The best songwriters are the ones that experience music in the most ways.
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Every once in a while, I sit back here in my office and look around me at everything that’s been made by some company (and not by one specific individual). My lamp, lightbulbs, computer, printer, phone, headphones, synthesizer, trumpet, camera… Even my bookshelf, floor covering, door knobs and pencils. About the only thing in my immediate vicinity that wasn’t constructed on some sort of assembly line is the layer of dust that’s been accumulating on the less-used things.
Two hundred years ago, if we were to look around, we’d find that most things in our rooms would have been made by someone we knew. We’d likely have been making those things ourselves, and if not us, we’d probably find the individuals who were making candles, brooms, door knobs, window coverings, picture frames, fence posts, and most of whatever other stuff we would use in our daily lives.
It’s fascinating to consider that from our position in the 21st century, most of us don’t really know how to make anything. We know how to buy things, but not how to make them. And when you look at the people who work on assembly lines to create the computer product that you’re reading this on right now, they don’t actually know how to make a computer. They know how to attach the one or two things that they’re responsible for, and that’s about it.
Does anyone have all the knowledge for any one thing anymore? Is there anything in our lives for which someone can say, “I know how that’s made, and I can make that, from scratch.”? The list would be very small. Maybe that’s why Wikipedia is our go-to as a beginning step to understanding something. At least with Wikipedia, we can read something for which every contributor is that person on the assembly line: an assembly line of knowledge. And we like and value that.
But there is another area for which we can get close to claiming that we know how it works, and can “make” it ourselves: music.
The more you know about music, and the more you learn about all the different aspects of it — composing it, performing it, recording it, selling it, and otherwise communicating it — the more you can say, “I know how it’s made, and I can make it from scratch.”
The reason I’m bringing this seemingly obscure metaphor up — the metaphor of music being something that gets assembled in the same way that other things in our lives get assembled — is that it’s been occurring to me more and more these days that the best songwriters out there are the ones that experience music in the most ways.
Here’s how that works: the more angles from which you experience music, the more those different angles inform your understanding of music, and the better your songs become. Though it’s a generalization to say so, songwriters who perform are usually “better” than songwriters who don’t. They know something that non-performers don’t, and it improves their output.
Metaphorically, performing songwriters become two people on the musical assembly line.
If you’re always looking for ways to improve your songwriting, my suggestion would be to look for ways to involve yourself in aspects of music that “look in on” songwriting from a different angle.
And what are those ways? Here’s a short list of musical activities that can improve your own music:
- Produce someone else’s songs or recording. Helping other songwriters make musical decisions is a great way to help your future self.
- Play on someone else’s songs. Doing this allows you to see music purely from a performer’s point of view, without the pressure of wondering if your song needs fixing.
- Go to concerts with a critical ear. A critical ear is not a negative standpoint; it’s often a positive, “why does this sound so good” kind of experience. In the midst of an exhilarating performance, ask yourself what you like, and what you might do differently if it were up to you.
- Help someone with their own songwriting. Seeing how someone else is attempting to communicate musical ideas can add to your own pool of ideas, and that’s how music grows and develops.
- Help someone rehearse their band. Sit back and listen. Do you like what you hear? What can you tell them that will improve what they’re doing?
All of the activities above have one thing in common: it’s not your song that you’re working on. So that takes the pressure off you, to a certain extent, at least as it pertains to songwriting.
And each activity allows you to experience music from a slightly different angle, and a slightly different set of responsibilities. Each angle and each responsibility allows you to become more than just one person on an assembly line. As you improve your musical experiences, you become a writer, a producer, a rehearsal coach, a critic, a teacher and a better composer.
Few of us may know how to make a bookshelf anymore these days. But as a songwriter, you can become that person that sees and understands your industry — songwriting — from many different positions, and eventually become most or all of the people on the musical assembly line.
And your music will keep getting better for it.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter. “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-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 “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro.“)