I recently saw a post on the r/WeAretheMusicMakers subreddit (which if you haven’t checked out, you should because it’s a great community of producers and musicians!) in which the user was asking for advice on getting more intentional with their sound. They said that any idea they try and work on sounds either derivative or they just aren’t feeling it, so they scrap it and move on. This is a vicious cycle, and it can be a real pain to try and get out of.
It is an all too common problem that we face as producers and songwriters, right?
We want the music we create to be uniquely ours, and we get frustrated when our efforts yield nothing but derivative sounding music, or half baked ideas that we can’t seem to get anywhere with. If this is you, don’t worry, because it happens to every single one of us. There’s a (not so) simple solution here though, and it may elude many of us because it’s so obvious when it’s pointed out. That’s how it always goes right? We rarely see the obvious solutions that are right in front of our eyes.
The key to being able to write good music, is to first write bad music. This seems super counterintuitive, and let’s be honest, it sounds ridiculous, but there is a real underlying concept here that is super important to your music production process.
So sit back, grab a drink and let’s explore it.
Making Bad Music
What goes into a song? What do you put into it to make it your song, and not just another piece of music that sounds like everyone else?
In order to be able to answer that question, you first need to be able to finish a song. Period. It’s all too easy to get frustrated with an idea that you aren’t feeling, and simply throw it away. But this can often become a really toxic mindset, because you can fall into the trap of thinking “unless the track I am working on is AMAZING, then I’m just going to throw it away”. Then when, inevitably, the next track you make isn’t a number 1 hit right off the bat, you scrap that one too. Hopefully you can see where I’m going with this.
Finishing tracks is not a skill set unique to good music. If it was, there wouldn’t be a bad song in existence would there? (And oh my god, have you listened to all the music that came out of the 80s?!)
The point I’m trying to make here is that when we think about songwriting skills, we think about being able to play instruments, create drum beats or basslines, how to structure a song, how to start an idea etc, but what people very rarely talk about is the fact that simply finishing a song requires a very real skill set, and unless you do exactly what I've just said - finish a song - you aren't building on this skill set.
One of my closest friends is not musical at all, he's a huge fan of it, but doesn't make any and doesn't have any in depth understanding of the process. I've recently begun signing a few tracks to labels and one thing he said really put it into perspective for me in terms of the effort you put in as a musician vs what the audience perceives. He said it really opened his eyes because the tracks I've signed to labels are just two out of the dozens upon dozens of tunes I've been making, and they were picked up for release almost a year after I made them. In other words, what we as fans of an artist hear as their output is only a fraction of the music they're making. It’s tempting to think that your favourite artist’s latest album or single is the most recent music they’ve made, but that is rarely the case.
So, taking this concept and running with it, what can you do?
Practice Makes Perfect
We're all taught from a young age that practice makes perfect, right? This concept is just as relevant with finishing musical ideas as it is with starting them. The process of taking an idea, building it around a structure, applying your own personal flavour and style all come with practice.
I’ve written before about how many of us will have hard drives full of half finished ideas that we didn’t like so decided to move on from them. But these all have potential as learning exercises for us.
Perhaps you could take a track you have finished, that you’re happy with and then do a bit of active listening. Make a note of the structural elements you’ve used, the concepts you’ve employed to take that track from a basic idea to a finished piece of music, and then apply those to your other loops or ideas. After all, if we take the unique musical qualities out of the equation for a second and approach this from a purely technical point of view, we’re doing pretty much the same thing with each track we make; using our own ingrained skills and concepts to structure the music.
Remember that not every piece of music you create is going to be something you'd want to release, but think about those pieces as your planning stages, your drafts, your training grounds. You have to make "bad" music in order to be able to make good music! Look at it this way, you wouldn't expect to be able to drive a car if you'd only learned how to start it and not learned how to stop!
Intentional SongwritingAnd so we come to the main point the user on Reddit was making; how to become more intentional? How to inject your own style and make music that sounds like you?
It should go without saying that all I've mentioned above are the first stages in this process. Before you can truly put your own stamp on your music, you need to understand what goes into a finished song on a conceptual level.
Then once you understand those rules, you can start to break them.
I’ve often said that with music production, it is imperative to learn the fundamental concepts first, because once you learn where the boundaries lie, you learn what is outside of them, and it is in these areas that you can really inject your own way of doing things. This may seem counterintuitive, but as with all things, you need to learn the established methods of doing something before you can learn to do it in your own way. Whether it’s music production, cooking, kung fu or playing chess, this concept applies.
Many producers -myself included- use the analogy that once you reach a certain point with your music making, whether this applies broadly or to an individual track, it becomes more like “discovering” the music than it is creating it. This is a very real phenomenon that happens when your brain knows what to do one, two, three steps ahead of where you are at the current moment.
You could be fine tuning one piece of your track, and your brain is already planning out the next steps for you. This is where the intention comes into it; you’re working from feeling because you have the technical concepts nailed. You’re making the music you want to make because you have the tools in order to do so.
Obviously this isn’t a universal solution to this problem, but the philosophy behind it is sound. The more you practice finishing songs, regardless of whether you like them or plan to release them, the more you will find yourself making songs you like, and that you think are a reflection of your true musical style.
It’s a long journey, but one that we are all on together, and it’s why folks like myself and many many others like to share their insights and techniques they’ve learned, because everyone can benefit.
Hopefully you got something out of this article, it’s a bit conceptual but that is the stuff that’s just as important as the technical side of producing. As always, thanks so much for checking in with us here at Top Music Arts, and make sure to check out the rest of our site for more help with your production!