash tracks, but I’m also fully aware that there are still people out there who look exactly for this type of music: your presence here is the best proof of this statement.

Music (and art in general) is not a tool to become popular or to earn a thick revenue. I – of course – don’t say that music should be a free-of-charge service, but the focus should always remain on creating something original and to find the right audience for that. Art is not a race to win: we don’t have to be better, faster, clearer sounding or more unique than anyone else in the course of music history. Art, consequently, should never degrade itself to a mere reflection of the current common taste, but should keep its own intrinsic values, regardless that they attract anyone or not. I consider art to be the purest and most effective way of human communication – and in this sense it doesn’t necessarily have to be virtuosic or “well-trained” (not even in the sense that the cited article intended to suggest!), but only honest and genuine. “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken” – wrote Oscar Wilde once, and I don’t see any other chance to achieve artistic quality, but by being absolutely genuine and honest. I’m really sorry, but I can’t (and consequently, won’t) limit myself to 3-minute musical quantums to attract random people on Spotify who were unlucky enough to click on one of my albums. Similarly, I can’t (and consequently, won’t) build up songs on the basis of the traditional “intro – verse – verse – chorus – verse – chorus – solo – chorus – outro” scheme: not because I envision myself as someone who will revolutionize music theory by inventing novel song structures, but simply because it’s not the way music jumps out of my thoughts. It would be a sick approach if I composed, played and recorded music with the primary motivation to “raise the numbers” of random listeners and followers: my primary motivation is to find those who can relate to what I try to express in my musical creations. And that’s why I always tell you, how grateful I am for you to be here with me: your presence strengthens the feeling that there is a way for any kind of music (even thrash metal, LOL…) to connect people.

Someone once said that if you can’t achieve great things, then achieve small things in a great way. I’d reformulate this sentence as follows: art is a great thing in itself, and you don’t even have to be “great” (I mean, famous or popular), because you already have your share in the greatness of music, when you write a song or play a couple of notes on your guitar. You just have to give the maximum of yourself, and there always will be people out there who will value your efforts. Catching the attention of crowds without this kind of genuineness and honesty will always result in sterile musical artefacts – they may pay well, but they will never fulfill the primary aim of art: to connect people and transmit messages in a very emotional, intense and intimate way. If my music cannot achieve this – regardless the general reception of the result – then I’d better shut down my amp and stand back my guitar into the rack.

But I do hope it’s not the case…

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