[Editor’s Note: This article was written by Patrick McGuire.]
For many musicians, it’s easy to view making music as a solitary pursuit constructed around their own whims and ideas.
But, to most people, music is one of the most universally unifying forces in the world. By many accounts, music is something that’s able to bring elation, understanding, and comfort to people around the world in ways nothing else can.
Music makes us feel less alone, and that’s a power we shouldn’t take for granted, though musicians often do. If you feel uncertain about the state of the world or even just what’s going on within the confines of your own life, you’re not alone.
Making music is rewarding and even therapeutic for most of us, but the ability to translate feelings of doubt and turmoil into work that’s relatable to others is something different and badly needed by your audience.
The skill of musical understanding
What makes music good? It’s a question we think about a lot as musicians, and there are no definitive answers.
But one of the characteristics that sets memorable music apart is an ability to make audiences feel understood. When a listener hears herself in a song, that’s a powerful connection that can’t be forced or bought.
For some musicians, nothing beats the thrill of performing on stage in front of a big crowd. Others feel an unbeatable sense of joy every time they create new musical ideas out of nothing. No matter what drives you to make and share music, it’s important to think about how audiences interpret your work. It’s fine to make music for yourself if you have no ambitions for sharing your work and sustaining a career. But for everyone else, the musicians intent on reaching others with their music, the skill of musical understanding is crucial.
Rather than making work written to please everyone, this skill is about translating universal feelings into music.
Your despair, joy, insecurities, hopes, and fears are unique to you as a person, but the world also feels those same things. When music translates a writer’s authentic feelings through engaging, memorable music, that’s when the art form of music connects with others in a powerful way.
This authentic expression can be done through both lyrics and musical composition. It can be heard through the headphones of a depressed teenager or speakers blaring music onto a crowded club dance floor. It’s a musical connection felt by countless people in countless ways, and it’s one of the best things in the world.
Translating inner and collective turmoil into relatable music
Suffering is an unavoidable part of life, but making your music insufferable won’t help you or your listeners.
These days, there’s a great need for music that authentically speaks to audiences about their collective fears and woes, but to make these themes palatable, they have to be presented through engaging music.
Authenticity is paramount, but it won’t do any good without listenable music to present it through. This doesn’t necessarily meaning cynically dressing up dark themes as bright, poppy musical ideas, but instead making an effort to present your feelings through the sort of music you’d actually want to listen to.
Impactful music can be raw, dark, and beautiful as well as polished and accessible songs that grow more meaningful with every listen.
Feeling worried about the world or what’s happening in our lives is obviously an uncomfortable spot to be in, but it’s a discomfort that’s inspired countless works of art for thousands of years. There’s no single right way to translate these sorts of feelings into music.
Some songwriters use characters in their music to express despair, and others adopt a more literal approach. Even the world’s most successful songwriters don’t always get it right, which is why being willing to try and fail over and over again is something we should all aspire to do. What initially inspires your music might result in a song that sounds nothing like how you initially felt, and that’s okay. What’s important is whether listeners feel something authentic and memorable when they hear your work.
Music is a powerful force for good in an uncertain world
Being able to write songs and play an instrument aren’t skills that can match world-shaping ones like political savvy, scientific expertise, and grassroots organization, but music can effect change.
Protest music comes to mind, but music’s potential for inspiring people through hope and understanding far transcends that limited context. This means that if you’re unhappy with the state of the world, you should write music about it.
It’s not easy, but translating your thoughts and fears about the world around you can result in music that makes your listeners feel less alone. You most likely don’t have answers that can solve our planet’s most pressing problems, but simply acknowledging them through music is powerful.
Patrick McGuire is a writer, composer, and experienced touring musician based in Philadelphia.