Songwriter with guitar

Spontaneity: Live Performance Vs Studio Recording

I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to the role of spontaneous musical creation and its role in songwriting. I’ve been writing for many years on this blog about how I believe writing quickly is an important skill in typical songwriting.

That’s not at all to say that once you’ve created something quickly, you don’t usually have a lot of work to do in polishing and improving what you wrote… you likely do!

But in writing quickly, you tap into your musical instincts and are often able to get something done before your inner critic gets a chance to shoot you down.

Comparing writing quickly with writing slowly is a little like comparing live performance with a studio recording. In live performance, so much of what you do is invented quickly, on the spur of the moment — a product of your musical instincts. A studio recording gives you opportunity to work slowly and methodically, and get something done that sounds as “perfect” as you can get it.

On the face of it, I think most professional performers would prefer the live performance experience over the studio recording experience. Certainly that’s the case for audiences: most people would prefer to see and hear their favourite group live over a studio recording of the same songs.

Most of that preference, no doubt, comes from the electric feeling they get being in the audience. But I also think that many love to hear what live performance allows: the spontaneous creation of music.

There are some famous examples of musicians who eventually turned their backs on live performance, with The Beatles probably being the most noted example. In the classical music world, the pianist Glenn Gould eventually gave up live performance and worked solely in the studio. His point was simple: why struggle to get an excellent performance in a concert hall when musical excellence was more easily attainable in a recording studio?

From the book “Extraordinary Canadians: Glenn Gould” (and also in Gould’s Wikipedia article) we read this:

One of Gould’s reasons for abandoning live performance was his aesthetic preference for the recording studio, where, in his words, he developed a “love affair with the microphone”. There, he could control every aspect of the final musical “product” by selecting parts of various takes. He felt that he could realize a musical score more fully this way.

With The Beatles, the problem they faced was a more pragmatic one: by about 1966 it became difficult or impossible to accurately realize their music in a performance venue, since many of the production elements (backwards playing, tape loops, multi-layering of sounds, etc.) were not feasible.

The Benefit of Quick Writing

As a songwriter, there is a benefit to having your mind generate ideas, and then to tag those ideas on to new ideas, and to have that all happen within seconds. More than almost any other genre, musical composition in the pop genres benefits from quick writing.

If you haven’t really tried quick writing, here’s a little experiment to try:

  1. Set up a chording vamp on your keyboard or guitar.
  2. Start singing a melody. If you don’t know what words you should sing, make up nonsense words, or just sing “la la la”.
  3. As you generate new ideas, go back and see what it sounds like when you put them together.

When doing this, don’t stop: just keep going. Keep good ideas, throw out bad ones, and keep going. I think you’re going to be surprised that you’ve got the semblance of a song in ten minutes or less.

To add a challenge, you can even set a timer and see what you’ve come up with after a certain pre-chosen time frame.

Remember, you don’t have to keep anything, and you can fix anything you write this way. If you’ve got bandmates, the ideas you come up with can and likely will inspire them, and they’ll start to toss in their own supporting ideas.

Spontaneity plays a crucial role in good songwriting, just as it does in good performance. Record everything you improvise, and then put it away for a day. When you come back to it a day later, you’ve got fresh ears and a fresh musical mind with which to start the editing process.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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