Musicians aren’t any different than non-musical people in the way that they typically try to avoid experiencing pain and loss. But where songwriters and all other artists differ from the rest of the world is in the way they’re often charged with converting painful personal experiences into work that moves and relates to people.
Music is a mirror
Let me get this out of the way off the bat. Suffering doesn’t necessarily make for a reliable songwriting tool. In fact, many artists succumb to the adversity in their lives rather than allowing it to inform their work in a meaningful way. But when songwriters are able to approach suffering in a way that leverages their talents and unique voice, it can result in something that moves listeners in a meaningful way.
Like all artforms, the best music is a mirror. It’s able to reflect humanity in a way that shows listeners something about who they are and the state of their own unique circumstances. This works in the same way how an intense movie pulls us in and makes us feel something. Like the characters in a story, we experience our own lives through the lens of music.
And while not all music is built on loss and adversity, there’s something about suffering that seems to resonate more than joy does in a song. This is why we read books and watch movies about characters who lose, struggle, and experience challenges. A story about someone who goes through life getting everything they want isn’t a story that anyone would be interested in.
But incorporating personal experiences of loss and pain in a songwriter’s work isn’t easy. While reflecting on something like a traumatic experience might be therapeutic for one songwriter, it could be devastating for another. And while trying experiences inevitably shape each and every one of us, not every musician should or is able to convert that pain into meaningful music. Pain and struggle and hardship is complicated. This means that some musicians are better off morphing their painful experiences into the framework of fictional characters or even just the tone, feel and structure of their music. There is no wrong or right way to approach suffering in music.
Why being miserable won’t necessarily make you a good songwriter
The relationship between adversity and music is complex and difficult to describe. If the economy of pain in meaningful music were as simple as the more miserable an artist feels the better music they make, then many musicians would set out to feel more pain than they already do. Fortunately, that’s not how it works. The tortured musician trope makes for a great story, but it rarely reflects real life. Young, ambitious musicians often look up to songwriters with careers that have been mired with the struggles of addiction, death, depression, and loss, but while there’s plenty of famous examples of phenomenal musicians whose work was informed by adversity, suffering isn’t what makes great musicians great. Only their work does.
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.