English · This & That

Confession #1: It’s Not About The Instruments


What? Music is not about the instruments?

Um, riiight. Is this guy smoking something? Not at all!  Let me explain.

Music is created by instruments, sure. No one can deny that fact. An instrument is an instrument because of the role played in creating the song. A strum of a guitar chord, the bashing of the snare drum and the human voice are all musical instruments by definition. Hell, even a ping pong ball can be an instrument (cue Enrique!).

So instruments are required to make music, yes. But music is still not really about the instruments.

Let’s use an analogy: A car is a function of the engine, gears, exhaust, wheels, tires, chassis, fuel tank, etc. Is the car about the engine, gears, exhaust? Some would argue yes, but really the answer is no. The car is not about the engine, gears, exhaust and those other things; it’s about what that car can dowith the engine, gears, exhaust, etc. For a standard car it can take you from A to B. A slightly more high-end car could take you from 0 to 60 in 4 seconds or allow you to venture off-road (e.g. a 4×4).  Hopefully you can see how this all translates to music.

As a musician, I’m a guitarist first and foremost, and being a guitarist I of course have huge appreciation for good guitaring, a great lick, riff or solo. But my excitement is not because he played a B, C#, D over an A chord or whatever. It’s not the technicalities or music theory that excites me, it’s thefeeling that he generates with those notes that makes me giddy!

There are a range of minimalistic artists/bands out there today, and a specific New Zealander comes to mind, the super-talented Lorde.

Now the instruments in her songs aren’t going to wow you. You’re not going to bow down at the incredible, impossible-to-replicate instrumentation. No, you’re going to bow down to the gift of using few, well placed instruments to generate a feel that resonates with people all across the globe.

This feel aspect is at the core of every instrument. The feel of a I chord is considerably different from the feel of a IV or V chord. The feel of a major chord is remarkably different to the feel of a minor or diminished chord. The feel generated from the sound of a mandolin is totally different to the feel created by a grand piano. Often we lose sight of this, and the need to demonstrate technique and skill clouds the importance of generating feel.

I have developed quite a wide taste in music over the last few years. I equally enjoy the above mentioned artist’s music as well as more guitar-driven artists. At the core, it’s always about feel.

One of my absolute favourite bands, Alter Bridge, is technically brilliant. Marc Tremonti has won guitarist of the year more than once over and yet if he didn’t create feel, energy and excitement, there would be nothing to hold my interest. Maybe I’d admire his technical playing ability, but I certainly wouldn’t have pre-ordered their latest album if I didn’t feel something in their music.

My encouragement to you is to think about the feel you’re trying to create the next time you write a song. Think about it again when recording and mixing. The original feeling can quickly get clouded by lead guitar after lead guitar after lead guitar, just because “it sounds cool”. It can get clouded by a bad mix. Get new opinions or take a break and listen again with fresh ears. If something is not adding to the feel, remove it. More is not always more.

Sean David is a self-established music entrepreneur, singer/songwriter and journalist.  

English · Tips

Musician Does Not Mean Songwriter

via deviantart.net

Chances are you are not a songwriter.

Playing an instrument makes you a musician. Playing an instrument really well and for a living makes you a pro-musician. You probably remember the time it took from learning the first chord to becoming a well-rounded musician who learns pieces quickly, even sight reads and records parts in the studio with very few takes.

All this playing, studying, all the lessons, all the gigs, all the jams, all the mistakes, all this time… all are necessary to make you the musician you are.

Now here is a surprise that really should not be a surprise. It takes a similar amount of learning about counterpoint, harmony, structure, ostinatos, lyrics, symbolism, listener perceptions, etc… to be an equally adept songwriter. Once you have done all that studying it will take a several years of writing for anything from country to twelve-tone music for your skills to become rock solid.

All the time you have spent playing has helped with an understanding of music, but it is by no means the full education required to become a great songwriter.

Just because you have written songs does not necessarily mean that you are a fully rounded songwriter either. I sometimes edit my show reels or samples from film projects I have scored. This does not make me an editor.

A little checklist:

Do fans or customers regularly pay for your music?

Do other people play your songs?

Do you know how to write four-part counterpoint?

Are you well versed in classical and jazz harmony?

Do you regularly write music on tight deadlines?

Is your work used in a commercial context?

I encounter the same phenomenon every day. There are many good musicians or singers with good ideas and concepts that managed to record a song / album that is passable. For a great album they would need a couple of years more songwriting training and a real producer. Unfortunately these artists spend their money and energy trying to force their sub-par material into the market, rather than either spending the time to improve the writing or hiring someone who can help.

The resistance to working with a professional on their music is almost comical. See my case studies article. Everyone on the Billboard charts has a team of experts, but you can accomplish this all by yourself?

While you were out playing gigs, someone else sat at up home and studied songwriting or got a degree in composition. The songwriter depends on your superior performance skills in the studio and on stage. Why would you not utilize somebody’s superior writing skills? A songwriter feels no shame having a better singer perform his music, so why is there an issue working with someone to make your songs better?

I was a full time lecturer for guitar and I still prefer to hire a professional guitarist who plays professionally and regularly. I write and produce all day. The professional guitarist will be in better shape to play.

Check out successful production teams and you will find that they have experts for each part of the production. If you are not a professional songwriter (meaning you pay your bills with your writing skills), you may want to think about the fact that you are undermining your chances as an artist, as a musician, on stage and on recordings by having an amateur create the core product for you as an artist.

There is so much music that sounds the same, so I think it is important that you fight for your unique sound and for your voice. Working with a songwriter, or an “old-fashioned” producer, does not mean that you will be turned into something you do not want to be.

It means that you will sound your best and become the artist you are meant to be. A good co-songwriter or producer will support you, sounding your best, not changing who you are.

Article by Lars Deutsch