Every songwriter’s creative process is unique and shaped by dramatically different factors––goals, intuition, experience level, genre. For example, most seasoned professional songwriters follow rules and expectations that most developing artists don’t have to think about when writing a song. But the idea of recording and producing music that can’t be played live is something that musicians of every experience level should consider. From making live shows much more complicated than they need to be to impacting the humanity and immediacy of your writing, creating unperformable music comes with some significant drawbacks.
Embrace boundless creativity, but acknowledge the challenges
Should you make music that you can’t pull off live? The short answer is yes, of course. There should be no limits to your creativity and musical expression. But the long answer is a lot more complicated. Depending on the type of musician you are and what your goals are, creating unperformable music could be a part of your day job or a bad writing habit that makes your life much harder and more complex than it has to be. It could be representative of your intrepid compositional aesthetic or a signifier of your inexperience as a songwriter.
With tools like MIDI, every musician has the power to summon sweeping orchestras and countless other sounds with the touch of a button. But by adding layer after instrumental layer into your tracks, you all but guarantee that you won’t be able to pull it off live. If you’re composing the soundtrack to a movie or TV show, this isn’t something you need to worry about. But if you’re a conventional artist who performs live regularly as an essential part of your musical identity, paring down songs bursting with loads of instruments playing complex parts is a massive headache. Can songs like these be played live exactly as they are recorded? Of course, but you’ll need lots of money to hire extra musicians to rehearse and perform with you, which I’m betting you don’t have.
Your other option for replicating songs like these live is to create a backing track to perform with. But doing this comes with its unique complications and drawbacks ranging from sound issues to on-stage tech problems to an overall loss in excitement and connection between the musicians on stage and the audience. However, this isn’t a one-size-fits-all sort of deal. Many captivating and exciting performing musicians create stuff they can’t play live and replicate it on stage in innovative and memorable ways through backing tracks and alternate versions of their work. Deciding whether you can truly pull it off or not comes down to your unique identity as a musician and what you hope you achieve with your music.
Replicating the magic of writing something for the first time to live settings
For some of us, writing with playability in mind isn’t just a good idea, it’s essential. Doing this has a couple of benefits, with the ability to transition recorded music to live performance settings being the most obvious. But another equally important one is that over-complicating songs by topping them with extra instrumental and production layers leave you at risk for scrubbing out that sense of joy and excitement you first felt during the writing process. Sitting down at a computer to produce recorded music can be a bit like a game of telephone, with the final results sounding much different than we initially intended.
If live performance is a major part of your plan as a musician, writing stuff that translates to the stage should be a major consideration during your creative process. Does this mean that you should curb your ambitions and dumb down your ideas? Absolutely not. Instead, through somewhat of a minimalist approach, it’s about figuring out how to be as impactful as possible with the tools you can use on stage, whether it’s a piano, a backing track, and a couple of backup singers, or a full, multi-faceted band. Think less about musical business and complexity and more about energy and distinction. What makes your music special and unique? The answer to that question is what you should be highlighting during your live performances.
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.