Simplicity is a great asset for musicians, especially if you’re the kind of artist that’s intent on reaching big audiences. But when it comes to emotion, dumbing things down underestimates the intelligence of your audience and dulls your sharpest ideas. Depending on your musical identity and goals, you probably want your music to be accessible to everyone in your audience. However, oversimplifying the emotional backbone of your work isn’t a good way to do it. Boredom might be an even worse reaction than disdain when it comes to how listeners receive your music, and emotion plays a huge role in keeping audiences engaged and invested in your work.
Oversimplifying music can be ingenuine
Your music doesn’t need to be dark, dramatic, or even especially personally revealing to connect. But sourcing it from a place of real honesty will help it resonate. We often forget this as musicians. Yet, we’re essentially just humans making music for other humans to enjoy in some way. Holding back and telling only the parts of your emotional story that you think is marketable or attractive is a subtle form of dishonesty. And rather than your audience immediately picking up on this, they’re far more likely to quickly forget your work and move on. Think about your favorite music. Is it emotionally wooden and predictable, or jubilant, devastating, relatable, or difficult to pin down? Chances are, the music that resonates with you the most is emotionally nuanced, complex, and genuine.
Presented artfully, emotion is one of the driving forces behind music that makes it universally powerful. But forcing or watering down the emotional layers you add to your music can make your work come off as forgettable or trite. We often get it wrong when we’re too invested in making work we think the world wants to hear, or when we create out of fear. Some of us think that being too emotionally transparent in our music won’t fit with our vision of what the world expects from us as musicians. It’s easy to listen to another musician’s work and unconsciously try to mirror their unique emotional approach instead of investing in finding our own. And for musicians who learned not to express their emotions at a young age, infusing genuine feeling into their music can feel foreign or even wrong to do. It’s a tricky part of making music, but getting it right can help your creative process in a powerful way.
Immediacy wins when it comes to conveying genuine emotion in music
It’s easy for our best musical ideas to lose steam as they make their way from demo status to released songs. Production choices, lyrics, collaborators, and second-guessing can transform an honest, emotionally engaging song into something that sounds polished but hollow. Immediacy is paramount when it comes to songwriting, and you’ll lose out on the big, urgent, and emotionally resonant ideas you stumble upon in music if you don’t preserve the urgent energy and mindset of your music when it’s new and unfiltered. Not every idea is ready to become a finished song the second it’s conceived, but leaving too much room for doubt and the questioning of your emotions can do harm to your best music.
For many of us, it’s a flawed process of creating something and altering it in a way to make it more emotionally palatable for our audiences and ourselves. It’s questioning things like obscure lyrics, enthusiastic performances, and the kind of musical ideas that don’t wrap up into nice, convenient packages. Rather than embracing music that’s truly new and honest, we mold things to serve our musical identities and the goals we’ve formed for ourselves. But for other musicians, emotional nuance feels too hard to convey, so they preserve genuine feeling by editing their ideas through exaggerating and lean into extremes. Trying not to hide our emotions or beef them up by focusing on the simplest parts of the stories we tell through music isn’t easy. Being present in your creative process is your best protection at falling into bad habits in this area. It’s the act of asking why we do the things we do when it comes to music, and it can tell us a lot about our intentions and emotions.
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.