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What You Listen to Informs How You Write

It’s easy to think that the great classical composers — Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, etc. — were born with an innate ability to compose — that they were born with what some might call a “God-given talent.”

There’s probably something genetic about musical ability, to be sure, but I truly believe that the great composers were great not because they were blessed with the right genes, but mainly because they worked very hard.

I think the same is true of today’s good songwriters. Genetics may be involved, but I’ve never known of a great songwriter who doesn’t work hard at it.

Since we can’t alter our genetics, what can we do to make ourselves the best songwriters we can be? Probably the most powerful way to improve your songwriting abilities is by being a keen listener of music.


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A couple of years ago I wrote an article looking at the stylistic differences between Paul McCartney and John Lennon (“The Differences Between Lennon’s and McCartney’s Melodies“). There are some obvious dissimilarities — Lennon’s melodies tended to be based on short repetitive riffs, while McCartney’s usually use a more expansive toneset, moving up and down in a more deliberate sort of way.

When you look at how different songwriters write, and what the end product looks like, it’s likely that the biggest influence is what a songwriter listens to in their daily listening practices.

In interviews, Paul McCartney talks a lot about the various styles of music he was exposed to as a young musician, especially the musical influences that came from the music his father listened to in their house.

So McCartney wasn’t just up on the music of Little Richard, Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers — he was also influenced by music hall, jazz, salon music, and more. And you can hear those influences in songs like “Michelle“, “Martha My Dear“, “When I’m Sixty-Four“, and others.

The more music you listen to, the larger the pool of ideas that develops in your brain, and the greater your chances are to composing something truly unique and innovative.

If you really want to get the most out of your listening, treat it as an actual activity. Here are some ideas:

  1. Set time aside every day for listening.
  2. Keep a listening journal, and write down the title of the songs you listen to. Describe the genre, the instrumentation, and what you like about it.
  3. Talk to other songwriters about what they’re listening to.
  4. Try to listen to music from genres you don’t normally encounter.
  5. Try writing songs from other musical genres.

The more you encounter other styles and genres of music, the more your own songwriting will modify, and almost always in a very good way. If you’ve ever heard songwriters or performers talk about how they can’t really put a finger on what their own genre of music is, it’s almost always because they’ve blended together many different styles into that one style unique to themselves.

And as I say, that’s practically always a good thing.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary EwerFollow Gary on Twitter

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