If you’ve ever been in the thick of writing a song and felt like finishing it was impossible, you’re not alone. Every serious songwriter has been in this position. It’s easy to forget that what we do can be grueling work, and there’s often no benefit to our actions. Music creation is a pursuit where it’s entirely possible to work for days, months, or even years and not create anything we think is actually good. There’s no avoiding the fact that it’s hard to create music that’s truly meaningful for listeners, but that’s exactly what makes it special.
Why great music is so hard to make
Every day, tens of thousands of new songs are being uploaded to major music streaming platforms. Only a fraction of them are the kind of songs that will endure in the lives of listeners. To understand why great music is so hard to write, we have to accept that the best songs are rare. Some songs are obviously bad, but so many more are mediocre. There’s nothing wrong with these types of songs necessarily, but they lack the qualities that make audiences want to listen to them over and over again for years.
There are far, far fewer great songs than there are weak and mediocre ones. One of the reasons the best music out there is so rare is because it can’t be forced by songwriters. If you’ve ever wondered why most great artists can’t create the same standard of amazing music album after album, this is why. We humbly show up to the writing process again and again, but doing our part never guarantees we’ll produce anything that’s above average. Knowing this can make songwriting more special and exhilarating or more discouraging and thankless depending on your perspective.
What we can do to make great music
To create the best music we can, we have to be willing to write as much music as possible and accept that much of what we come up with won’t be great. The more you write, the better chance you’ll have at capturing ideas that are truly special. This isn’t easy to do. Maybe you’ve already been writing music for years and haven’t written anything you think is any good. Or maybe you’ve just started making music and wonder if you’ll ever be able to create anything great or not. The truth is that there aren’t any guarantees, even for those who’ve already spent thousands of hours making the best music they can. But creating as often as possible is the first and most important step to writing great music. Life-changing ideas might come your way from time to time, but that won’t matter if you aren’t available to turn them into completed songs.
The next best thing we can do is to create in ways that fully embrace risk, curiosity, and newness. If you’re five years in and writing the same songs in the same ways you did when you started, your situation isn’t going to change. But if you make an effort to consistently shake things up with new approaches, you could stumble upon the best idea of your career. We can choose to be predictable or rigid, or we can be willing to embrace discomfort and fail until we uncover interesting ideas.
There’s so much in music that’s out of our control, but writing tons of music in ways that embrace newness, risk, and curiosity are things we absolutely have a say over. Doing this takes tons of work involving emotional and creative labor, huge investments in time, and living with constant uncertainty. But actually going through with it can be incredibly rewarding and helpful too. Because the best songs aren’t common, it makes the pursuit of making music endlessly challenging and special. Even the best songwriters often can’t replicate the beauty and emotional depth of one song to the next. The idea that each time we create a new piece of music we could write something predictable and mediocre, or a song that literally changes people’s lives is profound and hopeful if you think about it in a positive light. And if you’re hellbent on making truly great music, you’ll need to start thinking positively as a technique for creative survival.
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.