There’s a list online of classical music’s most prolific composers, and at the top of that list is the Austrian composer Simon Sechter (1788-1867), who wrote more than 5000 fugues, as well as operas, masses and oratorios.
Sechter is certainly not a household name. And it seems rather sad that his Wikipedia entry says, “His music is largely forgotten…” Yes, you can write more than 5000 pieces of music and be “forgotten.” But at least he has a Wikipedia entry.
Others in that list of prolific composers are rather much more famous: J.S. Bach, Telemann, Chopin, and so on.
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On the other end of the spectrum are the composers who, though they may have written much, are remembered mainly for only one or two great pieces. The German composer Carl Orff comes to mind, who composed “Carmina Burana”, the first movement of which (“O Fortuna“) has become the iconic choral work to accompany great field battles. He wrote other works, but they number in the dozens, not hundreds or thousands, known mostly to musicologists and “Orff fans.”
As a songwriter in the pop genres, you may find yourself worrying a lot about how much you’re writing. It’s normal to see that as part of the formula for success, since (you figure) if you’re so good at this, surely you’d be finding it easy enough to write a lot.
But while being prolific might be an indication of some kind of success, not being prolific does not necessarily indicate weakness. In that sense, being proficient is far more important than being prolific.
But if how much you’re writing has been playing on your mind lately, here are some thoughts to ponder, in no particular order:
- Getting lots of musical ideas is only good if they’re good ideas.
- Ask yourself how many songs you think you should be writing, and why. If it is a hard question to answer, it’s because the number of songs you write is probably only important to you, and that should tell you something.
- Think quality, not quantity. Like Sechter, no one will remember you for the number of songs you wrote. Songs that have any kind of longevity are ones that show that the writer had a true grasp of the fundamentals of good song structure. That has little to nothing to do with how much.
- If quantity is still important to you, consider having several songs on the go at any one time. Having 3-5 songs in various stages of completion allows you to move from one to another as you “get stuck” with one. It’s probably your best way to move into the world of being prolific.
- Dabble in several genres. Neil Young is a great example of this. He’s moved back and forth from folk to rock to country to hard rock to grunge to… And with each switch, he’s been able to dip into a treasure trove of fresh ideas.
Almost every time I’ve had a conversation with someone about this topic, it always comes back to this one important point: It’s all about quality, and almost never about quantity.
Remember, being consistently good — vital, in the songwriting world — is not at all the same as writing a lot of music. It’s better to concentrate on polishing and finessing what you do, and if that means writing less to get the quality up, that’s a good thing.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter
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