Balancing the Familiar With The Strange

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I learned something important about teaching very early in my career: if you want people to understand that new thing you’re teaching them, you need to start by giving them something they already know. I’m going to tell you more about that because it has a direct application to developing a unique songwriting style.

Teaching in a Nutshell

Let’s say you want to teach a class about some aspect of plants — why most plants are green, for example. You could begin with a discussion of photosynthesis, but that would likely leave many students scrambling to understand all the related terms: chlorophyll, carbon dioxide, chloroplasts, etc. A lesson that starts that way would leave students feeling that they’re in over their heads, and they would quickly lose interest.

The better way to go is to start by observing the things they can see with their own eyes, using terminology they’re already using in their everyday life: green, fade, dark, light, etc. So you might show them that not all plants are green, that there are different shades of green, that blocking the sun from a plant makes the green fade, and so on.

By starting that way, you encourage the student, because they already know these things, and they feel more inclined to stick with you — to trust you.

Deeper, More Creative Songwriting

Now let’s shift back to songwriting. Let’s say that you want to write the kind of music that really makes people think, that goes beyond what they might hear on the Billboard Hot 100. If you want to keep your fans and then build on that fan base, you need to present your music as carefully as a good teacher might present a lesson on something as complicated as chlorophyll:

  1. Offer your audience something they are familiar with. The Beatles’ groundbreaking album “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is known for its innovative ideas and genre-stretching songs. But innovation is offered in small doses. The title song is, at its core, a good ol’ rocker, but with innovative elements thrown in: french horns, audience sounds, an interesting segue to the second tune, etc. But it’s an easy song for listeners to get their heads into.
  2. Keep innovation from taking over the song. Innovation is like a spice; use too much, and it’s all you’ll notice, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. A little bit of innovation goes a long, long way.
  3. Make innovative elements in your song relevant to what the song’s about. The strange harpsichord part in “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds” helps the audience feel the strange scene being described in the lyric, so it has an important place. It’s relevant.
  4. Use innovation in an “ebb and flow” kind of way. If you start with something tricky for an audience to comprehend, move then to something easier for them. Then move back toward the abstract, then again back to easy. That ebb and flow approach will encourage your listeners, helping them to trust that you aren’t leaving them behind.

Just as a good teacher moves toward the unknown in small, carefully measured steps, you can successfully pull your audience along with you in a more thought-provoking direction if you move carefully, helping them to understand your musical motives and goals.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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