Good Music and How to Make It

There is no formula to getting guaranteed hits. Let’s get that myth put away right now. As explained in the last few posts “Good” is not a personal preference but a gauge of the ability to pass value to other people – few would want to describe a Math textbook as good but if it helps people use math to make bridges, then it is by definition a good book. I have an even better example in a song called “The Desert Fox” by a band called Instanzia as it presents history using a kick-ass song.

Good art of any kind is defined by its ability to pass a story (narrative) from one person to another. Sure the lyric may not be as elegant as Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, but I immediately imagine being the best General in the army and questioning whether what I am doing is for the best? Getting us to ask this question immediately makes this a good song – even if you don’t have a personal preference for Power Metal.

Let Them Eat Cake

Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan

In Marketing the formula is: Give people what they want. If you were to look at any audience anywhere what would the people want as individuals and a group? They want to feel, they want to be touched, they need to be soothed, they want to explore, they want to be entertained, they want to forget and they want to be able to do it all again. But only in small and safe amounts. Bob Dylan was never wild. He lobbed a few vague questions into the camp fire but he didn’t walk up to Nixon and shoot him in the face over the Vietnam War. Nevertheless Dylan played a significant part in that change of society. Art works that way.

You really need to make your music as personal as a conversation. If I stood, looking in the other direction, whilst ripping up paper, whilst you tried to have a conversation with me, I wouldn’t go over well. Same as if I answered everything with “purple, dishwasher, monkey”. Engage. Use the things that make you, and your take on the world, unique and share those. I may not always agree but if you touch those needs above you will get my attention.

People will try to tell you there are lots more rules. There aren’t any past those I gave. Just take care to follow all of them or you will be breaking what makes art work. Here are those rules again:

People want (in safe amounts):

  • to be touched,
  • to be soothed,
  • to explore,
  • to be entertained,
  • to forget
  • to be able to do it all again

The interesting thing is we are all born with these desires and the ability to fulfill them built-in. Just like birds are born to be able to fly. There are some things to learn but there are no more rules or complexities. A good artist adds only as many elements as are required to meet the criteria above. A bad artist starts to build a belief in all sorts of other rules that, if only they were completed exactly right, would allow them to make-it.

Hit & Hit Hard

As a guide, here in the West we use a 12 tone scale, with a preference for clear harmonies (as opposed to the interesting ones like minor seconds).

  1. Sing clearly. Don’t mumble or act like you don’t want to look us in the eye. You may not be blessed with a voice to rival Pavarotti but that is irrelevant. So long as you are in-tune and your tone is even then that is enough for the technical. The rest is all about engagement. There is no pretense in real engagement. If you are pretending to sing then your audience will know (this includes over-singing). They may forgive at the time but they will forget you, as you didn’t touch them, no matter how much everyone pretended you did.
  2. We like melody. We like melodies we can sing even better. If you can provide words that are memorable and can be sung to a melody whilst twelve-beers-under then you are half way there.
  3. Then we also like clear simple rhythm. Bands may think 4/4 bom, cha is dull but audiences rarely tire of it as it is so universal for us.
  4. Mix it clearly so everything important is heard (I numbered these for a reason). Keep your focus on telling the story. So long as the mix lets the required elements be heard clearly then it is right. It may be possible to make it a bit better but clear and balanced is all that is necessary. Anything that doesn’t advance the story in the mix should be lowered or removed.

Embellish these basics but declare them wrong or un-cool at your own peril. A good Producer will instinctively know these things and try to guide your record to meet them. Adding strings (or synth pads) may seem un-cool to you but the Producer knows the strings will help the listener to be soothed, touched and to forget their troubles. That will make them want to come again.

Some bright spark will try to tell you this is hogwash because of some band who had a hit where the words were gibberish, mixed low, or even worse, in German! Nena’s “99 Lufballons” works, despite “Captain Kirk” being the only sensible words in the whole thing, because it obeys the rules very nicely.

Sorry for the quality but is seems there s a campaign to remove all the original version of this song from YouTube. Silly, silly stuff.

Let’s break it down:

  • to be touched – Nena’s words may not make sense in my fore-brain but my heart hears the passion and desperation in her voice. Seems she didn’t want us all to be blown up by nukes. Thanks for caring.
  • to be soothed – The melodies are simple and clear, everything resolves very nicely
  • to explore – This is exploration to listen to German music, synths were still new then too so that was exciting. Also exploring how we felt about the nuclear war thing was something we all needed to do at the time.
  • to be entertained – Anyone not entertained by this song is simply trying too hard to be too cool
  • to forget – While the song is about the Bomb it actually makes us forget the fear for 4 minutes
  • to be able to do it all again – Clearly we did as it roared up the charts and yesterday (30 years later) I heard this whilst doing my grocery shopping. I wasn’t the only person singing along.

Interestingly while the English version of this song would have helped it in the charts, it is still the original German version that is most revered and played today. The English version sounds forced and wrong.

The in-Delicate Sound of Thunder

As you go along you will encounter lots of other rules cropping up. Some will be in your head already, some will be delivered by well-meaning friends. Here are a couple of examples of people trying to add new “purple, dishwasher, monkey” rules:

  • Everyone who plays in the band should be on the record in equal amounts. Metallica’s “And Justice For All” record did well, very well in fact. It was a very important record in the history of Metal (I think their best). It definitely does all of the above (even if the definition of soothing is not what you expect). Lately there has been chatter about the bass line being barely audible on the record. Someone has made a new mix with that bass line right up there in the mix. People are saying that the band leader was a bastard as he deliberately removed the bass so his drums could be heard. I have tried to listen to this new mix a few times. Being a Musician, Producer and Mixer I can immediately see that Lars did the right thing. The bass is well played but having it present in the mix creates clutter. Cluttered is definitely not an adjective that one would use to describe “Justice”. If Lars had been less focused on the real rules the record would never have sold well.
  • Drums have to be in the middle. I just saw this one. A fellow presented some electronic instrumental tracks, a bit like Jean Michel Jarre. Someone popped up and said the drum mix was completely wrong as they were panned hard over to the left. It was breaking a rule to do this. I listened. Sure the drums were over on the left like a Beatles or Beach Boys record but in fact it helped make the mix work. Normally this guy doesn’t present good mixes as his drums swamp the melodies and damage his pieces. I raised these points and was then told it was old-fashioned and silly to pan drums and seeing everyone listens in headphones these days, it made him uncomfortable (grammatical transposition deliberate). Also the levels of the track were uneven left to right. Sure it is unusual and would probably be wrong in a Trance track to have drums on one side, but the mix worked and I could hear it well. As for levels well what fan goes checking levels? Ok some do, but they aren’t fans of the music so much as fans of telling others what to do.

As you see, in both of these cases the pointless pseudo-rule would damage ability to achieve the real rules. There is an endless list of these pseudo-rules. They come and go like flies at the kitchen window. If unsure then go back to the real rules and they will guide you.

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