Music legend Les Paul passed away this week. Aside from transforming music through his inventions like the electric guitar, reverb, and multi-track recording, perhaps his most important contribution is a life that is a testament to the power of asking "why".
I recall an NPR interview with Les Paul when he was in his seventies. He said that his success at innovation and his triumphs over the medical adversity in his life came largely from an inner drive to always ask 'why'. As a young child he pondered why it was that a piano-roll could be sped up or slowed down and not change pitch, while a record on a turntable did change pitch when the speed varied.
I identify strongly with this, as I have always made every effort to understand why a particular song has the effect that it does on the people that it touches, positively or negatively. I studied psychology and got a degree in Molecular Biology, and that scientific background has been invaluable in deconstructing and understanding the complex process of songwriting.
If there is one big change I see in the mindset of the many young artists I work with today, as opposed to 20-30 years ago, it is the lack of that spark of curiosity to dig into the "why" of things. Kids and young adults are as bright and intelligent as ever, but not necessarily as curious about the world around them (due in part to changes in emphasis in school curricula, coupled with an instant-gratification digital/virtual world). The emphasis has made a shift from 'why' to 'how'. Of course there are always exceptions, but I see it as a clear trend, across thousands of folks that I have worked with.
This has significant impact on the craft of songwriting, and on the quality of the songs that are created. I am constantly asked 'how' to market a song, 'how' to record a song, 'how' to structure a song, 'how' to make a lyric better – but rarely 'why' does a specific aspect of a song or an arrangement have a specific effect on a specific type of listener. And, ultimately, this is really what we as songwriters want to be able to consciously shape and mold into our creations. To know the ideal blend of melody, harmony, rhythm, words, meanings, and phonics that will affect our target audience in the way we intend.
It's simply easier to say "you can’t know that" or "I just go with my gut instinct" or "however it comes out of me is 'true' so I'll stick with it". All of that just avoids the extra time, effort, and skill it takes to take the initial output and work it into something even better.
This is the crafting process – distinctly different from the song generation/creation process. Creation is unconscious, spiritual, emotional, and very individual. The biggest trap that aspiring songwriters fall into is believing that when that burst of inspiration is spent, the song is "done". The successful, seasoned songwriter knows that the end of that wonderful, indescribable time of inspiration marks the beginning of the next phase in the life of a song, which is the crafting phase. This is the rational, analytical process where specific tools and techniques are applied to the raw output of the creative flow, to cut and polish the raw gem into a final product that touches people in a desired way.
Understanding the difference between creation and craft is a key to better songwriting. And in this digital age where you are competing fiercely for the awareness and attention of an audience, it is ultimately the quality of the songs that is going to lift you above the baseline of uncrafted clutter.
When I wrote "Songcrafters' Coloring Book", I devoted the entire first half to "Why" it's important to learn and apply all the techniques presented in the "How" part of the book. That's a discussion which had never been presented before in any depth in other books.
You may know that saying "a guy", "the guy" and "this/that guy" create three separate effects. But when you know why, you become the master of every instance of this in all your songs. You may know that "she KISSED me" means something totally different than "she kissed ME". But when you know why, you become the master of every instance of this in all your songs. You may know that "she's just one of a kind" and "he is even kinder" both have six syllables, but cannot possibly be put to the same melody with good effect. But when you know why, you become the master of every instance of this in all your songs. You may know that the line "His innocence, in essence, was an evanescent dream" causes some kind of brain-tingle, while "His lack of experience eventually just faded away" is flat and forgettable. But when you know why, you become the master of every instance of this in all your songs.
If you are a songwriter or musician or singer, don’t shortchange yourself by overlooking the benefits of asking why things work or don’t work, and find yourself a good mentor or coach who can explain it to you and make it relevant to your world and your goals.
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