Nothing feels better in music when your work genuinely clicks with an audience. Many of us make music in the hopes that what we create will go on to help listeners feel understood in some way, and seeing that happen can be an incredible payoff. So incredible, in fact, that a song or album’s success can inform the creative decisions we make in the future. The frustrating thing is that copying the songwriting formula that made an old idea successful and pasting it into a new songwriting context probably won’t result in more great music, and can actually work against you in a big way.
Spontaneous creativity can’t be imitated
Things like chord progressions, beats, melodies, and lyrical content can be imitated relatively easily. But recreating the exact emotional, inspirational, and creative conditions that informed a successful song’s creation isn’t possible. It’s sort of like trying to go through the motions of a day you experienced a month ago. Sure, you can retrace your steps by doing each and every little thing you did that day, but you won’t feel the same. The in-the-moment magic we feel when we create music and something incredible seemingly materializes out of thin air is so special because it’s rare, and can’t be bought or bargained with. Trying to force it to happen over and over again will just leave you frustrated.
Creating conditions for musical success
What you can recreate, however, are some of the positive conditions that you might have been surrounded by when you wrote successful music. Was the music you made written through a random spur-of-the-moment experience, or did it come after months of working at a consistent time and place? How were you feeling and what were you inspired by? Was the eventual piece fully formed out of the gate, or did you spend time tweaking and shaping things until it sounded just the way you wanted to? Instead of focusing purely on the musical elements that made your work successful, paying attention to the conditions that allowed you to create something compelling can help set you up for future successes.
At best, copying the songwriting formula of a successful piece of music will result in something that sounds similar to what you’ve already created. But learning more about what makes you thrive as a musician will help you work in a productive space where great new ideas are more likely to come to you. Knowing yourself in this way is a lot of work, but the rewards you’re likely to experience will far transcend the ones you’ll get from trying to imitate past successes.
Don’t be a victim of your own success
Success in music is rare, so it makes sense why so many musicians let it inform their careers. But living in the past means putting your intention and energy in the wrong place. You can choose to see success as a burden you’re creatively beholden to, or as just another part of a long, unpredictable musical path.
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.