When you set out to create new music, what does your mindset look like? Are you curious and ready to explore ideas wherever they take you, or are you bogged down with the baggage of expectations? The truth is that it’s impossible to completely separate ourselves from our past experiences when we create. But when your desire to sound a certain way or accomplish something specific when you write overshadows your creative spirit and freedom, your work suffers badly for it.
Why expectations are too much to live up to in songwriting
We all want to succeed when we make music, whether it’s in creating something meaningful for our listeners, paying the bills, or trying to accomplish both. But when the expectation to outdo a previous success or create the best work of our lives shapes our music more than our creativity and curiosity does, we end up limiting ourselves in big ways. Ideally, creativity should come first in songwriting and everything else should come second. Working in a way that prioritizes our creative freedom above everything else can be a massive challenge, but trying is the important thing. It’s about recognizing when the baggage of expectations is present in our process and doing our best to defy it.
How the baggage of expectation negatively shapes the songwriting process
“I’d really like to see where this idea is going, but that’s not really what I want to sound like.” Have you ever told yourself something like this while writing music? It’s the narrative of expectation, and listening to it could squash your best ideas and leave your music sounding uninspired. So many of us complain we don’t have enough inspiration in our lives for music, but fail to realize that it often graces us in unpredictable and inconvenient ways. If you listen to expectations more than your creative intuition, you’ll drown out inspiration in the process.
If your need to be successful and write a big hit is present in your process from the beginning, how will you write your best work? This obviously gets tricky if you’re a professional songwriter and want to find conventional success with your music. But the more you can call out expectations in your process and keep them from informing your creative choices, the more honest and free your music will be. And if you have seen some success from your music before, your mindset was probably creatively open, not limited with expectations.
Building a songwriting process that rewards creative exploration
Focusing more on creativity and curiosity in music is a harder sell than sticking with expectations. Why? Because with expectations we know what we’re getting as music-makers. We can comfortably write music that sounds a predetermined way with specific goals in mind. There’s no room for uncertainty when we write with expectations in mind. Creating freely without the baggage of expectations is an entirely different story. When we create with true freedom, we leave room for exploration and risk. That’s a hard sell for songwriters who are hellbent on being as successful as possible. But, strangely, that desire for success often causes songwriters to write safe, predictable music that falls far from their true potential.
If you want to be creatively successful, you have to build a songwriting process that breaks free from expectations and allows you to pursue music fearlessly and in an inspired way. There’s a lot of work involved in doing this, which means that creating on auto-pilot could leave your work tainted by expectations. While none of us will ever remove expectations from our unique creative processes completely, striving to is what’s important.
Writing authentic, inspired music isn’t easy, but nothing about making music is easy. The more time and freedom you give yourself to develop your voice, the better and more powerful your music will be. Remember that failure is an unavoidable part of creating without expectations, and that if you’re not falling short and hitting dead ends, you’re probably playing it safe with your process. To explore your creativity in ways that aren’t informed by your need to be successful or please your fans, you’ll inevitably run into challenges as you write. Rather than dreading those challenges, your music will benefit if you start to welcome them.
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.