I’m a trumpet player, though these days I do more writing and conducting than trumpet playing. Back when I was starting out, I was in final rehearsals for a one-off orchestra I had been hired to play in.
I noticed that the principal trumpeter had a small ring of brass — sort of doughnut-shaped –that he had slid onto his trumpet’s lead pipe, just beyond the mouthpiece. I asked him what its purpose was, and he told me that it helped to focus soundwaves down the lead pipe, and also helped to make his trumpet sound richer and fuller.
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He had a few of them for various trumpets he owned, and so he gave me one to try out for a couple of weeks. I slipped it on my own trumpet and played a few notes. I noticed nothing. I took it home and practiced for a couple of weeks, sometimes with the device, and sometimes without. Again, I noticed nothing.
Next time I saw him I returned it, and when he asked me what I thought, I told him, “You know, there may come a point where I’m playing so well that I’ll notice what a little ring of brass does for my sound. I just think I need to be a better player in the first place before I’d notice anything.”
This experience has been something that’s stayed with me for my entire music career. There is a tendency, and I believe this applies to songwriters, to focus on tiny, minute issues, while ignoring the bigger ones that might be plaguing our songwriting.
A good example? When writing lyrics, you’ll want your verse to keep things emotionally subdued, so that when the more emotional content of the chorus arrives, it packs a more effective punch.
So if you’re spending a lot of time fine-tuning and finessing your choice of words in the verse, but not notice the larger problem that your entire verse is simply far too emotional, you’ve skipped an important principle, and the fine-tuning you’re doing is not really going to get noticed.
When writing melodies, you may be fine-tuning your choice of notes, not noticing that you’ve ignored an important principle of keeping the melody lower than the chorus, so as to keep the verse from upstaging the chorus.
Do you get the point I’m making? That trumpet player may have been seeing a benefit to his trumpet sound because everything else he was doing was being done very well. He was a polished professional, ready for what that little brass ring could do for his sound.
And as a songwriter, finessing and fine-tuning is an important thing to do, but don’t let it distract you from the more important task of understanding the fundamentals of songwriting.
How you’ll know if you’ve got a problem with the basics is simple: all the fine-tuning in the world will do little or nothing for your song, if there’s a more fundamental principle that you’re missing.
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