Your audience can afford to believe that your music is magical. You can’t.
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A psychologist could probably tell us why we love magic so much.We love when an expert magician stuns us with something that seems impossible. It almost seems contradictory to our natural desire to understand everything around us. We like when we see something that seems to have no explanation, and at those times it bursts a bubble if we see how it’s done.
There are many similarities between doing a magic trick and creating a piece of music. Some songs almost seem magical, the way they transport us, fascinate us, entertain us, and connect with us.
But as with a well-executed magic trick, there’s actually no real magic involved. There are real reasons for why good music works, even if you can’t accurately calculate the effect of all the factors that work together to produce those amazing songs.
And that’s the real difference between magic that a magician does, and the kind of magic we call a great song. For the magician, every step is carefully and precisely calculated and performed. As long as the steps are followed, and the physical movements of the magician are smooth, you should get the same result. You can, for all intents and purposes, calculate the reaction of your audience.
Because music involves so many factors: melody, chords, lyrics, rhythm, tempo, key — and then all the performance-related factors in which every performance of the song is slightly different — it’s possible to have one person love your song and another one hate it. The effect of your song is predictable, but only to a certain extent. You can’t, for example, account for everyone’s personal taste in music.
It can make you feel as though there’s no real reason to study songwriting. Since it’s practically impossible to predict the end result of the interactions of so many musical and extra-musical factors, does it make sense to ever do more than use your instincts?
The answer is yes, it makes complete sense to study songwriting, if by “study” we mean to pull a good song apart, look at its constituent parts, and then compare those parts to similar structures in other songs. The best songwriters in the world do it, and you need to study as well.
When we don’t have a solid and obvious explanation for something, we call it magic. It’s hard to look at a song that’s become an iconic hit, like “Lean On Me” (number 1 for 3 weeks in 1972), “Another Brick in the Wall” (number 1 for 5 weeks in 1980), or any countless hundreds of others that have become classics in our culture, and not think of them as “magical.”
But practically every magic trick performed by any magician has similarities, whether that trick uses cards, ice picks, saws, or ping pong balls. They all require smooth gestures, distraction techniques, showmanship, and timing. And the best magicians will study the best from the previous generations to get those four factors working to the best of their abilities.
The best songwriters working today can list off the masters from previous generations that they’ve idolized and followed. No one is working in an artistic vacuum.
If you want your songs to be powerful and effective, you need to analyze songs from past decades, take note of their melodies, their chords, the way they’re put together, and then the way they’re performed.
You may never get to figure out the entire “magic trick” involved that propelled those songs to their number 1 status — the formula is very complex — but you’ll have done the most important thing you can do to make it possible for your own songs to succeed.
Always remember: the audience can afford to believe that your music is magic. You can’t. There really is no magic, no matter how it seems. Everything is calculable, and the more you study, experience and think, the better you become.
Written 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 get “Creative Chord Progressions” FREE)