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Craft Versus Art, and What That Means to Songwriting

Whenever you make something — whether you’re building a chest of drawers, sewing a dress, painting a picture or composing a song, you’re bringing together two important aspects of human endeavour: craft and art.

Craft refers to the technical skills involved in actually constructing something. If you’re painting a picture, craft would refer to one’s ability to use a brush and other implements, mix paints, to make something pleasing to look at.

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Art is different. To make good art, you need to be an excellent craftsperson, but you need to be more. To make something that is art means that the piece you’re working on (the painting, the dress, the chest of drawers) is unique: there is nothing else exactly like it in existence. That “thing” you’re making is happening as the result of a unique vision.

In that sense, every work of art is a combination of craft and art. When Michelangelo sculpted David, he’d never have been able to achieve the artistic side of that piece if he had no specific ability with chisels: art and craft. The Mona Lisa? Art and craft. Pavarotti singing Puccini’s “Nessun dorma”? Art and craft: vision and technique.

In the creative arts, we use the words art and craft to refer, not just to the abilities of the writer, but also to the actual piece being worked on. In songwriting, for example, all songs have some aspect of craft. For instance, the fact that a song has been composed to use verses and choruses is part of the craft of songwriting.

How Art, Craft and Songwriting Intersect

Anything about a song that is in any way predictable, it could be argued, can be described as craft, in the sense that it’s predictable because so many other songwriters/performers in that genre have done it.

And that’s perhaps where hit songwriting gets considerable criticism. In order for a producer to “make hits”, they need to target a particular audience. In targeting an audience, something about the song needs to be predictable to that audience. You need to give them a generous portion of something you absolutely know will please them. That’s part of a producer’s craft.

If you spend a lot of time listening to the Billboard top ten songs for any week, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there’s not a lot of art going on. Lots of craft — lots of producers knowing what the target audience is looking for and then supplying it.

But art? Vision? Stepping out and taking an artistic risk? Sometimes, but not so much.

If you’re trying to write a hit song, your music will need to be slanting a bit toward the bits about songwriting that your target audience already knows they want: the craft of songwriting. There’s nothing wrong with that, though. The best songs, like the Mona Lisa, need to have polished craft on easy display.

But if your songs don’t move beyond craft and show some pure artistic vision, what you’ve done may sound clean and polished, but won’t necessarily be an artistic statement.

For my money, I love the songwriters that take their craft and use it to make a unique statement based on a unique vision.

If you write a song and find that it sounds great, but also happens to sound like every other song written in the past three years in your chosen genre, you’ve just given the world your version of what’s already going on out there.

Every song is going to have a bit of that, but if you want to have a shot at being noticed and remembered, it’s going to come not from your songwriting craft, but your songwriting vision.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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