If a song is engaging and memorable enough, there’s a lot that audiences will happily put up with––subpar recordings, imperfect performances, messy production. But, in the long run, one thing listeners won’t tolerate is a forgettable song. Writing forgettable music isn’t the sort of artistic crime that draws boos from crowds at live shows or negative reviews. Instead, what happens to unestablished artists who write music that never sticks is, well, nothing. Bland music that follows trends might be just inoffensive enough to draw in a few fairweather listeners shortly after it’s made, but it won’t mean anything to audiences over the long-term. If we want to create meaningful music that endures in the lives of our listeners, we have to make songs that are worth remembering.
But for as important as memorable music is, it’s impossible to know whether what we write will go on to be remembered or not during the creative process. This is one of the many frustrating parts about making music; knowing whether or not our work will ever mean anything to anyone. However, there are powerful things we can do as songwriters to make the most memorable and meaningful work we can when we write.
What makes a song forgettable?
Music gets forgotten when it doesn’t have anything that draws listeners in. Musical hooks––stuff like beats you can’t help but move to or vocal melodies that have the power to stop you in your tracks––are often what’s lacking from forgettable songs, but that’s not the whole story. The problem with so much of the forgettable music out there is that it’s not actually about anything. It’s the syndrome of songwriters not knowing what to write about and creating the safest, vaguest music as possible as a result. If we make honest, ambitious music, it’s incredibly painful to see it get rejected or ignored. It’s safe to say that countless boring songs have been written not because most music-makers don’t have musical talent or anything meaningful to say through their work, but because they’re afraid of getting turned down after digging deep and doing the work it takes to reach their potential. Making memorable music can be incredibly challenging, and there’s never any guarantees that your hard work will ever pay off. In light of this, it makes sense why so many songwriters opt to create predictable music over taking emotional, creative, and financial risks with their work.
Creating authentically and taking risks
A lot of the time, forgettable music tends to sound like cheap cover versions of better and more meaningful songs. This means that if your songwriting mindset is more focused on achieving conventional success or trying to sound a specific way than exploring your own unique ideas, your work will probably come off as boring and ingenuine. We often don’t want to do the hard work of taking creative risks and making truly new work because doing so is really, really hard, and because whether we realize it or not, it’s easier to release boring music than it is to share songs that challenge audiences and reveal something about ourselves. By “challenging,” I don’t mean artificially making your songs cryptic or musically complicated, but creating music that doesn’t insult the intelligence and needs of your audience.
If you want to make memorable music, you’ll need to invest your time into discovering and shaping your unique creative voice, and doing this takes a lot of risk and failure for most of us. Every writer can produce copies of successful songs that audiences have already embraced, but making something that’s truly new? That takes grit and courage because it’s more likely that you’ll fail than succeed. But if you can build thoughtful and genuine songwriting into your daily life, you’ll be far more likely to create music that really means something to people in the long-run. It’s not about avoiding trends like the plague or trying to reinvent the wheel every time we write. Instead, it’s choosing the hard path when it comes to the choice of whether to pour our truest selves into our work or not, and it’s not easy. In fact, authenticity is something most of us will spend our entire careers trying to bring to the music we make, but it’s always worth working towards.
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.