When Brahms Speaks, Even Pop Songwriters Should Listen

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Johannes Brahms Advice for SongwritersRead the following sentence, attributed to the composer Johannes Brahms, a few times, and think on the extent to which it applies to songwriting in the 21st century:

A composer in order to study, learn and absorb all that the masters have to offer, and put to use that knowledge in his own works, must have the capacity to judge objectively an individuality that differs from his own.

Students of classical music will possibly be more familiar with that sentence than writers of pop music, but you can make the case that it applies equally well to any genre of musical composition. And if you take the sentence apart, you’ll find the following either implied or explicitly stated:

  1. Writers of music should study.
  2. Writers of music should use music of the masters in their genre as models for good music.
  3. Good writing requires knowledge.
  4. Writers of music need to be able to see value in music which may be completely different from what they themselves would normally write.

Studying music is often easier for Classical musicians than for songwriters in the pop genres. That’s because one important aspect of study is the opportunity to pass ideas back and forth between other interested musicians using clear, concise terminology. In pop music, many musicians are self-taught, or for whatever reason lack the musical vocabulary (one of the most important results of the study of music theory) to communicate musical ideas with clarity and succinctness.

But there is no reason that should be the case, of course. Music theory should be learned by all musicians, even if only at a rudimentary level. To use an analogy, a person with no ability to read or write words can still tell a good story. But literacy ensures that the storyteller can read other people’s books and be influenced by them, and then communicate ideas easily to others. Music theory has the simple effect of making someone musically literate, with all the side-benefits that come with it.

To Brahms’ second point, it has always been the case that the great composers used the music from their genre’s history to guide and inform their own attempts at musical composition. Mozart is famous for writing music at a very young age (his first symphony being composed when he was 4), but he was already studying and experiencing the music of composers such as C.P.E. Bach, J.C. Bach, C.F. Abel and others.

And today’s pop songwriters should be doing the same. You would do well to study the works of the Classical masters, since musical form, melodic design and chord progressions still work pretty much the same way as they have for the past several hundred years. But certainly the works of pop and rock masters need to be studied. And if you don’t know where to start with that, simply working through The Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time will give you a fantastic list, even if you dislike or disagree with some of the entries.

Knowledge in music may seem, on its surface, to be another term for music theory, but it’s more than that. Knowledge requires more curiosity, and a greater desire to understand why things are the way they are in music. Theory may reveal to you that Elton John liked to use chord inversions, but knowledge leads to you pursuing the reasons for those choices.

Brahms’ final point is perhaps his most poignant one, and arguably applies to pop songwriters more than to composers in practically any other genre. Pop music is designed (at least most of the time) to be immediately accessible, and immediately liked by a large number of people – hopefully, the more the better. It’s a normal reaction that when we dislike music, we tend to diminish its intrinsic value. It’s normal to think that we have nothing to learn from music we hate.

But that’s not an attitude songwriters should afford themselves. Disliking music is merely a display of your own particular tastes, and it is quite possible to have an aversion to music that’s otherwise quite well-written. Brahms is telling us quite plainly that we must not shut the door to the possibilities of learning from music we don’t like.

So the lesson from Brahms that applies directly to today’s songwriters is: Study the music of successful musicians, figure out why they made the musical choices they did, and don’t use your own particular tastes as a guideline for what’s good in music.

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Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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One Comment

  1. So True Gary, Pop music also borrows from Classical Music, as you would know
    Apart From The Classical Composers Cole Porter, to The Beatles, and the few of todays Master Composers .. Dianne Warren , Elton John, Jimmy Web. Bacharack and David,
    are all worth a lifetime study. ………………………On the other hand
    We can also forget the one hit wonders, that break into the charts via expensive videos
    some verging on pornographic .

    Personally I believe The Best Days of Popular music are over and it’s all down hill from here.

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