Recently the music world has been noting and celebrating the fifty-year anniversary of Joni Mitchell’s 1971 album “Blue.” If you know this album, you will know that many will tell you that the lyrics are its most powerful element.
And I agree with that sentiment. There’s not a weak song on the album. When you listen, it’s practically impossible to not commit to listening deeply to what you’re hearing. She’s the J.S. Bach of the pop music genres, where the appreciation of her talents grows exponentially with every passing year.
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Joni Mitchell’ songs show us an important principle of songwriting, which is that no one element works on its own. Yes, we are enthralled by her ability to draw us into her world with her lyrical prowess, but look beyond the lyric, and you’ll see how the melodies, the chord choices, and even the instrumentation takes her words and makes them bigger than life. Every song demonstrates this, but just to choose one, listen to “A Case of You“:
Listening to a Joni Mitchell song reminds me that for everything we can say about music — for every bit of wisdom we try to share, for every principle of good songwriting we try to impart — nothing approaches the power of simply listening to a great song. Great songs are the best teachers we have.
If you aren’t sure what to listen to, listen anyway. There’s no way you’re going to become worse because you didn’t listen to the greatest songs ever written. But the more you listen, the more discerning you become, the fussier you become, and the more appreciative of talent you become.
If you’re listening so that you become a better songwriter, you need to listen with a musically inquisitive mind. Don’t just appreciate a good moment: ask yourself “WHY is this so good?” Learn something, and then figure out a way to apply what you’ve learned to your next song.
One of the best ways to improve your abilities is to listen to your favourite songwriter being interviewed, and make note of who else they mention when answering questions. Find out who else that songwriter worked with, because you know they will typically surround themselves with other great musicians.
By making listening a daily activity, you create a deeper pool from which you can draw and mix ideas in the bid to create your own great song.
Some great songs sound epic, with full orchestra, strange instrumentation and so on. But Joni Mitchell’s Blue album reminds us that greatness can happen quietly and introspectively.
So if that this point in your career it’s mainly just you with a guitar, you’ve probably got everything it takes to create songs that can turn heads and rise to the level of greatness you’ve been searching for.
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