In music and all art in general, there’s the stuff that thrives in the moment, and then there are the songs that stand the test of time. What was fashionable in music back in the early 2000’s isn’t in favor today, obviously. But while it’s easy to separate what’s trendy from what lasts in music after 20 years, it’s a lot trickier to know while you’re creating. When we listen to contemporary music, we’re exposed to fads that inform everything from lyrical content to production decisions. There’s nothing wrong with listening to trendy music, but letting what’s popular and influential now crowd out your creative intuition and authenticity in songwriting is a big problem.
Creating music that endures
There’s no way to tell if what you create will endure in the lives of listeners or if it will even be heard at all. But a red flag to watch out for is asking whether your music safely fits within the mold of the popular music of the moment. Even some music that was made just a couple of years ago sounds outdated by now. Why? Because aside from the benefit of sounding relevant and fresh in the moment, it didn’t have anything else to offer. Chasing down musical trends is great for writing music for ads or movie trailers. But when it comes to creating songs that people still want to listen to years from now, you have to look far beyond the fads that define the musical moment you’re creating in.
Our authenticity and unique creative perspectives are some of our biggest allies as music-makers. The curiosity and intuition we possess as songwriters should always take precedence over everything else during the songwriting process. Working in an enduring way gives us the ability to transform our past and contemporary influences into music that’s truly original, not music that’s listenable for only a short period.
When you reach deep and create from a place of genuine freedom and inspiration, you’re connecting with a larger human story that transcends place and time. So much about popular music has transformed over the past few decades, but think about what’s the same for a minute. Listeners and their desire to feel understood and entertained by music are turning to music for the same reasons they did in 2000. Timeless music generally gets its longevity from two things. The first is an ability to draw listeners in through fresh and engaging musical characteristics. The second has to do with speaking to listeners in an effective and lasting way. People in their 60’s and 70’s are decades away from the heartache they felt in their teens, but they still listen to songs about the perils of young love because of how powerfully that music spoke to them so many years ago. There are plenty of songs out there that sound trendy but still manage to endure because they resonate with audiences on a deep and profound level.
Instead of writing with the main goal of creating something timeless, you’re far better off trying to create the best music you can. There’s so much about making music that’s out of our control, but one thing we have a say over is the decision to build songwriting processes where we can create as freely and authentically as possible. When we write using contemporary music as a template, we immediately limit ourselves and lean too heavily on ideas that aren’t our own. The new music that you love to listen to right now can be a great source of inspiration, but don’t let it define what’s possible with your own music.
Writing stuff that becomes an enduring part of your audience’s life takes a lot of failure. This means that, while frustrating, writing and not having anything to show for it is an unavoidable part of the process of creating authentically. This part in particular really goes against the instant gratification of creating music that sounds like everything else out there in hopes of succeeding. But hang in there long enough to write something meaningful, fresh, and completely unique to you, and you’ll have the best chance at building something that lasts in music.
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.