When we think about the kind of music that makes a real impact on people, we’re not just talking about emotionally deep songs written by tortured artists, though “serious” songs certainly are meaningful to a lot of listeners. Tracks that blow out speakers in clubs and music that’s heard by thousands of spectators at sporting events have an effect on audiences as well, though in a completely different way than someone playing the same song over and over again to get through a breakup.
Not every piece of music should and can be dark and serious in order to be meaningful and purposeful in a listener’s life. But in order for music to actually mean something to someone other than the artist who creates it, it has to be able to bring out genuine feelings in someone. As artists, this fundamental truth is something that’s easy to forget and gloss over when we write new music. Like an inside joke, some of the songs we write are designed to inspire and relate to only ourselves. Or, conversely, some of us aim to write music that’s so accessible and bland that it ends up speaking to no one even though it’s created for everyone.
One way to identify music that isn’t meaningful is by determining whether it endures or not. When listeners forget a song as soon as they’re done listening to it, it doesn’t have a lasting and meaningful impact.
Meaningful music can be created by musicians of every age and background. And, strangely enough, a lot of the songs that end up impacting people the most are created by songwriters who are more focused on having fun than making masterpieces during the writing process. When we can truly free ourselves of the burdens of trying to be successful or even trying too hard to create what listeners want to hear, we have a better chance at making impactful music. This is why so many young, inexperienced music-makers end up making great music; because they don’t have the baggage of expectations to contend with.
Many songwriters write with the idea that their music needs to be deep and profound to be meaningful, but this approach completely misses the point when it comes to connecting with listeners. Shaping your music before you start writing it is a bad idea, especially when your process is weighed down by expectations of greatness. Our best shot at making the sort of music that endures and resonates with listeners is by pursuing our creative curiosities on their own terms.
One way to tell how much prior expectations and identity burdens are shaping your process is if you’ve ever wanted to pursue a specific musical idea but didn’t because it didn’t fit with your previous vision or goals. Countless great musical ideas get ignored and killed off this way when we pull the chord on material before it has a chance to be developed because it doesn’t fit our needs. But, all too often, we write the music we think we should write instead, and it ends up falling flat and not connecting with listeners. It’s easy to overthink meaningful music creation, especially when we let our agendas step into the songwriting process.
The hard truth is that we can do everything “right” when it comes to making music and still not succeed in making an impact on people. If there were a magic formula we could look to, great music would be less special because everyone would be making it. But by pursuing creativity authentically without limitations and having the tenacity to keep trying again and again in the face of failure, we’ll have the best shot at making meaningful connections in music. For many of us, it’s often hard, thankless work without a clear way of knowing whether any of our efforts will pay off or not. We can choose to get bogged down in narratives of being “owed” more as songwriters, or we can delve even deeper into the endless pursuit of making music that meaningfully moves people. It’s up to us.
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.