Cheering Crowd

Music and the Wisdom of the Crowd

There is a theory that if you ask a crowd of people to estimate how many candies are in a jar, the average of all their guesses is likely to be closer to the correct answer than most people’s individual guess within that group.

That theory has a name — the wisdom of the crowd — and I suppose you could say that society runs on, and perhaps depends on, that theory being mostly true. Democracy, for example, makes the assumption that if enough people want a certain thing, the correct course of action is to provide that thing.

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When it comes to democracy, what a large group of people want will change over time (perhaps as the people discover that they actually don’t want a certain thing any more), and the collective wisdom makes a new choice.

In everyday life, we see the wisdom of the crowd every time we use Wikipedia to find the answer to something, or anytime we notice a common opinion becoming obvious on a Reddit page. Before you make a purchase of any medium- or big-ticket item, like a car, refrigerator or coffee grinder, you’re likely to read the reviews and get a general idea of what everyone else thinks is the right buy. You assume that if  you take the average of everyone’s opinion, you’ll get a general direction which can guide you.

Songwriting Wisdom

Knowing all of this, it’s not unusual that as a songwriter you might have an automatic desire to check the wisdom of the crowd to see if the song you’ve just written is a good one. After all, what are Billboard chart listings but a rendering of sorts of the wisdom of the crowd?

And if a song is sitting atop the Billboard Hot 100 or Hot Country Songs, surely that is some indication that it’s currently “the best one”.

It explains why many songwriters, once they’ve written a new song, will post it online and ask for opinions. Have you done this? It’s because you want to get a sense of what the crowd is thinking. Except…

…well, the wisdom of the crowd too often entices people to dig into the crowd, and pull out some of the individual answers that make up the composite opinion. And that’s often a problem.

I’ve always said that when you write a song, some will think it’s excellent, some will be okay with it, and some will possibly even hate it, and that’s all very normal. And so once you start pulling out individual opinions to have a closer look at whatever has made up the crowd’s opinion, you can get a very skewed picture that doesn’t do you much good.

The wisdom of the crowd is great for guessing the number of candies in a jar, or for determining if you should collect a tax for a certain service. But it’s not so great in guiding composers and other artists.

And why is that? It’s because one of the key features of artistic expression is the fact that it is self expression.

You’re always going to be guided to some degree by the wisdom of the crowd when it comes to writing songs. It’s why you’ve probably written most of your songs to be three or four minutes in length: it’s your view that that’s what the crowd typically wants. And the fact that you’ve written verses and choruses is your way of acknowledging that that’s the formal design that most listeners have come to expect.

But the other bits of your songs — the lyrics, the melodies you’ve created, the chords you’ve chosen — they’re all part of self-expression. In a way, the wisdom of the crowd still applies, but only in retrospect: some will like your choices and some will hate them.

To be an “artistic songwriter” — one that wants their songs to be an example of artistic expression — it’s tremendously important that you try to put your worries of the crowd’s opinions aside and write what you think is the best song you can write, on that particular day as you hold your guitar and pencil.

While you’re writing, try to push aside your concerns about the wisdom of the crowd and trust that if you like what you’re writing, you’ve fulfilled your responsibility to the world of music. What the crowd does with your song afterwards should not change your artistic vision.

To write with this kind of scant view of the wisdom of the crowd takes a lot of courage. But no one ever said that artistic expression is easy. Worry less about others, and write the best songs of your life.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle includes “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression”. Discover the secrets of making the chords-first songwriting process work for you.

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