Audiences have long relied on music to get them through some of life’s most painful and exciting moments. People turn to music to celebrate births, weather devastating breakups, and to navigate the day-to-day emotional rollercoaster that is adolescence. With emotion playing such a huge role in the relationships’ audiences form with music, some musicians draw the conclusion that great music can be made only while being in a highly emotional state, but this creative approach can be bad for you and your work.
Extreme emotion doesn’t necessarily translate to meaningful music
Trying to get into an emotional state every time you write is a recipe for exhaustion and creating ideas that are forced and fake. Feeling something real and translating that emotional urgency into your work is one thing, but choosing only to make music when you’re experiencing high-stakes emotions is another. The idea many of us believe in music is that the very best stuff gets made when an artist is able to transform life-altering experiences into meaningful work, but that isn’t always true. Not every artist can or should use personal emotional experiences as creative inspiration, and there’s nothing wrong with that. For example, some musicians rely on their imagination to create lyrical narratives instead of first-person emotional observations about the world. There is no single “right way” to make music, but only working when you feel emotionally inspired will inevitably kill your momentum and limit you creatively.
It’s also a bad bet because it pigeonholes artists into creating the same sorts of songs over and over again. There’s loads of music out there that inspires and entertains people that has nothing to do with emotional themes like loss or love. Focusing only on emotion in your creative work leaves you at risk for forgetting that making music can be fun and lighthearted, not just cathartic.
Finding inspiration in a songwriting routine
The biggest reason not to rely too much on emotion for music-making is because you probably won’t end up making very much music if you do. One of the absolute best things you can do for your music career is to commit to making music consistently day after day no matter how you feel––sort of like how you have to show up to a job. Instead of waiting for inspiration to drop into your lap, creating the environment for great musical ideas to develop as often as you can gives you the best chance at making your best work. This goes against the conventional creative philosophy that musicians have to be emotionally inspired before they create.
It’s important to remember that there’s no single songwriting approach that works for everyone. Focusing on emotion can be a great motivator for some musicians and detrimental for others. But no matter what your process is, finding a way to carve out the time and space in your life to develop musical ideas consistently will give you the chance to create meaningful work no matter what your state of mind happens to be on a certain day.
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.