The Beatles

The Older Generation Has Much To Teach Us

There’s a fascinating story about the Baroque composer J.S. Bach (1685-1750), who reportedly walked 450 kilometers (900 kilometers round trip!) to visit a composer that he considered to be one of his strongest influences: Dieterich Buxtehude. Buxtehude lived in the city of Lübeck.

In those days, of course, you couldn’t just put a recording on and listen to whichever composer you liked. If you wanted to learn from the greats, you had to be able to read music so you could study their musical scores.

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But if you really wanted to learn from the greats, the best way was to travel to wherever you might hear that composer performing their music. For Bach, that meant the 450 km journey to Lübeck — on foot!

But here’s the thing: Bach had no intention of ever writing music that sounded just like Buxtehude’s. As a composer, he was his own man. Yet when you listen to the music of Buxtehude, like this organ Prelude in C major, and compare it to a prelude that Bach wrote, like his own Prelude in C major, you can hear some obvious similarities.

A musicologist would say that Bach took the musical mind of Buxtehude to its next step. Bach considered that listening to the man himself — Buxtehude — performing his music live and in person, was a crucial step in his own development as a composer.

I’m not sure who your metaphorical “Buxtehude” is, but whichever composer is the one that exemplifies perfect songwriting to you, your task is a much easier one than Bach’s. You don’t have to travel hundreds of kilometers to hear their music: you can do it from the comfort of your own home.

Just as Bach took the compositional style of Buxtehude to its next level, any good songwriter today does the same thing. Think of the thousands upon thousands who experienced the music of The Beatles in the 60s, and learned from them, and then took that music to whatever they thought the next level should be.

For whatever genre you call your own, there’s likely someone who is your hero. Your music may bear some similarities to that songwriter, but your own style and way of thinking makes your music uniquely yours.

You can learn a lot by listening to today’s songwriters, but I often think that it’s the music of generations past that really has something to teach us. Those older songwriters have proven their worth, and they’ve now got a catalogue of music that we can use as models — if we take the time to listen.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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