Songwriting, and that Nagging Problem of Confirmation Bias

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Studio mixerOne of the reasons bands, singer-songwriters and other recording musicians hire producers is because they are able to listen to the music objectively and make decisions that the writer might be unable to make. A producer can tailor your song to be enthusiastically received by as large a cross-section of the listening public as possible, hopefully minimizing the artistic compromises the songwriter must make.

What is it about songwriting — or any artistic endeavour, for that matter — that makes making decisions in a recording studio so hard? It’s not stretching the metaphor too much to compare the creation of music with the creation of babies: it’s in our DNA to unconditionally love our children, and to support and defend them without question. We all think our children are amazing, and that’s as it should be.

Similarly, it’s in our psychological make-up to automatically support and defend our music as we’ve created it. The psychology world knows this as a form of “confirmation bias.” We automatically seek out advice and opinions that appear to support our original beliefs, and reject whatever counters them.

In the music world, confirmation bias means that we’re likely to feel rebellious toward suggestions that would require us to change our music. The best producers, while possibly not being familiar with that psychological term, are experts not just at making musical decisions, but at convincing them to make the modifications necessary to introduce their music to the widest audience possible.

No one will fault you as a songwriter for approaching what you do from an almost purely subjective position, writing what you want to write, ensuring that you get to hear what you want. But once it’s time to record, more objective minds must come into the process.

There is a case to be made for trying to inject some musical objectivity into the songwriting process itself. In other words, if you can successfully incorporate an objective stage that follows the initial subjective flurry of ideas into the songwriting process, you arrive at the studio with something closer to what a producer would be looking for. I’ve already written about this two-stage process before, here.

One of the best ways to ensure that the music you write is already resonating with your target audience is to gig, and to do that a lot. Playing for live audiences allows you to hear audience reactions to your music in their raw, impulsive form.

Then armed with what you know about those reactions, you’ll find that you’re better equipped to write music that zooms in on what your audience is looking for. It still allows you to be creative, imaginative and innovative, hopefully pulling your audience in new and exciting directions.

But gigging must be mixed with good sober second-thought. Screaming fans can be intoxicating to an artist, and can deepen the negative effects of confirmation bias. At some point, to excel as a songwriter, you must approach your craft with a sensible mix of subjective creativity with a more sober, objective rethink. Never underestimate the positives that can and will come from a good recording producer.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle looks at songwriting from every angle, and has been used by thousands of songwriters. How to use chords, write melodies, and craft winning lyrics. (And you’ll receive a FREE copy of “Creative Chord Progressions.”)

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One Comment

  1. Songwriter Enemy Number One, Suggestions that their song needs more work,
    can often get aggressive replies like this song has been published, so what do you know about it .

    or even “When did you last write a number one or even a top twenty song.” One of the major reasons publishers a hardly ever give comments at all .

    Thanking everyone who loves your song , ignoring the guy who likes the song but not the arrangement. Many learning songwriters base their opinions on the fact that the demo cost them 750 dollars or more.

    We cant win , their song only needs George Strait recording it and it will be a hit

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