Music is a space where it’s tempting to approach things with an indulgent philosophy. If you think about it, everything from selling out shows to proving your music is being listened to over streaming platforms is dependent on numbers. The better numbers you can generate, whether it’s song streams, fans over social media, or downloads of your music, the better, right? I don’t think it’s that simple, and in an age where music is so intertwined with numbers, we run the risk of valuing musicians too much or too little because everything is attached to numbers now. Rather than adopting a “more is always better” mentality around your music, you could probably benefit in a big way from stepping back and embracing a more minimal approach––especially when it comes to songwriting.
The icing and the cake
What are the bones of a song? When you strip the production and added instrumentation away, you typically are left with some sort of chord progression and voice melody (for most pop songs). Think of the bones behind a piece of music as the bready part of the cake. The icing consists of things like catchy percussion sections, background vocals, reverb and guitar solos. These added elements are often what makes songs exciting to listen to, but they only add to the structure and bones that are already there. Icing makes cake taste good, but most of us wouldn’t want to eat just icing.
Songwriters can get into trouble when they focus more on the icing than the cake itself. Embracing a minimalist approach every now and again in your work can help you to focus on developing the structure and flow of your songs rather than on dressing up half-baked ideas into something they’re really not. Some songs are best suited to sound sparse and minimal and others benefit in a huge way from added instrumentation and production. Either way, spending more time thinking minimally can improve your writing.
Finding the spirit of a song
Breaking down a song idea into its most basic elements gives you the opportunity to hone in its heart and character. Sometimes music loses its energy and spirit when too much is piled on top of a single idea. Rather than coming up with a song and adding other elements to it immediately, it’s always a good idea to have demos of initial song ideas to come back to if things go off track. This is a way to preserve the initial energy in the music you came up with the added benefit of being able to try out different moods and directions for your songs. It’s also important to note how you’re feeling and what you’re thinking about when you first develop a song. Using a minimalist approach in your work can help you identify your thoughts and motivations for writing something and help you incorporate them through extra instrumentation and production later. There’s no right or wrong way to make music, but every songwriter can benefit from breaking things down and simplifying their work every now and again.
Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician, and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.